What is “successful retirement”?

What is “successful retirement”?  A hundred years ago only a few privileged people were in the position to ask themselves that question.  Think about life back then at age 65, commonly thought of now as the “traditional” age of retirement.  It’s safe to say that in 1918 most people in the world born 65 years before, in 1853, had long been dead.  If you were fortunate still to be alive in 1918, you… perhaps weren’t actually that fortunate.  If you were a man you probably had worked, beginning as a teenager, on a farm, down a mine, or in a factory.  If you were a woman you had worked at home, or in someone else’s home, without labor-saving devices, cooking, cleaning and caring for children, some of whom had likely not survived infancy.  By 65 you were worn out, impoverished, and dependent on your children to care for you in your remaining years.

The Invention of Retirement

Fast forward to 2018.  It’s been an amazing hundred years, and one of the most significant cultural innovations of the period was the “invention” of retirement.  The discovery of antibiotics and other medical advances, increased awareness of the importance of diet and exercise, and the transformation of work from physical to largely mental toil means that millions of people reach 65 with huge reserves of health and energy and the expectation of fifteen, twenty or more years to fill between full-time employment and the onset of physical and cognitive decline.  Retirement, once a privilege, has become an expectation.

Del Webb, Retirement Pioneer

In America, retirement as a “lifestyle” experienced by millions of people emerged only sixty or so years ago, with pioneering innovations like Del Webb retirement communities in Florida and Arizona in the 1950s, and the first lifelong learning institutes in the 1960s—this was “mass” retirement’s first wave.  Retirement’s second generation has made its own mark with innovations like the “aging in place” movement, pioneered in locations like Beacon Hill Village in Boston and Community Without Walls in Princeton, N.J.  Now a third generation, 78 million Baby Boomers like me, are in the early years of or nearing retirement, and how our we’ll redefine retirement is still to be seen.  The Retirement Whisperer will report and perhaps play a part in shaping this unfolding story, and communicate to you in ways that might help you enrich your own life.

Early Days for Baby Boomer Retirement

The Baby Boomer retirement is only in its opening chapters, but themes are beginning to emerge that point to a definition of “successful retirement.”  We should start by acknowledging that retirement isn’t a static phase, the same at its beginning as it is at its end.  No phase is.  And let’s also acknowledge that retirement is, if not the last, then certainly the next-to-last phase of life.  The Retirement Whisperer will focus primarily on positive stories, but will never ignore the darker side of aging—death is real, folks, and inevitable.

So is “successful retirement” the same as “healthy aging”?  I think it is, especially if you listen to how older people themselves define it.  Psychologists, gerontologists, and policy makers have put a lot of energy into drafting definitions—the World Health Organization, for example, defines healthy aging as the “process of development and maintenance of functional capacity that allows well-being at an advanced age.”  That, to my mind, is a little too mechanistic and medical, so I was excited to read an article from a Brazilian academic journal—Revista Brasileira de Geriatria e Gerontologia—titled “Healthy aging from the perspective of the elderly:  an integrative review” (Nov./Dec. 2017).  It turns out that older people define healthy aging far more broadly than the World Health Organization does and that shouldn’t surprise anyone.  After all, they’re living it.

Health Aging from the Perspective of the Elderly  

The authors conducted their review by screening academic literature for studies asking older people how they defined healthy aging, and rigorously vetting the results to weed out articles with low research standards.  At the end of the process every continent was represented and a consistent definition—with a few interesting outliers—emerged.  They distilled “healthy aging” into four dimensions:

The Biological Dimension.  Health aging means practicing “protective” behavior like exercising, eating healthy food, refraining from smoking and limiting alcohol, and getting regular physical examinations.

The Psychological Dimension.  Older people told researchers that “being positive and optimistic is an essential part of healthy aging, with optimism understood as the expectation that something positive will happen.”  Optimism also comes from a social support network and daily social activities.  The study also found that “there is no well-defined concept for happiness as it varies according to the cultural and social context of each country.”  A South Korean study “revealed an association between family and the perception of happiness.”  In short, optimism, happiness, and social contact all seem closely linked.

The Spiritual Dimension.  Many of the reviewed articles explored elderly perspectives on faith and spirituality, finding that faith provides support in the face of illness or personal difficulties.  Other perspectives associate spirituality with healthy behavior:  an article about the elderly in Thailand found a more holistic definition of spirituality; the food you eat and how you take care of your body are, for example, spiritual practices.  Adherence to religious rules and practices—prohibitions against drugs and alcohol or extra-marital sex, for example—are cited by some as part of healthy aging.  Finally, “faith can promote virtues such as humility, altruism, compassion, wisdom and gratitude.”

The Social Dimension.    Elderly people around the world said that being surrounded by friend and family, having a partner, and staying involved in “collective leisure activities” were hallmarks of healthy aging.  And it’s not a one-way street:  “In addition to being supported, the elderly can also provide support. For many, supporting others is more important than receiving support, contributing to a strengthening of their self-esteem and social involvement. This can be seen by their social contributions and desire to do good through voluntary work.”  Elderly people understand the value of socializing, but also think autonomy and independence are important.  This belief wasn’t universally held, however; Thai elders value interdependence more than independence.

The Retirement Whisperer’s Take on “Successful Retirement”

As you might have noticed, there’s a lot of overlap across these “dimensions.”  Is “doing good through voluntary work,” for example, in the “social,” the “spiritual,” or the “psychological” dimension?  All three, I think.

There’s a great deal of wisdom in what the elderly around the world have told researchers, and it’s a great place to start in defining “successful retirement.”  I’ve had long conversations with many Baby Boomers making the retirement transition and I’ve studied the pattern of innovation in retirement over the last sixty years; I would add a couple of things, slightly rearrange others, and posit these five areas as today’s keys to successful retirement, where innovation is likely to occur, and where The Retirement Whisperer will look for stories and offer advice:

Fitness, Diet and Health.  A healthy body is the key to a healthy brain and absolutely the foundation for successful retirement.  Aches, pains, and illness are almost inevitable, but behavior makes an enormous difference, and the generation that made running mainstream and organic a household word has still more to offer the world.

Socializing.  Loneliness kills.  Socializing is the cure.  Baby Boomers are already finding new ways to socialize in retirement and they’re just beginning.   

Learning.  Baby Boomers are the most educated generation in American history.  In retirement they’ll look for ways to learn—both in formal classroom-like settings and through experiences—what they never got a chance to learn in college (and make deposits to “cognitive reserve” as they do so).

Creativity.  The psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that our later life stage is a conflict between generativity—leaving a legacy for future generations—and despair.  Baby Boomers will find new creative ways to leave their legacy.

Spirit and Purpose.  For a generation that’s been on a quest for meaning and purpose for seven decades, a calendar full of “activities” won’t be enough.  Through volunteerism, more direct forms of spiritual practice, and new innovations yet unimagined, Baby Boomers in retirement will innovate in this area, too.

These are what I think are the five pillars of “successful retirement.”  Now it’s your turn.  Have I missed something?  What innovations are you seeing in these five areas?  Leave a comment below.   I’ll look into it and report back to The Retirement Whisperer community.

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