Why Baby Boomers Are Extending Their Working Lives Into ‘Unretirement’

The old idea of “retirement”―a word that means withdrawal, describing a time when people gave up productive employment and shrank their activities―was a short-lived historical anomaly. Humans have always found meaning and motivation in work and community, and the boomer generation, poised to live longer in better health than any before, is already discovering a new type of retirement planning called “unretirement”―extending their working lives, often with new careers, entrepreneurial ventures, and volunteer service. In Unretirement  (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), Chris Farrell details how their experience, wisdom―and importantly, their continued earnings―will enrich the American workplace, treasury, and our whole society in the decades to come. The following excerpt is from the book’s first chapter: “Work Long and Prosper.”

Two titans of the New Deal were Harry Hopkins and Henry Morgenthau Jr. Hopkins was head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and a close confidant of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Morgenthau was Roosevelt’s longtime friend and U.S. treasury secretary.

In History of Retirement, historian William Graebner relays the minutes from a phone conversation between them. Hopkins was sick at home. The two New Dealers were on the committee charged by Roosevelt with designing Social Security, the landmark safety net for the elderly signed into law in 1935. At one point their conversation turns to concerns over the swelling numbers of old people in decades to come, relays Graebner.

Morgenthau: Well, I’ve gotten a very good analysis of this thing . . . I’m simply going to point out the danger spots and it’s up to somebody else to say whether they want to do it. I’m not trying to say what they should do — I want to show them the bad curves.

Hopkins: I wish I was going to be there.

Morgenthau: I wish you were too.

Hopkins: That old age thing is a bad curve.

I thought about the demographics of the “bad curve” while at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America in 2012. More than thirty-six hundred researchers on old age from more than thirty countries had gathered in San Diego to share their findings. I wandered in and out of sessions and talked to participants during breaks. I sat in on talks titled “Older Adult Functions: Risks, Impairments, and Interventions,” “Managing Chronic Disease,” “Transportation and Mobility: Avoiding Withdrawal and Isolation,” “Caring for Persons with Dementia,” and “Adult Protection and Elder Abuse.”

Dementia. Loneliness. Abuse. Talk about a bad curve! After three days of presentations I couldn’t stop replaying in my mind the Rolling Stones lyric, “What a drag it is getting old.”

The Stones’ gloomy viewpoint is widely shared in America. Since most of us are neither gerontologists nor demographers steeped in the data of aging we can’t rattle off the numbers. But we know the message: The U.S. population is getting older. Americans are living longer on average and we’re having fewer children. The leading edge of the baby boom generation — approximately 76 million born between 1946 and 1964 — is filing for Social Security and Medicare benefits. According to Pew Research, roughly ten thousand boomers are turning sixty-five every day, a pace that will continue until 2030. The graying of America is a media staple, usually accompanied by dire headlines like DEMOGRAPHIC CRISIS and LOOMING CATASTROPHE. Academic scholars and think tank experts routinely issue alarming reports highlighting a wide range of negative economic and social effects from an aging America.

The numbers are striking. Demographers estimate that more than 20 percent of the U.S. population or nearly 81 million will be sixty-five and over in 2030. That’s up from almost 42 million or 13 percent in 2012, according to the Census Bureau. The projected sixty-five-plus population in 2030 is almost equivalent to the current residents of New York, California, and Texas combined. Imagine the Golden State, the Empire State, and the Lone Star State as nothing but giant retirement communities. You’d walk around New York City, Buffalo, and Syracuse, drive all over San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, visit Dallas, Houston, and Austin and see nothing but people sixty-five and older. Instead of the infamous “mom gangs” hogging the sidewalks with their strollers in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, maybe an “elderly mafia” would take over the sidewalks with their walkers. The bike lane on the Golden Gate Bridge could become the wheelchair lane. Bars and restaurants during South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin would focus on promoting their early bird specials.

