Retirement Redefined

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The over-60 market isn't settling for rocking chairs and front porches. Is it time to retire the term "retirement" altogether?

George Rogers retired five years ago, after 30 years as an engineer for the U.S. Navy. He would have continued working, but the agency - like so many other federal and private entities - downsized in the early 90s and made him an offer he couldn't refuse. With his newly-found free time, Rogers took stock of himself - 58, healthy, educated - and realized he wasn't ready to be taken out of circulation. After hours of brainstorming with friends and reading books about possible options, he took a vocational aptitude exam at a local community college, and, to his surprise, scored high for applied arts - something he had never dreamed of pursuing. While he was initially intimidated by the prospect of competing with college students 40 years his junior, he returned to school and attained his associate's degree in graphic design in 1998. Now, at 63, he telecommutes 20 to 40 hours a week for a consulting firm in northern Virginia, from his home in Asheville, North Carolina. "I feel like I've died and gone to heaven," he says. "I love it, I can't get enough."

The dictionary often has trouble keeping up with society's changing definitions of traditional nomenclature, but perhaps the term "retirement" needs to be retired altogether. We are living longer, and we're healthier than ever before. The average 65-year-old today can expect to reside on the planet for another 18 or more years, compared with about 13 years in 1940. What's more, the percentage of older Americans who reported having a sedentary lifestyle declined from 34 percent in 1985, to 28 percent in 1995 among men, and from 44 percent to 39 percent among women, according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging. While those facts are not news, our recognition of this extended life stage and our preparations for it are.

Like Rogers, many of today's 40 million 60-plus seniors are no longer content with the backgammon- and bingo-filled retirements of their parents. A growing number of them are starting new careers, enrolling in university courses, learning new skills, and volunteering for social causes. And yet, there is still a dearth of organized programs and policies that cater to a life beyond golf and shuffleboard. That, say experts, is both a serious problem and an incredible marketing opportunity. By 2030, 20 percent of the U.S. population, or 70 million people, will be over 65 - and the need for institutions and businesses that help individuals redefine this life stage and utilize their untapped talents will become substantially more pressing. "We now have the opportunity to recreate what we want late life to be about in this society," says Professor Nancy Morrow-Howell of Washington University in St. Louis, lead author of Productive Aging: Concepts and Challenges, to be published in early 2001. "The older population today has incredible individual capacity - time, health, income, knowledge - but we haven't developed the capacity to channel it."

Activities such as volunteerism and care-giving, educational and skill development, working for pay, and other such pursuits that lead to the production of goods and services for society, have been dubbed "productive aging" by researchers like Morrow-Howell. Many older people want to engage in such meaningful participation; they just don't know where to go, she says. "It's a matter of expanding choice."

One of the choices older people are expected to make in record number is to join the volunteer ranks. In a study conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, a survey research firm in Washington, D.C., 50 percent of 50- to 75-year-olds rank volunteering or community service as the most important part of their retirement plans, second only to travel (57 percent). And according to an American Demographics' analysis of Mediamark Research Inc. (MRI) software, the number of those in the 65-plus age group who volunteer has increased from about 11 percent in 1989 to 15 percent in 1999. But the biggest chunk of volunteers are in the 70- to 74-year-old range - 20 percent of that demographic group currently volunteers, according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging.

Take the case of Milton "Rusty" Graifman, 78, who writes a column about volunteering and retired life on, a Web site for active seniors. "I feel I have a lot to offer people who are less fortunate," says Graifman, who retired to Boynton Beach, Florida in 1994. Every Monday and Tuesday, this "frustrated singer" travels 25 miles, with his karaoke machine in tow, to a combined day care and senior center in Deerfield Beach where he conducts sing-a-long sessions with pre-school children, Alzheimer's patients, and other older adults. "Music is very therapeutic to people," he says. "It also helps me channel my energies into something more worthwhile than just sitting around."

Studies show that, like Graifman, the majority of seniors are eager to give of themselves. According to the MacArthur Foundation's Study of Successful Aging, about 80 percent of older Americans agree with the statement, "Life is not worth living if one cannot contribute to the well-being of others." And the Hart study found that 40 percent of 50- to 75-year-old respondents are very, or fairly, interested in participating as volunteers for 15 hours or more per week. "Given that the over-65 segment alone will swell to nearly 70 million over the next three decades, the potential size of this involvement is staggering," writes Marc Freedman, author of Prime Time: How Baby Boomers will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America. "If just 5 percent of the over-65 population could be recruited into such arrangements - the same proportion of older adults who relocate to retirement communities - the result would be 3 million to 4 million people engaged in significant service to communities. That's more than 50 million hours of contribution every week." And that doesn't even include those under the age of 64.

