`Pat Poole felt a mix of relief and uncertainty once he decided to retire from his sales management job at Halliburton at the end of March. An Oklahoma Sooners football fan and an avid golfer, Poole looked forward to more leisure time after leaving the Houston-based global oil service company. But he also had questions. One morning, he put down the TV remote and asked his wife with complete sincerity, “What am I going to do?”
The world is undergoing a massive demographic shift. More than 70 million baby boomers will retire in the next 20 years in the United States alone. By 2035, Americans of retirement age will exceed the number of people under age 18 for the first time in US history. Globally, the number of people age 60 and over is projected to double to more than 2 billion by 2050.
But as retirement looms for baby boomers, a growing number of them—both Christians and their neighbors—are discontented with current cultural assumptions about it. They’re asking new questions about money, work, time, family, leisure, and a life of purpose.
As Americans live longer, “we do not know what we will be doing with all that time,” Joseph Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, told the National Journal. Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, authors of 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, point out that people are living longer than ever before, and the average retiree can expect to live another 20–30 years.
What retirees consistently say they want to do with their time in retirement is spend it with family. But what happens when the realities of caring for needy adult children, looking after aging parents, and spending newfound hours every day with a spouse conflict with desires for rest and leisure? And how much leisure is too much? One study found that inactivity in retirement can increase chances of clinical depression by 40 percent.
Anne Bell, a recently retired researcher at the University of Northern Colorado, spent a year early in her retirement volunteering with the 5280 Fellowship, a leadership development program in Denver. Bright and soft spoken, Bell was speaking one day to a group of early-career professionals when she found herself wiping away a tear. “I’m really searching for what I’m called to,” she confessed. “I just want to know what’s next.”
Bell is one of millions of baby boomers, the majority of whom are Christians, who are asking new questions about a new society. Yet considering retirement is one of the most widespread experiences of an aging world, the church has been almost silent on the topic.
The idea of retirement as a never-ending vacation was popularized beginning in the 1950s by developers and the financial services industry. Indeed, the financial services industry—with an estimated total value of $27 trillion—is deeply dependent on the idea. A Google search for the word retirement returns a host of retirement calculators and articles on 401(k)s and IRAs—and images of gray-haired couples blissfully holding hands, walking white-sanded beaches. The message: Save enough and you too can have paradise.
It’s an ironic picture, given that at its founding in 1958 even AARP—the world’s largest nonprofit devoted to advocating for seniors—was encouraging retirees “to serve, not to be served.”
But the vacation ideal of retirement has led to a number of unsatisfying options for older Christians across the developed world. First, the dream itself is showing cracks in the hull. “At first, I kind of enjoyed the novelty of it. I felt like I was playing hooky,” says Ben Whittaker, the 70-year-old widower in the 2015 film The Intern, written by fellow boomer Nancy Meyers. “I used all the miles I’d saved and traveled the globe. The problem was, no matter where I went, the ‘nowhere-to-be’ thing hit me like a ton of bricks…. I know there’s a hole in my life, and I need to fill it. Soon.”
Margaret Mark, former head of research at the advertising agency Young & Rubicam, interviewed retired Americans (ages 55–70) across socioeconomic spectra. They reported a love for their newfound freedom and lauded the glories of no longer having a commute. Yet when asked about their overall happiness in retirement, doubts crept in. They reported a powerful sense of loneliness. Even though they had more time for family and friends, they missed the bonds they experienced at work, or “relationships with a purpose.”
In short, retirement as a never-ending vacation is, for many, much more appealing before they actually try it.
Millions more Americans are realizing they could not afford that vacation even if they wanted it and are instead worried they may not be able to afford basic necessities. The Economist reported in 2015 the average retirement assets of those aged 50–59 in 2013 were just $110,000, yet they would need $250,000 just to sustain $10,000 a year in retirement income. According to The Wall Street Journal, more than 40 percent of households headed by people ages 55–70 (about 15 million people) lack the resources to maintain their standard of living in retirement. And just as traditional pensions are disappearing for younger workers, one-third of American adults have no retirement savings at all, according to Money.com.
Mitch Anthony, author of The New Retirementality, put it this way: “Retirement is an illusion because those who can afford the illusion are disillusioned by it, and those who cannot afford the illusion are haunted by it.”
Quickly establishing itself as an alternative to the “let’s vacation” paradigm is a widespread movement toward “encore careers.” Promoted by leaders like Marc Freedman, president and CEO of Encore.org, the story is that retirement isn’t about leisure as much as social entrepreneurship and civic engagement. “Our enormous and rapidly growing older population—commonly portrayed as a burden to the nation and a drain on future generations—is a vast, untapped social resource,” writes Freedman in his book Prime Time. “If we can engage these individuals in ways that fill urgent gaps in our society, the result would be a windfall for American civic life in the twenty-first century.”
In the past generation, many Christians have bought into the view of retirement as a time to change the world. Two decades ago, Nelson Malwitz was a 50-year-old corporate director at Sealed Air Corporation, the company that invented Bubble Wrap. Stuck in a mid-life crisis, he helped to start the finishing well movement, a gathering of early retirees in the late 1990s hoping to find significance in second-career overseas missions. Drawing from Bob Buford’s popular book Halftime, many older Americans hoped to go “from success to significance” after they retired from “secular work.”
There’s a lot to praise about the encore movement. It swaps a vision of consumption for service, acquiring for giving, and points out the obvious: Today we tell productive, bright, able citizens in their 60s to stop working and start collecting a pension—often during the prime of their career.
Yet some Christians are wary of promises of overabundant “significance” through encore careers. I asked Fred Smith, the recently retired president of The Gathering, an annual conference for Christian philanthropists, what he thought about the idea of significance. “It’s like drinking salt water,” he said. “Looking for significance from external things is still competing for somebody else’s ‘OK.’ It just leaves you thirsty.” Ironically, the same exhausting treadmill of a career can follow the recently retired into more “meaningful work.”
The most prominent Christian voices on retirement today point out that retirement isn’t “biblical”—which is, of course, true, since retirement is a modern construct. “Lord, spare me the curse of retirement!” says John Piper, former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis and bestselling author. The late Ralph Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, wrote in an article for Mission Frontiers: “Most men don’t die of old age, they die of retirement…. Where in the Bible do they see [retirement]? Did Moses retire? Did Paul retire? Peter? John? Do military officers retire in the middle of a war?”
The closest the Bible comes to retirement is Numbers 8:25: “At the age of fifty they [the Levites] must retire from their regular service and work no longer.” Hauling around the furniture of the tabernacle was hard physical labor. However, later in life, Levites were commanded to “minister to their brothers in the tent of the meeting”—a hint that God didn’t intend for our work to stop completely but to morph and mature with age.
Yet the main problem with the “resist retirement” view is that most people cannot imagine working nonstop for 40, 50, or even 60 years. In Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah interviewed executives, government employees, school teachers, and small-businesspeople on how they felt about retirement. He found they were “sick of working,” hated “the pressure,” had “paid their dues,” and “wanted to get out of the rat race.” The appeal of the vacation paradigm for aging Americans is an under-recognized spiritual (and often physical) exhaustion and pain that can accompany a lifetime of work (Ecc. 2:17, Gen. 3:17–19).
So overwhelmingly, those who can retire do.
Click here to read more.
Source: Christianity Today