Demographic projections unfold over decades, and a sense of impending gloom has long informed the national conversation about an aging population. But now the country’s long-anticipated date of reckoning with older boomers is here. A landmark moment came in 2008 when Kathleen Casey-Kirschling — proclaimed by the press as the nation’s first boomer because she was born one second after midnight on January 1, 1946 — started receiving Social Security benefits. Boomers have gone from “forever young” to “forever old,” write Laurence Kotlikoff and Scott Burns in The Coming Generational Storm. “The aging of America isn’t a temporary event,” they add. “We are well into a change that is permanent, irreversible, and very long term.”

The specter of an aging population haunts America. Our public discourse is along the lines of fear and loathing (paraphrasing gonzo writer and baby boom legend Hunter S. Thompson).

What’s behind the sense of a demographically driven apocalypse? Why does the emerging portrait of old age in America spawn so many dire screeds? The elderly have always been with us — to state the obvious — and opinions about older Americans have varied through the ages, sometimes weighted more toward the positive and at other times slanting toward the negative. The seventeenth-century American poet Anne Bradstreet wrote about the four stages of man — childhood, youth, middle age, and old age. The last was a time of wisdom, when “al gave ear to what he had to say,” she wrote in The Tenth Muse. If Henry David Thoreau read that line, Bradstreet’s sentiment would have filled the nineteenth-century American thinker with disgust. “Practically, the old have no very important advice to give to the young, their experience has been so partial, and their lives such miserable failures for private reasons, as they must believe,” he wrote in Walden.

“Wait a minute, Thoreau,” I imagine George Dawson saying. The grandson of slaves, Dawson was born in Texas in 1889. In Life Is So Good, published in 2000, the 101-year-old Dawson tells of working on farms, breaking horses, building levees, raising children and grandchildren, living with racism, and learning to read at ninety-eight years old.

Elementary school teacher Richard Glaubman was Dawson’s scribe. Glaubman remarks to Dawson at the book’s end, “You’ve accomplished a lot.” Dawson replied, “That’s right. Yet, judge me not for the deeds that I have done, but for the life I’ve lived. Son, people think one hundred years is a long time. Most folks just don’t understand. My life hasn’t been so long at all; seems short to me. It’s all gone by so fast. Life is so good and it gets better every day.”

What fuels widespread fears at this moment isn’t aging. It’s retirement, a relatively new lifestyle for elder Americans. The shared expectation that most senior citizens will withdraw from the work force in their early sixties, yet still enjoy a comfortable standard of living and a life of leisure is a post–World War II phenomenon. The catchphrase “America can’t afford to grow old” that echoes from Senate hearing rooms to neighborhood conversations is really a statement that “seniors can’t afford retirement, let alone a decent retirement.” Rather than savor the good life during their elder years, popular discussions concentrate on how near- and-future retirees of America face the prospect of eking out an existence like a “battered kettle at the heel” in William Butler Yeats’s bleak image.

The disturbing economic and social picture of an aging population hurtling toward an inevitable decline in lifestyle and comfort draws on a handful of trends. The timing of the worst downturn since the 1930s was terrible for older workers. The economy tanked when boomers should have been enjoying their peak earnings and savings years. Instead, many employed boomers (along with every other worker) struggled to get by without a raise. Those were the lucky ones. Millions were handed pink slips by their employers and millions more forced into part-time work. Retirement savings accounts for the average worker were less than flush before the downturn and the economic trauma only worsened the savings situation. The value of 401(k)s and IRAs dropped sharply during the great recession. Management at hard-pressed companies reduced employee benefits, including cutting or even eliminating the employer contribution into retirement savings. Remember morbid jokes about 201(k)s and 101(k)s?

The financial despair about long-term economic security deepened with the bursting of the housing bubble. A home is the largest asset owned by the average American and the prices plunged by more than a third nationwide, vaporizing some $8 trillion in wealth. The price collapse badly shook optimism in the future since owning a home has been a concrete expression of living the American Dream for a long time.

