Rose Colored Retirements


The Real Problems of “Global Aging”

Fewer people retire in the way they used to, the way we used to think they should, moving to the sun belt or dividing their time between golf and the grandchildren.  A report in the McClatchy Newspapers calls this erosion of traditional patterns of retirement “one of the biggest demographic shifts in history.”

The reason:  an inexorable increase in life expectancy.  An aging population is putting a burden on younger generations.  The process has been amplified recently by a surge in “baby boomers” – one that unfortunately coincides with the Great Recession.

“It’s the reinvention of retirement,” says William Novelli, a former chief executive of the AARP.  “Work is an increasing part of the so-called retirement years.”

But how does that shift affect our emotional lives?

The McClatchy report casts a strange rosy glow over this complex and worrisome development:  “While the process is fraught with challenges, core elements of the trend remain positive.”   It gives a host of examples, many of which emphasize retirement as an opportunity for new growth. (See, “How Retirement is Being Reinvented Worldwide.”)

A city clerk in Alabama stayed on because “she simply loves her job.”  A Japanese man, forced to close his rice shop age 63, “found a new job as a taxi driver – and plans to keep at it for years to come.”  A teacher in Wales lost her job and then set up a career-counseling firm to help other retirees find work.  She commented optimistically:  “Lots of people . . . have so much to offer.”

I don’t doubt the truth of these vignettes, or even the sentiments.  Work is the central way our society offers people to discover and develop themselves.  And it has become virtually the only way we have of connecting with others.  Indeed, in our world, work has eclipsed all other meaningful activities.  As a result, the person who finds a way to keep working may well be looking forward to a better life.

But not everyone can find suitable work in retirement or can continue with their old jobs.   Moreover, the process of finding financial security is fraught with anxiety.  The loss of old jobs and the identities associated with them is often full of pain.  Fragmented families have fewer resources to provide support.  Age leads to diminished energy and mental acuity, and often illness and depression, and the prospect usually only worsens as one gets older.

And, of course, the problem exacerbates the growing disparity between the rich and the poor.  Those retirees who have money in the bank not only have less to worry about, they have more choices about the kind of work they want to pursue.

Our society has created a profound contradiction.  Work has become virtually our only source of meaning and value.  And yet the demands of our economy put countless obstacles in the way of finding jobs.  Economic competition means that organizations must become “leaner and meaner,” reducing benefits, downsizing, outsourcing, squeezing greater productivity out of the workforce.  Work is becoming a scarce commodity.

We need to face this contradiction, not paint over it.