Senior Citizen's Guide digital books
Senior Citizen's Guide

Unretirement

To most people, retirement means not working. You work your whole adult life, you turn 65, you stop working. You are now officially retired, which, according to Webster's, means you've "withdrawn".

Not anymore! The traditional notion of retirement is fast disappearing. In its place is a new, more vital vision of how we'll be living as we grow older. One thing is sure retirement is not an ending. For many, it's a new beginning, a chance to reinvent oneself by recareering, learning, volunteering, starting a new business, job sharing, and yes, even working full-time.

Let me tell you about some "retired" friends of mine. A colleague is writing children stories. A former lawyer is teaching in AmeriCorps. A former banker is studying acting and antiques. A PR professional lives for three months at a time in exotic countries. My accountant, who I won't let retire, has trekked through Tibet with his son, while his wife went to Patagonia with a college friend.

And then there's me. I'm a "retired" IBM executive, yet I'm working harder than ever as AARP President. Yes, this a voluntary position; but I prefer to call it unpaid work. I'm living a life filled with work I enjoy while at the same time spending a lot of time with my loving family. You could say I embody the philosophy we espouse at AARP: age is just a number and life is what you make it. I've never felt more fulfilled and more passionate about what I'm doing. I'm fortunate that my personal interests dovetail with AARP's mission: to be a catalyst for the kind of positive social change that will help people 50+ age with dignity and respect.

People in my generation are like pioneers in a new terrain when it comes to retirement. But the baby boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964—will be the real change agents. That's because there are 76 million of them. And they are no longer babies. By 2011, the oldest of them will begin retiring. Boomers have redefined every other life stage they've passed through. Thanks to their size, economic influence, and attitude towards life, baby boomers are not just changing retirement. They are revolutionizing it. To them, it's about sneakers rather than rockers. It's about new frontiers rather than the old front porch.

According to business guru Peter Drucker, "The extreme youth culture of the last 40 years was based on demographics. It's an old rule that the population group that is both the biggest and growing the fastest determines the mood." In the United States, that population group is the baby boomers. Consider that a boomer turns 50 every 7.5 seconds. That's 1,200 people turning 50 each day and four million for each of the next ten years. Over the next 35 years, the 50+ population will more than double.

The stereotype is that life after 50 is a period of diminishment—empty nests, retirement, solitary survivors. But that's not the case. Research conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide for our AARP Modern Maturity magazine shows that people experience more life events in their fifties (remarrying, parenting first and second families, caring for their own parents, caring for their grandchildren, changing jobs) than in any other decade. In fact,if you turn 50 tomorrow, you have half your adult life ahead of you. That's a lot of time to buy products, use services, eat in restaurants, go to movies, stay in hotels, work out, build new homes (and renovate existing ones), rent cars, go back to school and experience other new adventures. It's no wonder many are using this marker to think about what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

What do boomers tell us is essential for a satisfying life after 50? Good health, personal fulfillment, work, economic security. There are four pillars that are crucial to building and maintaining economic security in "retirement." They are health coverage, pensions and savings, Social Security, and continued earnings from work.

I'd like to discuss that last one – work – because it's never been part of the retirement puzzle. Also, as a former Human Resources executive, it's a subject dear to my heart.

Our research shows 80 percent of boomers expect to continue working past the age of 65. Many will start their own businesses. Others will work part-time. Still others will reinvent themselves and begin new careers, sometimes in order to give something back.

As to "having" to work, with the uncertain economy, earnings from work may play an even greater role in retirement security than anticipated. Recent AARP research shows that 20% of those 40 to 70 believe they will postpone retiring because of the drop in the stock market. About 2% have already gone back to work. Others acknowledge they will change their spending habits.

But demographic trends had already shown that the highest growth in the U.S. workforce was in the 55-64 year-old population segment. At the same time, the number of 25 to 44 year-old workers has been decreasing. By 2005, there will be over 22 million older workers. And by 2015, nearly one fifth of our entire work force will be 55+.

The good news is that employers will have access to an experienced and committed work force in future years just as the pool of younger workers is diminishing. The bad news is that many employers have not yet begun to make the kind of changes necessary to account for an aging workforce. But visionary companies already have developed age-friendly policies and practices that appeal to older workers.

Manufacturers are also beginning to recognize the symbiotic relationship between the workplace and the marketplace. They know that it would be foolish to ignore the growing over-50 market. The average age of a grandparent these days is 46, and grandparents spend about $104 billion a year on their grandchildren. This isn't even considering the boomer penchant for big ticket items such as kayaks and skis.

But a paycheck is not the only reward we are seeking. For me, as well as countless others, an important aspect of feeling fulfilled is knowing that we are making a difference in people's lives. We want to leave a legacy, give something back. We share this sentiment with former generations. Half of all adults over 50 plan to incorporate volunteer activities into their blueprint for later life. Still others plan to make service the focus of their work.

In short, the "post-retirement" years are a time of tremendous change. If we do it right, these are years of self-rediscovery. While it's true that no one can predict with certainty what the future holds, we can plan to make the most of our later years. Live the life you envision. Beginning today.

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