The popular image is that boomers are not only spendthrifts but are also living in denial about getting older, blithely ignoring the need to plan for their old age. Surveys repeatedly show that workers aren’t engaged in preparing for retirement. The table of contents from a conference report by Stanford University’s Center on Longevity — Retirement Planning in the Age of Longevity — captures the sense of how woefully unprepared experts believe average Americans are for the last stage of life.

Pitfall 1: Failing to Plan
Pitfall 2: Underestimating Expenses
Pitfall 3: Underestimating Years in Retirement Pitfall 4: Retiring too Early
Pitfall 5: Failing to Save Enough

Ouch. Is this how the average aging American worker feels?

Yes, according to the twenty-fourth annual Retirement Confidence Survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute. To be sure, the Washington, D.C., think tank reports that confidence in retirement security had rebounded slightly from record survey lows of 2009 through 2013. Yet the increased optimism was exclusively among higher income households while 43percent of workers surveyed in 2014 still had little to no confidence they’d saved enough for a decent retirement.

A common refrain among the prophets of penurious retirement is the belief that the rising number of old folks will drain the economy of its dynamism. The ranks of workers fifty-five and older are projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to rise from nearly 20 percent in 2010 to some 25 percent in 2020. The fear is the appetite for risk taking that fuels new products and new markets will diminish with a dramatically aging work force, victims of aching joints, bad backs, and faltering vision. Older workers are hardly considered stalwarts of entrepreneurial ambition and productive energy. They have a reputation for being set in their ways, unwilling to challenge the established order, little interested in the latest technologies and organizational innovations. They also consume less of the kinds of goods and services that propel economic growth. The money management firm Manning and Napier in the special report Potential Macroeconomic Consequences of an Aging Population with Insufficient Savings frets that “the aging of this [baby boom] generation will become a headwind to growth” as they move out of their prime spending years. New York Times columnist David Brooks is more emphatic and characteristically eloquent about the economic dangers of a graying America. “For decades, people took dynamism and economic growth for granted and saw population growth as a problem,” he writes. “In the 21st century, the U.S. could be the slowly aging leader of a rapidly aging world.”

A stark implication of a demographically driven slow-growth economy is that the gray tsunami of boomers will overwhelm the government’s safety net for the elderly, or so we’re repeatedly told. A shrinking number of younger workers are on the hook to support an increasing number of elderly, a state of affairs that will end badly for everyone. Robert Samuelson, the longtime economics columnist for the Washington Post, has repeatedly warned that government entitlements are unaffordable, thanks to the twin pincers of an aging baby boom generation and rising retirement costs. His frustration over policymaker inaction over the looming threat is a constant theme of his columns. “Meanwhile our resulting inaction compounds many future dangers of an aging society: higher taxes, slower economic growth, squeezed government spending for non-elderly programs and more conflict between younger taxpayers and older beneficiaries.”

Samuelson expresses his concerns in reasonably measured tones. The same can’t be said for a barrage of similar sentiments repeated with far greater alarm on cable television, talk radio, and op-ed pages. A common refrain is that the fiscal, economic, and social disaster of Mediterranean Europe — think Greece, Italy, and Spain — is the proverbial canary in America’s entitlement coal mine. Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme,” a “monstrous lie,” and faces “imminent bankruptcy.” The swelling ranks of the elderly will send Medicare (and Medicaid) costs spiraling out of control. The combination of entitlement programs and aging boomers is pushing the United States toward an unprecedented fiscal crisis.

The seemingly brutal math behind an aging population, a less dynamic economy, and soaring entitlement spending stokes forecasts of an inevitable and mean-spirited clash of generations over scarce resources. Remember the 1960s generation gap? Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan poetically captured the chasm between parents and their children in the sixties with songs such as “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Dylan’s lyrics like “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command” and “the order is rapidly fadin’” resonated with a younger generation — and repelled many parents — during that tumultuous decade.

