What Is Retirement, Anyway? Planning for retirement isn't just about mutual funds, 401(k)s and reverse mortgages anymore. With the traditional notions of retirement changing, figuring out how to spend our later years requires a different approach.
NPR logo

What Is Retirement, Anyway?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/140915734/140944807" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Is Retirement, Anyway?

What Is Retirement, Anyway?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/140915734/140944807" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


All this week we've been taking a look at life in retirement - what people expect and what people experience. With all the changes taking place, economic and otherwise, it's worth asking if the traditional concept of retirement is still valid. NPR's Ted Robbins has the final installment of our series.


TED ROBBINS: Retirement.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Our pride and joy is the golf course.

ROBBINS: That was the dream when developer Del Webb had this promotional film shot in the early 1960s.


MAN: First, we let the girls in the beauty shop. Bill and I continued on.

ROBBINS: Del Webb pioneered the idea of the golden years. It was really a way for the builder to market his Arizona retirement community.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROMOTIONAL FILM You know, there's one big discovery that we all)

ROBBINS: It's become a stereotype, but that definition of retirement is actually pretty recent. It's been around less than a lifetime.

MARK FRIEDMAN: A hundred years ago, people worked till they dropped.

ROBBINS: Mark Friedman makes his living focusing on older people. He says the marketed life of leisure and recreation really made a virtue out of necessity. In the 1940s, no one knew what to do after they got their gold watch. Then in the 1950s and '60s, the first baby boomers were just getting ready for careers.

FRIEDMAN: We were pushing older people out of the workforce to create more room for younger workers. And in a very short period of time, we turned that limbo state into a cornerstone of the American dream.

ROBBINS: Friedman heads an organization called Civic Ventures. He wrote a book called "The Big Shift: Navigating Changes Beyond Midlife." Retirement no longer lasts a decade or so. Now it can last a quarter-century, and soon it'll include a quarter of the population.

FRIEDMAN: It's no longer sustainable. It's not sustainable for individuals who can't afford it and for a society that can't afford, I believe, to throw away the most experienced segment of the population long before their past due date.

ROBBINS: But if your due date is a ways off, how do you handle it? Sixty-one-year-old Jim Barrera quit his job in Pennsylvania and moved with his wife to the Phoenix area to be near family. He still needs to support his family and he thought he'd have no trouble finding a new job.

JIM BARRERA: I went about it the wrong way. I didn't know where to look. I'm looking in the wrong things. I'm all over the map.

ROBBINS: Lois Bartholomew retired recently from her job as a community college administrator. Her career was helping young people get started, and over the years she realized the typical retirement her generation thought was going to be there isn't anymore.

LOIS BARTHOLOMEW: We went to work and we worked hard and we worked there long and in the end, hopefully, we have enough resources to stop working. I don't think that's how the world is going to be made from this point on.

ROBBINS: Jim and Lois are in a four-week workshop in Mesa, Arizona called Exploring Your Future - seven men and women aged 57 to 70. But it's not about mutual funds, 401(k)s or reverse mortgages. This workshop is about who you want to be for the rest of your life.

ANDREA WHITE: First of all, pick out your five highest values.

ROBBINS: Facilitator Andrea White leads the group in, well, it's something like a therapy exercise. People write down what matters to them, then they share it with another person.

BARRERA: Compassion, learning, discovery and knowledge, economic security.

WHITE: If you design a future where what you're doing is in alignment with your values, you're going to be more successful. I, when I worked for the Armor Meats Company, I worked - one of my colleagues was a vegetarian, and he struggled every day with selling hamburgers and bacon and hot dogs because he doesn't eat them and he didn't think that other people should.

ROBBINS: Imagine what you want to do with what you believe in, and what you do well is a pretty good lesson for any stage of life.

BARTHOLOMEW: My computer, planning and organizing, problem solving, budgets, and graphic design.

ROBBINS: And even with planning, things change with circumstances.

WHITE: For many people these days, it is financial. And they say, well, you know, I want to give back to the community but I still need to make X number of dollars a year.

ROBBINS: By the end of the workshop, these people will have a plan for their future and there'll be support for each other to get the plan going. Joanne Bohm says this is the first time she's ever been able to sit down and think about what she wants.

JOANNE BOHM: Before it was just, OK, now, you know, yeah, I would like to do that or maybe that would be fun. But you just - you get caught up in life, until now, and then now is the time where you go, whoa, where do I want to go? Wherever I'm going, I want it to be something that's meaningful to me.

ROBBINS: Jim Barrera, the guy who moved to Arizona from Pennsylvania, says his goal is still squishy. But at least now he knows his motivation.

BARRERA: I'm coming here and saying I've got all these gifts, I've got these talents, I've got these interests, and what's holding me back? So many times in my life, fear has held me back. And I understand better where I am now than I did before I came here.

ROBBINS: This kind of workshop or seminar is starting to pop up all over the country. When you think about it, it's really not about retirement at all. This process would work just as well for someone in their 20s leaving college. Defining who you are is a periodic yet lifelong process. In fact, Lois Bartholomew thinks her generation could learn something from younger people.

BARTHOLOMEW: If you look at our kids, they don't define going to work for somebody for 30 years. They think that's silly. And so I think we have to sort of catch up with that - that life will have all different parts and it has to be better balanced than what I think my generation did.

ROBBINS: So just what do we call this period of transition and reinvention if not retirement? Author and Civic Ventures founder Mark Friedman.

FRIEDMAN: I asked my mother-in-law what we should call this period and she said, oh yeah, I already figured that out. She said I'm on my next-to-last dog.

ROBBINS: The labels third age or third act or middle lessons are starting to be used. Friedman has his own name for it.

FRIEDMAN: We've got midlife. I'd like to see this period called encore adulthood.

ROBBINS: Like Bruce Springsteen or another aging rocker giving his all in concert, the encore ought to be at least as good as the rest of the show. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.