It's high time we had a better idea for our final opportunity.
Retirement, as we have come to know it, dates from the late 19th century. And it is woefully outdated.
The world’s first state-provided pension for disabled and elderly citizens appeared in Germany in 1889, a creation of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. A German citizen could receive a pension at age 70, but there were few recipients; life expectancy in Germany then was 38 years.
Social Security, when it came to the U.S. in 1935, was closely modeled on Bismarck’s system. The age to receive full benefits was set at 65 (the Germans had lowered the eligibility age to 65 by then). Life expectancy in the U.S. that year was 61 years. The mathematical model assumed that the manageable number of people who did reach 65 would only draw benefits for 10 to 15 years.
That was fourscore and seven years ago (Really! Do the math!), and U.S. society has changed. Thanks to a multitude of medical advances, life expectancy has risen to 79. We’re living longer, and we’re living in better health than the previous two generations. If we begin drawing Social Security at 65, we may well be collecting benefits for three decades or more.
That’s bad news for the financial stability of Social Security. But more important, it’s bad news for us, for two reasons. First, we may run out of money before we run out of time. And second, the vast majority of us will not be content to “retire” and do nothing for 30 years. That’s one long game of golf.
The Long View
It’s not just retirement that’s outdated. The American culture we were born into understood life as linear – a series of well-defined steps, each following the next in consecutive order. First came education. Then work and family. Then retirement, followed by exit stage left. We were like tin cans on an assembly line: filled with learning, capped with family and work, then shelved with retirement when we reached our sell-by date. The manufacturing analogy is no coincidence, either. Manufacturing dominated the economy, accounting for 25% of all jobs as late as 1960.
But that’s not our world today. Manufacturing provides less than 9% of jobs in an economy built on finance, information, technology, and services. Assembly-line thinking is an anachronism in those sectors, just as it makes no sense in how we live our lives – especially if those lives may extend into our 90s or beyond. But our culture hasn’t made the transition. Our default expectations for education, for work, and certainly for retirement are relics of the old model.
A New Model
How should a 21st century model look? The Stanford Center on Longevity has taken on the task of imagining one. In The New Map of Life, a report published last year, the center lays out a blueprint for a cultural model more appropriate for a society where 100-year lifespans are the norm.
Their model, in contrast to the assembly line, might be described as modular. Each module – learning, work, caregiving, leisure, and later adulthood – can be ordered in different ways. Some, like learning, can reoccur at intervals as needed. And within a lifespan of 100 years, modules such as work can be stretched out, interrupted, and spread over more time.
Working for 45 to 50 years might still be the norm, but those years could stretch to age 75 – given that most people can expect to be in good health that long – and interrupted at intervals in favor of learning or caregiving. This arrangement could relieve some of the stress on working parents at midlife, who now have to juggle career advancement with childcare, learning, and often care for aging parents.
As for retirement, the Stanford report suggests replacing a retirement determined by age with a “glide path” of gradually reduced work hours over several years.
“Allowing – and encouraging – workers to move in and out of the workplace will require cultural change,” as well as changes to policies that drive older adults into early or forced retirement, the report states.
What About Us?
Most of us have already experienced the learning, career, and caregiving stages based on the old life model. There’s really only one stage of life that we, at this point, can do anything about: that period that is now labeled “retirement.”
It’s a lousy name, frankly. The word implies withdrawal, surrender, letting go, waiting for the end. My own preferred name for this stage of life is “The AfterWork.” The name itself suggests that there is something after work, and it leaves open what that something can be. Sure, it can be a time to take life a little slower, but not to resign permanently from the world of the living.
If we have our health, and some financial security, and the wisdom and experience we’ve accumulated from six or seven decades of living, then quite likely we have 25 to 35 more years ahead of us to spend as we see fit. That’s plenty of time to re-animate an old dream, start a new venture, learn a new skill, or make a difference in the lives of others.
Retirement is dead. Long live The AfterWork.