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Retirement: The Old versus the New

January 2011

The whole idea of “retirement” is pretty darn new!  Geologically speaking, about two seconds ago people only lived an average of 48 years.  Yes, the world has always had elders – people in their 70s, 80s, and even some in their 90s, but historically they were a tiny minority of the population, and up until the industrial revolution, if you made it into those age brackets, you lived on a farm in a rural community, and you continued to clean the hen house or plow the field or till the kitchen garden until you died.  If you became injured or incapacitated in some way, your family took care of you as best they could.  No retirement.  No problem.

In the mid- to late-1800s, as people moved off the farms and into urban communities, families were sometimes split apart.  Young people moved to the cities in pursuit of a better life.  Mostly, they found back-breaking work in factories that often maimed or killed them by the time they were 40.  But by then they had married and had families and produced more workers (no child labor laws then), and they all scraped by, piecing together enough money to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.  Men just worked until they couldn’t any longer, and shortly thereafter, weakened by a lifetime of labor, they succumbed to pneumonia, TB, or any one of the virulent epidemics that swept through the crowded urban neighborhoods of the early 1900s.  Women worked hard too, mostly in the home.  Housekeeping was hard work in those days.  They typically followed a similar life path, dying relatively young or being helped in older age by younger family members.  No retirement. No problem.

Then the depression hit, and for the first time America had elderly poor people in truly miserable circumstances.  Big problem.  With 25% unemployment, many families had no one to provide food for the elderly in their families.  The young were typically fed first, if at all.  The old resorted to begging in the street or simply died in the street.  It was a dreadful time to be elderly and penniless, and hundreds of thousands were desperately poor.  Eventually Americans had had enough and put pressure on congress to do something about it.  In 1935 the Social Security Act was created and with it the notion that people could slow down at 65 – if they made it that far. 

Of course, initially the Social Security Act was intended to make sure no one starved, but another decade passed quickly and with the end of World War II came a prosperity the U.S. had never experienced before.  For the first time, we began to see people living into their 60s and 70s in relatively good shape.  Thanks to many early 20th century labor laws, work no longer helped people into an early grave.  And thanks to increasing automation, industrial labor was no longer quite as back-breaking.  As more and more people went to college, we saw swelling numbers of white collar workers who were in even better shape at 65 than their blue-collar counterparts.  People began to live longer lives, and this ushered in what we used to call the “golden years” of retirement. 

The event that truly cemented the ideal of the “old” retirement paradigm was the inaugural celebration of the first retirement community.  In 1960, Del Webb opened the first Sun City development in Phoenix, AZ.  His initial advertisement invited people to “pursue your favorite passions, discover new interests, and form lasting friendships with like-minded people.”  They still use that slogan today.  The concept took off like a firestorm and dozens of competitors soon appeared on the scene to offer similar opportunities in other sunbelt locations. 

Fifty years later, Del Webb and his competitors (Rossmoor, Leisureworld, and others) are still going strong.  Of course, only 5-10% of the older American population actually relocated to a retirement community when they reached an eligible age, but leisure with a like-minded, similar aged group of people became the prevailing image of the ideal retirement lifestyle.  Indeed, retirement communities are still springing up in places thought to be elder-friendly: low tax states and/or temperate climates.  Many of us in the baby boom generation have had the chance to see these communities first-hand while visiting a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or even an older sibling or cousin.  Some people like what they see and are pursuing the same path, but more and more of us are asking for something a lot different than this non-stop recreation model of retirement.

What has changed?  First and foremost, our generation will live a lot longer than any previous generation in the history of the U.S.  The Social Security Administration actuarial tables now predict that those who reach the age of 65 have an excellent chance of living another 20 years.  This is especially true for women, who typically live six to seven years longer than men.  Playing golf or tennis or mahjongg for 20 or 30 years is questionable in its appeal to baby boomers.  Our generation has been more active and healthier.  Thanks to advances in medicine and surgery, along with an obsession with staying as fit as possible, we can expect to enjoy more of our advanced years in activity – or at least mobility. 

What might we do with an extra 20 or 30 years beyond our career days?  More and more retirees are doing anything but “retiring.”  They are starting businesses, learning new languages, joining the Peace Corps, taking flying lessons, studying for an advanced degree.  Others are moving to foreign countries, teaching their grandkids to swim, buying franchises, mentoring inner-city youth, and taking up Aikido.  The list goes on and on.  This is the new retirement paradigm.  It’s built on a desire to revisit old dreams or develop new ones.  For some, their occupation IS their passion and they will likely never completely retire from it.  Others may look forward to the day when they can say good-bye to their employer of 40 years and do something entirely different.  It will certainly be different-strokes-for-different-folks, but the new paradigm is catching on as fast as Del Webb caught on in the 60s.  As the children of the 60s, we will continue to reinvent retirement for our generation throughout our lifetime.  See you at the gym!