In addition to becoming enthusiastic volunteers, seniors are increasingly becoming enthusiastic students. The percentage of adults aged 65 and older who participated in learning activities in the past 12 months jumped from just 11 percent in 1991 to 20 percent in 1999. And the number of those in the 55- to 64-year-old segment increased from 23 percent to 37 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Thirty-seven percent of older adults in the Hart study say that continuing their education is a very important part of their plans for retirement. Seniors, such as Breta Edmunds, 83, find that going back to school helps keep the mind fresh. Edmunds has taken 26 courses since 1978 - mostly in religion, philosophy, and education - at Houghton College, near her home in Belfast, New York. In fact, today, there are about 300 "learning-in-retirement programs" in the country, most of which are affiliated with colleges. These programs have been growing steadily by about 30 per year, since the 1980s, when there were only about 50 to 75 of them nationwide. Still, experts say more are needed: 28 percent of Baby Boomers say they plan on going back to school during retirement, according to a study conducted by the Del Webb Corporation, a large real estate developer of retirement communities.

But perhaps the most important trend among the retirement crowd is their return to the working world. Susan Ascher, founder of human resources firm The Ascher Group in Roseland, New Jersey, says that in the past 10 years she's seen at least a 20 percent increase in her over-60 candidates. "These people have a lot of talent and seasoning and are more grounded than many younger workers," she says. Sadie Lynette is a case in point. Now 91 and living on her own in Long Beach, California, Lynette retired 27 years ago at the age of 64 and quickly got "bored of doing nothing." A lover of antiques - especially of expensive French glass - she established Lynette Antiques, and continues to operate it on her own to this day. She works 7 hours a day, 4 to 5 days a week and does all her own bills and bookkeeping. "Working gives me a reason to get up in the morning and it keeps me healthy," Lynette says. "Many old ladies I know sit home and watch TV all day long, but to me that's a waste of time."

Many retirees agree with Lynette: About 44 percent say they've worked for pay at some point after they retired, according to "The Cornell Retirement and Well-Being Study." And the most popular reason for doing so (89 percent) is "to keep active," not financial need. Of those currently engaged in post-retirement employment, 14 percent say they will "never" retire and 28 percent say they will work, "as long as I am healthy." Interest in paid employment will only increase. According to the MacArthur study, 13 percent of 65- to 74-year-olds are not working for pay but are willing and able to do so, as are 8 percent of the over-75 population. While that might not sound like a lot, consider this: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 2 percent of the 37.5 million people 55 and older who were not in the labor force in 1998 wanted a job - that is essentially 750,000 people willing to be put to use. The statistics may not even tell the full story, since many older people who express no interest in working might be enticed back into the labor force if they felt employers were open to hiring them.

Are employers and marketers ready for the new generation of retirees? Experts - not to mention future retirees - are doubtful. "There is still a mismatch in society between what people are looking for in later life and what society provides," says Marc Freedman. Forty-one percent of respondents 65 and older today say they are very, or somewhat, worried that at age 75 they will not have enough opportunities to be productive. Younger generations are even more concerned: 58 percent of 18- to 64-year-olds say they too are worried, according to The National Council on the Aging (NCOA). In terms of volunteering, the majority of opportunities currently available to seniors consist mostly of busywork - envelope-stuffing and pushing hospital carts - says Freedman. Yet 60 percent of older adults want more, saying that "feeling valued and needed" is extremely important for personal fulfillment, and 53 percent say the same about "being intellectually challenged," according to the Hart study. Says Freedman: "For a long time people were content just to be busy, but now people are looking beyond activity for activity's sake."

Slowly, however, the tides are beginning to turn. Marc Freedman is not just an author, he's also president of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to mobilizing the time and talent of older adults for social service. Since 1995, he has run Experience Corps, which enlists volunteers 55 and older and sends them into schools in low-income urban centers to be mentors, tutors, and fundraisers. There, they give struggling students the time and individualized attention teachers and family members are unable to provide. The program has grown from five cities to 20, and now boasts a workforce of 1,000 nationwide.

Katherine Greene, 73, formerly an administrator in the office of financial aid at Howard University, is a volunteer with Experience Corps in the Washington, D.C. area where she teaches reading to students in kindergarten through second grade at a school in a very poor section downtown. Through Experience Corps, Greene receives detailed, on-going training, a stipend for her efforts, and, most importantly, she is able to see tangible results with her students' progress. She thinks more opportunities for seniors to get involved in such meaningful ways are needed. "If somebody is healthy and half-way intelligent, you can't just sit around complaining about the problems of this country, you've got to help. You can't save the world, but you can certainly teach a kid to read."

At The North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement (NCCCR), Director Ron Manheimer has developed a series of programs within its College for Seniors that help older Americans tap into their own strengths and desires for later-life, whether they are on the learning or working path. This fall, the Center launched the "Un-Retirement Option," a class that is designed specifically for retirees who know they aren't ready to quit working, but aren't sure what they want to do next. "Later-life has begun to be undefined territory," he says. "Not everyone wants to extend mid-life, doing the same things they did all through their 30s and 40s. That's the creative challenge, to help people figure out what opportunities are available to them."

