Work and leisure patterns late in life are changing. The ideal of taking full retirement in order to live a life of leisure is giving way to phenomena such as partial retirement, active retirement, or, as I labeled what I’ve been doing, “redeployment.” As happens with any changing moray, those of us who aren’t following the existing societal blueprint for this part of life aren’t entirely clear on what we are building and what the structure will look like when we’ve finished it.
Steve Vernon, a research scholar at the Stanford Center for Longevity, wrote a piece for CBS News which tries to provide a revised blueprint for late adulthood. Vernon suggests that the “retirement/leisure” phase of life be conceptualized as two separate phases. The first of these is characterized by independence and flexibility, the second by frailty and dependence. He describes the period of independence as follows:
“In this stage, we’re free from expectations that others may put on our lives, free from preconceived notions of how we might live our lives. Free from the responsibility of raising a family. Free to do what we’ve always wanted to do. Free from advertising influences that tell us to spend our time and money in unhealthy and unfulfilling ways.”
Well, we probably never attain that degree of freedom from cultural influences. We humans are, after all, social animals, subject to conformity pressures and persuasive messages in our 50s and 60s just like we were as teens whose parents accused us of always going along with the crowd. At least we feel freer once we reach the point where we have the option of leaving full-time employment, whether or not we actually are as unencumbered as we imagine.
Some of us can’t retire completely but have fewer financial demands that we did in our 30s and 40s. Vernon suggests that, if we find ourselves in that position, we may cobble together work and leisure in original ways. “[O]ur financial independence may come from wages, self-employment, financial resources, governmental benefits, efficient sharing of resources or, more likely, a creative combination of all these solutions. If we’re working, we’re doing more work that we like and less work that we don’t like…. We might work fewer hours to free up time to pursue our interests.”
As I made plans two years ago to leave full-time employment so I could spend most of my time in Michigan assisting my parents, I knew I would be returning to North Carolina several days a month to see a number of longstanding clients. This would provide some income, but not enough to cover my bills. Fortunately, I was able to get a part-time position as a therapist at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids. I made a little from writing and teaching. After a year, I was eligible for two small pensions from previous employers. I figured out that at age 66 I could start drawing on my ex-wife’s Social Security account, and thus could increase my income a little and still not begin to draw my own SS benefits. So far, I haven’t had to touch IRA or 403(B) savings. I’ve developed a jerry-rigged income stream in just the sort of way that Vernon describes.
I’m currently using the “independence/flexibility” stage of older adulthood to help my parents. In other words, I’m using it in a way that restricts my independence and flexibility, but that is personally meaningful. For others, too, meaning often guides the “redeployment” occurring at the beginning of the last third of life. As Ken Dychtwald and Daniel J. Kadlek put it, this is “a time for finding a new purpose that will give your life meaning and just might become your most joyous and nourishing time on earth (A New Purpose, p.4).” The question of purpose has long been important to emerging adults; now it is important for us fledgling elders as well.