Baby Boomer Retirement, Unretirement, and Aging

I like the way Joseph Coughlin, head of the AgeLab at MIT, describes it: Baby boomer retirement is an “improv act.” It’s a good catchphrase. We’re creating a new vision…Chris Farrell, author of Unretirement (2014)

The focus of the above reference, Chris Farrell‘s book Unretirement, is retirement and the economy. This post, on the other hand, is more about the psychosocial factors regarding the choice to retire. Or the choice to unretire, which is the return to some form of employment, paid or otherwise.

First, some numbers. Farrell found the following, as stated in his interview with Rick Bell, Workforce.com:

Many people find that they really didn’t want to retire after all. What they wanted was a long vacation. Economist Nicole Maestas of the Rand Corp. found that more than a quarter of retirees reverse their decision and return to work, either full time or part time. She notes that as many as 35 percent of the youngest retirees unretired. Those joining the ranks of the unretired mostly made the decision because they found retirement less satisfying — more boring? — than they had expected. ‘Perhaps surprisingly, unfulfilled work expectations were much more common than unfulfilled leisure expectations,’ she wrote.

So, here’s what led to me writing about baby boomer retirement in the first place: an excerpt from Daniel J. Levitins new book, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives. A proponent of never actually retiring in the traditional sense of the word, Levitin basically says sure, leave work if you want and when you’re ready—but replace it with doing something else that’s fulfilling. “Even if you’re physically impaired, it’s best to keep working, either in a job or as a volunteer.”

Why are people happier when they continue with working?

Harvard University economist Nicole Maestas says, ‘You hear certain themes: a sense of pur­pose. Using your brain. And another key component is social engagement.’

Recall Sigmund Freud’s words that the two most important things in life are to have love and meaningful work. (He was wrong about a great number of things, but he seems to have gotten that quote right.)

From Kirkus Reviews, regarding Levitin’s other advice about successful aging:

Some of his breathless prescriptions are old favorites—happy people live longer; eat mostly plants; have lots of friends; don’t retire—but he relies heavily on legitimate science, so readers will encounter life-extenders supported by studies (although not in humans) such as calorie restriction, metformin, and rapamycin, as well as long-in-the-tooth favorites like antioxidants and fish oil, which he advocates for while admitting that recent studies are not impressive.

The general outlook is that older age doesn’t have to be an unhappy time of life, contrary to the belief of too many. (See previous post “Elderhood” Often Better Than You Fear.”) As Levitin told Christopher Booker, PBS NewsHour, in January:

If you look across the world across the 60 countries that have been studied, the peak age of happiness tends to be about 82. People get happier. Now there’s a neurochemical basis for this, your neurochemistry shifts. But there’s also kind of a psychological and very practical basis. You realize you’ve gotten through all these things that were stressing you out. If you make it to 82, you know you’ve managed [and] you’re okay!

One thought on “Baby Boomer Retirement, Unretirement, and Aging

  1. The whole concept of retirement is flawed as it presupposes a time of less activity and a life of leisure. As you mentioned in your article, many just want a long vacation and then get back at it is some form.

    I write about this in my blog as I am referred to as ‘The Un-Retired Entrepreneur’. It might be more appropriate to be called the ‘never retired’ entrepreneur as other than some mini-retirements over the years, I have never officially retired.

    I encourage folks of all ages to be engaged in meaningful work so that they would not ever consider retiring. The people in Okinawa call it ‘ikigai’ that is roughly translated as “the reason to wake up in the morning”. We are never too old or too young to make a positive difference.

    Actually the whole idea of retirement was made up by Otto von Bismarck in the 19th century because of the high unemployment of the younger generation; he decided it was best for people 70 and over to leave their jobs to make room for the younger folk. Of course, other countries followed and here we are left with a faulty concept.

    Enjoy life, stay engaged, contribute to others in ways that are enjoyable and make sense so that retirement is a concept that never enters your mind. All the Best, Joseph

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