Retirement: Utopia or a Temporary Parking Lot?

Dec. 21, 2004
The value of work endures beyond a career for many.

Is retirement the Utopia most working Americans seek? Is it the elusive fountain of youth that invigorates and regenerates? Is it really true that most workers over 60 view retirement as a carefree life of Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays without end? It's time to explode the myth that most Americans over 60 believe that retirement is the time to share a life of bliss with your spouse, if you have one. That it's the time to find new and fulfilling relationships, if you have none. That it's the time to play golf every day, if you play golf, or can afford to play, or are healthy enough to play. That it's the time to travel to exotic places, and have exotic experiences. That it's the time to live a good life, without constraints, without worry, and without limits. The truth is that most Americans over 60 believe that "living without working" is "living without living." Research by the American Assn. of Retired Persons and the National Council on Aging reports that the closer workers get to 60, 62, or 65--the ages once set for retirement--the more likely they are to want to continue working. In 1990 the Commonwealth Fund reported that its study of retirees indicated that only 25% were "very unhappy" about not being employed. Today, the AARP reports that more than 50% of retired persons would rather be working, and that many who do retire start second careers instead of leading the life of Riley. How about chief executives? Jeffrey Sonnenfeld studied the post-retirement satisfaction of CEOs in his book The Hero's Farewell. He reports that a majority of former chief executives were "highly disappointed" with retirement. Some of them even described it as premature death. Countless numbers of former chief executives, as well as other senior executives, middle managers, and professional people, say they are "existing" in a purgatory of uselessness. When people have lived a lifetime in a culture that teaches that work has meaning, that work creates wealth, that work is good and idleness is bad, and that good work habits are important to leading a successful life, is it not logical that when people are separated from their work against their wishes they will assume their lives no longer have meaning or purpose? In 1986, Congress passed legislation that--with some exceptions--outlawed mandatory retirement for most private-sector workers. One exception: Top-level executives can still be forced to retire at age 65 if they meet certain criteria. Thomas L. Brown, a management consultant, suggests that "Perhaps we should develop programs that actually encourage people to work longer." He sees these advantages:
--Such programs will reduce the perceived pressure of having an increasingly older workforce leave the workplace at a time when there are fewer young hands to take their places. Recent news articles tell of jobs going unfilled because of a scarcity of applicants for certain jobs that younger people find unattractive.
--By taking "partial" retirement, older workers can reduce their work load while still making valuable contributions to their companies on a part-time basis.
--Programs that encourage people to work longer help management recognize the value of experience in making businesses successful in the 21st century. Lifetimes of accrued skills and knowledge could be retained to maintain competitiveness.
--Older workers by and large have better work habits than young people. Most elder workers would rather live the rest of their lives doing a few things that lead to something rather keeping busy at activities that lead to nothing. I'm delighted that so many people who are in the same canoe as I prefer to keep on paddling--instead of going over the falls into oblivion.

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