Let’s Talk About Retirement

No, I am not trying to sell you long-term care insurance or a reverse mortgage.

If the purpose of this blog is to explore how we may bring more opportunities for purpose and community engagement into supportive living settings, then one group of topics worth studying is what are the hurdles to doing so.  It’s not as fun as a lyrical illustration of what could be, but valuable and necessary I think. Some of these hurdles are systematic or institutionalized, and some are long-lived and entrenched ideas that permeate how we think about the later years of our lives and people who are in their 60’s and beyond.

For instance, the word and concept “retirement.”

A few important caveats before I begin.  1. Many people do not have the luxury of ever retiring, or ever stopping work. Such may be a financial impossibility.  2. Many people do not have the luxury of choosing, if they wish, to continue their work.  Their work may be quite physical, highly stressful, or otherwise difficult, such as those who serve in the armed forces or as first responders.  More than once I have seen people working at a construction site of one of my projects, people my age or older, hammering away as a demolition sub, and thought to myself ” Wow, that person works harder in a day than I work in a week.” 3.  Certainly, there are some or perhaps many who fully and openly embrace the current common notion of retirement with eyes and minds wide open, and for whom it has proven fulfilling.   My hats off to you!  4. Very importantly, although most people who can benefit from a supportive living setting are of “retirement age,” all are not.  Many have a physical or cognitive challenge but are young, or younger, and obviously this particular piece does not really apply to them……..yet.

To start, let’s take a look at the early origins of the word and concept “retirement”.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “retirement” in part as “withdrawal to a place of safety and seclusion,” and the roots of the word being “re” or back, and “tire” or draw, as in back draw, or withdraw.  The idea itself was introduced in 1889 by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck who claimed “those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.(1) ” Bismarck was attempting to address the high youth unemployment at the time in Germany by essentially paying those 70 and older to stop working, and make room for the more effective and productive youth.  The concept forged by Bismarck had generally good intentions, but also carried some deep seeded ageist prejudices and I believe was a participant in casting a mold for a negative view of the possibilities of living in older age.  As one grew old, they were no longer valid, and no longer had much to give to the world. Step aside, old fogey.

Before the notion of retirement was embraced in this country, those who were not wealthy (just about everyone) either worked ’till they dropped, or moved back into the family home with multiple generations, whereby the younger family members saw to the income making.  This was at a time when life expectancy hovered around the mid-fifties, making this period of dependency often fairly short.

The U.S. Social Security Act of 1935 By FDR set a retirement age at 65(2), and established the tax-based retirement savings plan that changed our culture tremendously.  The program literally saved the day for millions of Americans that were by this time living much longer than ever, and could live many years beyond their ability to work, from living in poverty.  Roosevelt saw the coming age boom of the time, and avoided a national financial disaster. The notion of retiring in earnest for the common person in America was born, and a whole industry, or really many industries, were born with it, including the one that puts food on my table. Now, with a few decades of hard work, one could live a life of leisure from age 65 on, playing golf, fishing, travelling, doing all the things one dreamed of, without the encumbrance of work. This dream was reinforced financially with larger businesses and governments offering pension plans, and the emergence of the middle class investing in the markets via a 401K Plan.  This time span of retirement grew too as tremendous medical advances through the middle of the century pushed the average lifespan from 67 in 1950 to 79 in 2021(3). One could now aspire to a 15-25 year leisure life as a final chapter!

But…. there are a few challenges with this notion of retirement, particularly if retirement means working 40-60 hours a week for 40 years until you turn 65, and then one day just stopping.

One, you may put your head down and work hard through your 30’s, 40’s and 50’s looking forward to this time to do all the things you’ve ever wanted, and get hit by a bus at 64 years and 364 days, and miss it all. Or, you could be ill and not be able to enjoy these golden years, squandering away your healthy, fit years focusing on tomorrow. Some of this may be chalked up to lifestyle choices, and some is just luck of the draw.

But perhaps the biggest challenge to the concept of retirement is what it can inadvertently take away from the lives of people in the later years of their life (connection and purpose), and our culture at the same time (a wise and experienced voice), and the preconceptions it helps carry about older people (less relevant, less valuable).

Like many in our industry, I have worked very hard my whole career, well-intended, to eliminate all “work” from the lives of those who live in the settings I design, let them sit back and “not have a care in the world, everything will be taken care of for you”, and now I find myself wondering if that is a monumental mistake.

Consider another culture and their notions of aging and well-being.  The Okinawa Centenarian Study showed that men and women of this Japanese prefecture live an average of seven years longer than Americans, and have one of the healthiest aging populations on earth.(4) Among the many lifestyle differences between Okinawans and Americans is the fact that Okinawans don’t have the concept of retirement.  There isn’t even a word for the concept of stopping work completely in their language.  In lieu of this concept, Okinawans have the word ikigai, which means “the reason you get up in the morning.” or “the thing that drives you most.”(5)  Most Okinawans either slow instead of stopping work, or find a new way of giving, creating, and doing later in life that also works with their advancing age and desire for balance.

Is it possible that what many of us strive so hard to eliminate from life, particularly in our later years, is actually among a rather short list of what gives life purpose?  Maybe so.

Work brings meaning to life.  Work in the big, broad sense of the word, and the small nuance, gets us up in the morning and moving and engaging.  It connects us with old and new friends, young and old colleagues, and encourages us to think and be creative.  To make and do.  Be it putting one’s experience to use in a part-time consultancy, volunteering on a non-profit board, handing out Thanksgiving meals at a shelter, creating works of art, or simply gardening or folding laundry, much, if not most, of our sense of self-worth and feeling of accomplishment and value comes from work. Not leisure. Leisure is not leisure without its opposite work from which to compare. 

Bill Brummett


WBA- Concerto Consulting

“What is the meaning of Life?  Love… and Work”

Sigmund Freud

(1)  Pasricha, Neil (April 2016). Why Retirement is a Flawed Concept.  Harvard Business Review

(2)  DeSilver, Drew (Oct 16, 2013). 5 Facts About Social Security.  Pew Research Center

(3)  O’Neill, Aaron (February 2021). Life Expectancy in the United States, 1860-2020. Statista

(4)  Wilson, Emily (June 2001). Want to live to be 100? The Guardian.

(5)  Pasricha, Neil (April 2016). Why Retirement is a Flawed Concept.  Harvard Business Review

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