If the phrase “golden years” evokes images of relaxation and leisure, you have a 60-year-old advertising campaign to thank. The phrase was coined in 1959 when America’s first large-scale retirement community, Sun City in Arizona, was pitching its new development to the country’s soon-to-be retirees. The idea was to present retirement as lounge chairs, golf, and margaritas. An endless vacation where there is never anything to worry about, and the word “work” doesn’t exist.
And it was a complete success. On its opening weekend, 100,000 people showed up to Sun City to view its model homes. They were totally sold on the lifestyle. They wanted to do away with responsibilities and embrace the idea of a retirement as a second childhood.
From that time on, the concept of the “golden years” became ingrained in the retirement narrative. Financial planners loved it because it gave them a huge market of people who would turn to them for advice. And in those times, the retirement dream of no work and all play was actually achievable. The combination of pensions, Social Security income, and personal savings was enough to buy them the lifestyle that Sun City’s brochure advertised.
However, a lot has changed since then. For one thing, the idea that everyone has a comfortable company pension no longer exists. People no longer work for the same company for their entire careers. They move around, explore new avenues, change location. We’re also living much longer, which means that we’re retired for longer. An average retirement in 1950 was just eight years. Today, you could be retired for at least 20 years. That’s a long time to be relying on savings. And it’s definitely too long to be parked on a lounge chair.
Brought into the light of day, the wisdom of a 60-year-old advertising campaign begins to erode. And there’s plenty evidence to suggest that retirees are already turning their backs on it and searching for a new vision of retirement.
A landmark Merrill Lynch retirement study found that nearly half of today’s retirees either have worked or plan to work during their retirement. While 72% of pre-retirees want to keep working after they retire. Interestingly, the research reveals that the primary reason these retirees are continuing to work isn’t for the income. In fact, it found that just about 28% of retirees are working primarily to pay the bills. The rest are motivated by other factors, which they divided into three categories. Fifteen percent were labeled “driven achievers,” people who felt like they were on top of their professional game and simply didn’t want to stop. Thirty-three percent were “caring contributors,” who wanted to give back to their community working with a nonprofit or as an unpaid volunteer. And 24% were “life balancers,” people who worked because they wanted to maintain social connections, while income was an added benefit.
There’s an important distinction between the type of work retirees engage in and the type of work they may have been tied to throughout their careers. Their post-retirement work is about reveling in new challenges, doing things they enjoy, and staying active. Welcome to the changing face of retirement. Instead of a model that promotes disengagement, this “new retirement” offers a second chance to live life by your own design.
All sorts of creative solutions exist today that can allow you to live a richer life and engage more, while still retiring from the drudgery of a nine-to-five. Technology has opened the door to all sorts of earning possibilities that deliver not only income but flexibility and freedom, too. You can make money on your terms from right there at home just as easily as from a mountain chalet in Ecuador’s Andes.
And it’s not all work and no play. The new vision of retirement includes plenty of travel and leisure. The difference is it’s not prescribed. It’s on your own terms.
Merrill Lynch even created a model to represent this new type of retirement, which includes a “career intermission” of around two to three years, where people can relax, recharge, and retool themselves with new skills and interests before reengaging with work for another nine years.
Sure, the idea of a new retirement might just sound like a solution for people who can’t afford a traditional retirement. And certainly, economic circumstances are a huge reason why retirement is changing. But the new retirement is also more than that.
In a survey, Harvard Business School researchers found that while retirement starts in celebration and relaxation, for many, the novelty soon wears off and anxieties sets in. With so much life left to live, retirees who give up on work entirely often struggle with issues of identity and personal value. Revealingly, many will continue to identify with their profession long after they’ve left it, calling themselves a “retired librarian” or a “retired teacher.” In other words, rather than embracing the chance to live a second life, they cling to their old one.
Economist and Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps stated: “Work is so fundamental to the good life. It’s the main source of a meaningful existence for most people.” So why then should we feel obliged to give it up entirely?
The new retirement offers us a model that addresses the full complexity of our post-career life. It gives us happiness, fulfilment, and self-determination. It’s built for the times we live in.
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