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No Time for ’Tirement’

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Posted on Jan 2, 2011
Photo illustration from an image by Flickr user Lucy Boynton (CC-BY)

By Ellen Goodman

When I retired from my tenure as a columnist last year, my daughter relayed the news to my grandson, who promptly picked up the phone and, in his most serious 7-year-old voice, said: “Grandma, I hear you’re tired.”

Well, not exactly.

My daughter and I struggled to hide our amusement from a misunderstanding that was not entirely linguistic. After all, retirement was once a matter of ’tirement. It was the formerly new idea that we didn’t have to work until we dropped in place.

But writing, after all, is not heavy lifting. I wasn’t leaving one career to swoon into the hammock. I was rather thinking about renewal—tweaking and trying new things with my mind and fingers.

Now my un-tirement seems to be something of a trend. I am part of the first huge generation to pass the demarcation line of senior citizenship with the statistical promise of good time ahead.

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As 2011 opens, the first of the baby boomers will join us, turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day for the next 19 years. We are the leading edge of what is optimistically called the Longevity Revolution.

In little over a century, Americans have gone from a life expectancy of 47 to one of 78. By 2025 there will be 66 million Americans over 65. The decisions that we make individually and collectively about how to spend this gift of time will reshape the country.

Already there are two diverging narratives about older age that are competing to replace the “golden years” vision of retirement as perpetual R&R.

The first appears in upbeat book titles and messages about the “third age,” the “next step” the “age of active wisdom.” It’s encoded as well in messages from retirement planners that are less about financial freedom from work than about financial freedom to work—at something meaningful. As one Wells Fargo ad says, “There’s one thing Dave has always wanted to do after he’s retired: Keep working.”

The idea of a post-retirement career—once an oxymoron—is now embodied in the phrase “encore career” that’s been popularized by Marc Freedman of Civic Ventures (whose board I just joined). The word “encore” both applauds and promotes people seeking purposeful work after they bow out of one stage of life.

These have become more common profiles. We can read about a “retired” tool-and-die shop owner leading a fight against coal companies or a corporate lawyer creating a nonprofit to help Afghan farmers plant 8 million trees. And last month, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof—who annually recruits a young companion for a grueling reporting trip to the truly hot spots of the world—consciously added a slot for someone over 60.

This narrative of older age redefines senior citizenship as less a list of entitlements than a worksheet of contributions. And it fits a popular image of our generation.

The ’60s generation—the 1960s now in its 60s—has been the culture’s change agents. We pushed for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights. We also, for better and for worse, have a long history of leading examined lives. So, we may be primed to make a difference in our older age.

But there is the second competing narrative to my story of un-tirement. The Longevity Revolution also comes with a warning label. It’s in less upbeat book titles and articles about “The Shock of Gray.” It’s in endless reports about the gray tsunami overwhelming Social Security and Medicare. Elders are the problem not the problem solvers. They are even, in former Sen. Alan Simpson’s charming phrase, the “greedy geezers.”

In this alternate story, the attitude of baby boomers themselves as they hit 65 is not renewal. It can be summed up by the word used to describe this cohort in a recent Pew study: “glum.” In this economic plot, the Wells Fargo ad about the joy of working after work meets a countermessage from Charles Schwab: “My wild retirement dream? Actually retiring.”

A cautionary tale shows elders hanging on, against the economic wind. After all, the much touted fix for Social Security suggests raising the age of full benefits to 69. But unemployment and age discrimination have already made a tough climate for those who need to work.

Recently, Slate magazine published its catalog of the nation’s silver lions, “80 Over 80,” from financial wiz Warren Buffett to octo-hottie Clint Eastwood. But the culture is also harboring the image—self-image?—of elders clogging the pipeline to tenure or the corner office.

These diverging narratives are not the only choices facing individuals as we age. But these two may frame the cultural expectations. In one version older Americans are a crucial, valued population re-upping to use our experience and wisdom to again change society. In another, we are burdens whose knowledge and usefulness are past the sell-by date.

