Early Retirees Turn to Volunteer Work

Some early retirees are choosing to give of themselves after a lifetime in the for-profit world. General affluence has made it easier for many to find meaningful ways to stay active outside the workforce.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Among the many people who have signed up to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and Rita are legions of retirees who quit their 9-to-5 jobs before the normal retirement age. In fact, more than a third of Americans now retire before age 60, according to a recent Gallup Poll, almost three-quarters before age 65. Some policy analysts argue we should be working longer to take pressure off retirement programs. The trend, however, suggests Americans are determined to retire earlier and earlier, not just to play golf or sit in a rocking chair, but also to find greater meaning.

Mr. BOB RODWELLER(ph): Up the road, I think right here there's a kind of a mountain bike trail.

YDSTIE: Dressed in spandex cycling clothes, Bob Rodweller pedals his hot pink racing bike through the green farms and fields just beyond the edge of the Washington, DC, sprawl.

Mr. RODWELLER: Think about it. It's less than an hour from the center of town and you come out through the counties like this.

YDSTIE: Rodweller is just 57 and looks as fit and trim as many 30-year-olds, but instead of going to work in downtown Washington today, he's engaging in one of his passions: riding his bicycle. After more than three decades of working as an information technology specialist in government and private industry, he retired from his job at the Federal Reserve in late July for a couple of reasons.

Mr. RODWELLER: I pretty much outlived my family because the majority of my family died of cancer. And then I saw a very dear friend of mine who was in Vietnam with me who's the same age as I am--we have the same birthdays, same first name--he's had two open-heart surgeries. So I figured, `Well, now that I can, I'm able to do this, why not while I'm still healthy and I can enjoy life and explore what's next?'

YDSTIE: Rodweller says he'd also gotten a little bored with his largely managerial IT job. He doesn't rule out doing some consulting in the future, but right now he's planning to devote more time to other things--his local church, for instance, volunteering at his daughter's school.

Mr. RODWELLER: Maybe helping the homeless shelters like over here in Gaithersburg, sort of giving back, and, you know, life, isn't that what it's about, giving back? I've been very fortunate. I've been very blessed in my life. So why shouldn't I share those blessings and fortunate experiences with others?

YDSTIE: Rodweller has saved and invested enough over his working life to fund his early retirement. He's got a beautiful home, plenty of material possessions and now he says he wants something different.

Mr. RODWELLER: There is something more than just, you know, the 9-to-5, 24/7, 365 efforts. People are looking for more than just that. It's more than the material things today. Today, our economy--I think a lot of people are pretty well off, so they're looking to the next stage.

YDSTIE: Bob Rodweller could be a poster boy for Robert Fogel's theories. Fogel, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, has spent a lot of time recently thinking and writing about the implications of America's population growing older and wealthier. He says there's no turning back the tide of early retirement.

Mr. ROBERT FOGEL (Economist): People want more and more leisure time which means the freedom to do what they want to do, not what they have to do, and as we get richer and richer, more and more people will be able to afford that.

YDSTIE: Fogel bolsters his case with some striking data. Back in 1900, an average person had to work 2,000 hours a year to put food on the table. Today, he says it takes only 120 hours.

Mr. FOGEL: As we get rich, the basics of life--food, clothing and shelter--become a very small part of total expenditure. And people have enough money to purchase things that enhance them spiritually and I mean the word spiritual not necessarily in a religious sense but in the sense that it adds to your feeling of well-being.

YDSTIE: Fogel is talking about time with family or volunteering or further education aimed not at training for work but rather directed at understanding ourselves and our environment. He argues the human drive for that self-realization is as important as meeting most basic material needs. Fogel is a wide-ranging social observer and sees the phenomenon of early retirement as part of a fourth great awakening in America akin to the three previous periods of religious revival. So Fogel says early retirees shouldn't be seen as somehow lazy or selfish or not pulling their weight in the economy. In fact, he says polls show that most retirees are quite active, volunteering or being caregivers for the young or very elderly.

Mr. FOGEL: Remember, what does retirement mean? It doesn't mean that you're a couch potato. Leisure is not the same thing as rest. If you're bicycling five miles a day, that's leisure, but it certainly takes a lot of effort.

Unidentified Woman: That's not going to happen.

YDSTIE: It's a hot day and this capital area food bank warehouse is not air conditioned, but about a dozen volunteers are toiling in the heat. The room resembles a Costco store, pallets of food and other necessities stacked to the ceiling. Gloria Ward-Ravenell and several others are filling boxes for delivery to local charities.

Ms. GLORIA WARD-RAVENELL: Well, we're sorting out the items by categories. We have our cereal category. We have canned meats, canned soups.

YDSTIE: Ward-Ravenell retired from her job as a government policy analyst three years ago. At age 57, she felt like she'd worked enough. She still works occasionally as a substitute teacher in addition to volunteering, but she has plenty of time for other activities, too.

Ms. WARD-RAVENELL: And I've been golfing, swimming, traveling, just taking arts and crafts. I've taken a couple of arts and crafts, but anything that I think that I want to do, I just do it. So it's fun. I love it. I never thought I would see the day that I would reach this point to be healthy and, you know, have an income and able to do what I wanted to do.

YDSTIE: But Gene Steuerle, an expert on retirement issues at The Urban Institute, argues Americans are retiring too early. He agrees with Professor Fogel that as a country gets wealthier its citizens purchase non-material things that give them a sense of well-being, including leisure time, but Steuerle says the government is enticing people into early retirement and directing a disproportionate share of the economy's resources to people who aren't old but really middle aged. The availability of Social Security benefits at 62 and Medicare at 65 are fueling the trend he says.

Mr. GENE STEUERLE (The Urban Institute): By far, the dominant factor seems to be the age at which significant amounts of government benefits become available. It's not the only factor but it's very, very powerful.

YDSTIE: Company retirement plans follow the government's lead and provide even more incentives for early retirement. Steuerle is worried about the effects of this on the government's finances and the entire economy. Early retirees are taking resources out of the system, he says, when they could be continuing to produce for the economy and paying taxes. He suggests the country has its priorities out of whack.

Mr. STEUERLE: I have no problem with the notion that we may have a fourth-grade awakening in which we really want to think much more strongly about how we want to spend our time on the job, off the job and volunteer work, with our kids, with our grandkids, a whole variety of choices. My only objection is to try and predetermine today that the way we're going to allocate that increased wealth is all towards these later years and not towards earlier years.

YDSTIE: For things like education or mid-career sabbaticals for workers or parental leave to raise children. Steuerle calls people aged 55 to 75 the largest underused pool of labor in the economy. It doesn't have to be that way, he says, and retiree Bob Rodweller suggests that under the right circumstances he could imagine going back to work.

Mr. RODWELLER: I don't know if I want to work 50, 60 hours again or not in a corporate environment. Now having said that, if it's the right environment in doing what I want to do, you know, work can be fun.

YDSTIE: More creative company policies like part-time work or flex time could provide incentives to keep older workers on the job, says Steuerle. Also he says encouraging later retirement would do a lot to fix Social Security solvency problems and rebalance our society's priorities between the young and old.

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