If We No Longer Retire, What Will We Do When We Get Old?

I’ve been writing about retirement and leisure.  First, I considered the fact that the majority of older workers don’t have the money to permit them to totally leave the workforce.  I then looked at the history of retirement, discovering that it is a relatively recent phenomenon spurred by industrialization and was embraced only when initially reluctant potential retirees were persuaded that a life of leisure was a reward for years of hard work.  I also looked at the concept of leisure, finding that the life of leisure pursued by late-20th Century Westerners is dissimilar from earlier forms of leisure such as the Greek ideal of leisure or the conspicuous leisure of aristocrats described by Veblen. I haven’t yet considered the question of whether leisure the best way to spend the last decades of life.  Should we work to provide such a life for as many of us as possible, or isn’t the life of leisure worth fighting for?

Leisure means time free from work or other responsibilities; as such, there isn’t much objectionable about it, though it is possible to object to how it is used.  I could free myself from work so that I would have plenty of time to write hate-filled rants; such a life of leisure would have little to recommend it.  I could instead do something admirable with my free time, such as feeding the hungry, or I could do something fairly neutral in terms of its effect on human well-being—playing tennis or taking up ballroom dancing, let’s say.  Leisure thus doesn’t seem to be inherently good or bad; its value depends on how it is used.

No longer what we aspire to do in retirement? Image from www.comingunmoored.com/2009

No longer what we aspire to do in retirement? Image from http://www.comingunmoored.com/2009

When it comes to those of us who have reached retirement age, leisure is being used in ways that seem less leisurely.  I’ve already referred to the tendency for older workers to stay in the workplace at least part-time instead of devoting themselves fully to a life of leisure.  Another trend is that leisure among older adults is changing away from the pursuit of pleasure to the pursuit of significance.  Rather than escaping to segregated, entertainment-oriented communities for the elderly, older adults are looking for ways of remaining meaningfully engaged with and actively contributing to others.

Take for example a recent article in the Huffington Post titled “Four Rewarding Alternatives to Retirement.”  The four alternatives—volunteering with the Peace Corps, serving as a fellow with a non-profit agency, teaching English abroad, and starting a business—all are framed as combining personal satisfaction with contributing to the public good.   Not only are those nearing retirement age interested in remaining actively engaged, but younger generations of workers seem to have the same preference.  Recently I asked a group of young adults (I’m pretty sure that they all were between 20 and 40 years old) what they thought about retirement.  The response was pretty well summed up by the comment of a recent college graduate: “Well, I’m always going to want to be doing something.” 

So, if just about everybody plans to keep on doing something productive or meaningful, should we still call what we do “retirement”?  The Free Online Dictionary defines “retire” as “to withdraw, as for rest or seclusion.”  (Going to bed and withdrawing from an occupation are the second and third definitions, respectively.)  Most of us older adults don’t plan to withdraw for rest or seclusion, and many of us don’t even plan to completely leave our occupations.  (We presumably will still retire to bed.)  Our language no longer matches our practice.  Let me close, then, with the question: what should we call the change in activities that many older adults make after years or decades of full-time work in a particular occupation? If “retirement” is a misnomer, what term is a better fit?

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About bobritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to my parents' home and provide them with assistance. I maintain part-time therapy practices in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. I currently worship at Square Inch Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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2 Responses to If We No Longer Retire, What Will We Do When We Get Old?

  1. It is undeniable that the nature of retirement is shifting to fit with the new 21st century way of living. Work is becoming increasingly flexible in order to cater for the demand for ‘fulfilling’ work and a better work/life balance. This is also of benefit to employers, particularly small businesses. It would be reasonable to predict that soon our traditional 20th century idea of retirement will be entirely relegated to the past.

    • bobritzema says:

      Thanks for your comment. As you point out, shifts in the nature of retirement can benefit both workers and employers. Perhaps the traditional full retirement will become an option that is still available for some but is selected by only a minority of those eligible for it..

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