George Rogers, who lives near the NCCCR, sits on the steering committee for the program, as he felt his own soul-searching experience could help others give structure to theirs. "This program doesn't just provide the how-to education, it provides a community of peers so you can work through the process in the company of others who are trying to do the same thing." The program also aims to create partnerships within the local business community to raise awareness about the qualifications and ambitions of older adults.

On the other side of the country, in Prescott, Arizona, Key Krecker, alternative learning strategist at Yavapai College, is finalizing plans for a series of senior-focused retreats and workshops to be launched later this year and early 2001 through the college's newly-created Center for Conscious Living. Titles include "Your Next Chapter: Career Crossroads," and "Living Your Dreams." Says Krecker: "Our motto here is `If aging is not your issue, it will be.'" She stumbled on the seniors market by accident three years ago, when she was leading a course called "Career Pathfinding" geared at traditional-aged college students who needed help deciding on a major. The curriculum takes participants through a series of personality skills and values tests that, in the end, point students toward a potential career. To her surprise, the age of students enrolled ranged from 17 to 74, and about 60 percent were mature adult learners changing careers because of burnout, life/values changes, or post-retirement doldrums. Krecker has since re-tooled the curriculum for the Internet to give more people access to the course.

Corporate America is also beginning to take these changes in the senior market seriously. Paul Bessler, vice president of research for retirement real estate developer the Del Webb Corporation, says that the company has had to switch gears to meet the needs of today's retirees. "When retirement was a time to relax, we had shuffleboards, crafts, pottery, quiltmaking. You don't see as much space dedicated to those things today," he says. "Now we can't build the computer rooms big enough." All houses also come with a "home office" option, complete with a dedicated Internet connection. In addition, every Del Webb community has partnered with a local university to help residents find adult learning opportunities suited to their interests. "The trick is to know the market and understand that this is a different group," he says. "If you plan for yesterday's retirees, you will lose out."

Still, in order for there to be a significant change, the little steps need to get bigger, say experts. They call for better accountability and recognition of the services that older adults already provide. One of the most under-recognized activities, for example, is care-giving, says Professor Morrow-Howell. In 1997, there were 4 million children under the age of 18 living in their grandparents' homes. Of these, 1.3 million had neither father nor mother present, and another 2 million had only one parent, according to the International Longevity Center. Morrow-Howell says that studies show that older adults provide an estimated $102 billion in care-giving services every year. "Care-giving goes on with very little financial reward or compensation, and yet they [older care-givers] are major contributors to society," she notes. "Let's recognize that and make it easier for other folks to do it."

Freedman suggests the implementation of a "Third-Age Bill," similar to the G.I. Bill that helped soldiers returning from World War II reacclimatize to society. In this case, the policy would be aimed at enabling the successful transition of vast numbers of aging Americans into new roles of strengthening communities through volunteerism. Among the specifics would be a massive new national corps - like his Experience Corps - that would involve between 5 percent and 10 percent of the 55-plus population over the next decade. The programs would be partially funded by government grants and partially through local efforts, and individuals who serve at least 20 hours a week would be provided with a nontaxable stipend and health benefits. The Bill might also include a national report card, issued every three years, to determine how effectively America is making use of the older adult population, as well as special awards to recognize outstanding contributors.

Employers, for their part, need to overhaul their recruitment and retention practices. According to human resources consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide, just 8 percent of 500 companies surveyed have implemented phased retirement arrangements, giving workers the option to continue working on a part-time schedule. Then there are the older workers who may want to work, but who don't even apply, for fear of employer's negative attitudes. To correct this situation, the Committee for Economic Development (CED) recommends a series of employer policy changes, such as revising recruiting materials to better target older candidates, as well as advertising positions through seniors' groups. Other recommendations from the CED include changing federal laws regarding employee benefits to allow greater flexibility in hiring older workers for part-time posts, and a plea to colleges and training institutions to expand work-oriented learning options to older adults. There also needs to be more senior-focused career counseling, says Dr. Audrey Kavka, a specialist on aging and a member of the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute. "For many, life has been very structured and safe. Retirement can create a lot of anxiety for people who are not accustomed to that kind of self-reflection."

But perhaps what is needed most is a social re-envisioning of what aging and retirement are, and should be, in this country. "The word `retirement' is never going to go away, but the word will have new and varied meanings," says Dr. Neal Cutler, director of survey research for the NCOA. "There will always be some people who can't wait to have a life of leisure and who will never want to work again in any capacity. Others will want to work on a farm, teach at a college, or do something else that's meaningful to them. Retirement will become known for what it already is to so many: a new phase of life, not an end to it."

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