The once-rebellious boomers are now the parents and grandparents, and the new alleged generation gap with their children and grandchildren is much uglier than the music-soaked version from several decades ago. The Economist relabeled baby boomers “sponging boomers,” an aging generation sucking up scarce economic resources and absorbing government spending, barely leaving scraps behind for the young. “The struggle to digest the swollen generation of aging baby-boomers threatens to strangle economic growth,” opines the Economist. “As the nature and scale of the problem become clear, a showdown between the generations may be inevitable.” Boomers are “reactionary elders, clinging to their power and perks at the literal expense of everyone younger,” writes Paul Campos in SalonEsquire fumes that the economic and political system is “rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young.”

If Thomas Paine was America’s original political pamphleteer with his passionate call for American independence in Common Sense, then Wall Street billionaire Peter G. Peterson, who insists that America faces a fiscal crisis of old age, is his contemporary equivalent.

Peterson is a remarkable American success story. His Greek immigrant father ran a diner in Kearney, Nebraska. The driven immigrant son quickly climbed to the heights of the establishment. Peterson’s resume is long and impressive, including chief executive of the media equipment company Bell and Howell from 1961 to1971, secretary of commerce under President Nixon in 1972, chairman and chief executive of Lehman Brothers from 1973 to 1984, and cofounder of the private equity behemoth Blackstone in 1985. A billionaire, he stepped down as senior chairman at Blackstone in 2008. Peterson is a courtly octogenarian. A longtime Republican, he cultivates an image of rational, reasonable bipartisanship.

He is best known outside of elite circles on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C., for his public policy passion since the early 1980s: entitlement reform. He launched his crusade in a 1982 New York Review of Books article, “Social Security: The Coming Crash.” The opening paragraph captures the tone of his campaign. “Social Security’s troubles are fundamental. Its financial problems are not minor and temporary, as most politicians, at least in election years, feel compelled to insist. Unless the system is reorganized, these problems will become overwhelming,” he writes. “To put the matter bluntly, Social Security is heading fora crash. We cannot permit this to happen, because it would put the nation itself in very serious jeopardy.”

Peterson’s many books since that essay reinforce the essence of his crusade, with titles like Will America Grow Up Before It Grows Old: How the Coming Social Security Crisis Threatens You, Your Family, and Your CountryFacing Up: Paying Our Nation’s Debt and Saving Our Children’s Future; and On Borrowed Time: How the Growth in Entitlement Spending Threatens America’s Future. He has used his considerable fortune to push his agenda well beyond his writings, funding a vast ecosystem of fiscal reform advocacy groups, from the Concord Coalition to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

Debt! Deficit! Aging! Retirement crisis! Economic stagnation! Intergenerational warfare! Talk about a bad curve. Taken altogether, it appears an aging America is hurtling toward the dismal end of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man — “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” No wonder people are fearful about their retirement.

Well, don’t be depressed. The dire jeremiads aimed at an aging America are wrong and deeply misplaced. The graying of America is terrific news. Living longer is good. Embrace the realization that boomers on average are healthier and better educated than previous generations. An aging population presents an enormous opportunity for society and for aging individuals to seize and exploit. “Never before have so many people had so much experience and the time and the capacity to do something significant with it,” writes Marc Freedman in The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife. “That’s the gift of longevity, the great potential payoff on all the progress we’ve made expanding lives.”

The last third of life is being reimagined and reinvented into “unretirement.” If the popular images of retirement are the golf course and the RV, the defining institutions of unretirement are the workplace and the entrepreneurial start-up. The unretirement movement builds on the insight that a better-educated, healthier work force can continue to earn an income well into the traditional retirement years. A series of broad, mutually reinforcing changes in the economy and society is making an aging work force more of an economic asset than ever before. “Many people aren’t slowing down in their 60s and 70s,” says Ross Levin, a certified financial planner and president of Accredited Investors in Edina, Minnesota. Adds Nicole Maestas, economist at the Rand Corporation, the Santa Monica, California–based think tank: “Yes, America has an aging population. The upside of that is a whole generation of people who are interested in anything but retirement.”

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from by Unretirement (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016) by Chris Farrell.

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