Which portrait ultimately hangs over us is not just a personal matter. If I may transfer a phrase from one social movement to another, the personal is political. If our generation were the cultural change agents, we were never as radical as advertised. We were on both sides of the culture wars.

Add to that old divide, the cultural assumption that people grow more conservative as they age. Indeed the one age group that didn’t vote for the “hope and change” message of 2008 was those over 65. The elders who already had universal health care—Medicare—were the least eager to assure it for others. And in the recent election they formed a disproportionate number of tea party voters.

How will we shape the Longevity Revolution? I have the sense that if we don’t use this gift of time to open up new possibilities, we may go into a long anxious crouch. If we are not the change agents of aging, we’ll be the change resisters. Indeed, if we don’t feel needed and engaged as problem solvers, we may well be part of a growing me-first senior politics. 

This is a moment to redefine aging, how we see ourselves and our country. No, it’s not a time to be tired.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman1(at)me.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group


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By Frances FrainAguirre, January 9, 2011 at 11:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yes, we have sold out to corporations. Now is the time to make changes. How many of us are willing to make due with what we have. Howmany are willing tofight for a return of many of the jobs that have been outsourced? How many of us are willing to buy made in the US of A?
How many are willing to insist that everyone in this country is entitled to health care including mental health care which not too many talk about. When we have lunatics who think they can aim a gun at the head of a member of the opposition party and not expect some sick person to take them up on the action! What are we doing in this country? Mental
Health care services have been gutted!  We care more about fighting a war than we do about the sick and disenfranchized in our own country! The Tucson tragedy did not have to happen. Who tried to get help for that young man? Were they able to get the help or did they even try? If we took care of some of the little infractions by helping people to help themselves, we could prevent many problems. But then we are a reactionary people. We wait for the crises before we act. And our action will be to fund security for our elected oficials and no one will even talk about what we have done to Mental Health Services!

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By GW=MCHammered, January 6, 2011 at 11:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Amen jhjewett
http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/no_time_for_tirement_20110102/#375617

Reads like a modern obit:

Henry Ford
1863-1947 (age 83)

Clara Barton
1821-1912 (age 90)

Abigail Smith Adams
1744-1818 (age 74)

Benjamin Franklin
1706-1790 (aged 84)

Newton, Sir Isaac
1642-1727 (84)

René Descartes
died 1650 (aged 53)

Rembrant
1606-1669 (aged 63)

Ramesses II
c. 1300s BC-1213 BC (age approx 87)

Plato
c. 348–347 BC (age approx 80)

Ptolemy I
died in 283 BC (age 84)

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By Frances FrainAguirre, January 3, 2011 at 11:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I am a senior citizen and older than the baby boomers and I voted for change! I live with and for change everyday. I have been a change agent all my life and I don’t intend to stop now. I have never supported big corporations! I don’t plan to start now. I grew up in a steel mill neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. I had a Victory garden with my father during WWII! I now have a victory garden again so I can eat more healthy food and not support those who need to use dangerous chemicals on and in our processed food! I want to see baby boomers start to do for themselves what is needed for the common good! When I can only think of myself to the detriment of everyone else, I am not thinking of the common good. I have what I need to live on and my income is about $25,000 per year! I have never owned a new car nor do I plan to in the future! I believe that we need to develop renewable energy. I took savings to put solar on our home. If I could disconnect from coal and oil completely I would. I haven’t gotten that far yet. I do not plan to work for further income. I have volunteered in many ways both before and after my retirement and will continue to do so!

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By weezy54, January 3, 2011 at 9:49 pm Link to this comment

The most ignored reality of the economic fiasco in this country is the creation of a new ‘underclass’. Job loss & property loss, ultimately leads to poor credit ratings. No matter that you may have had 40 yrs of responsible financial habits—citizens are faced with higher costs of doing business—whether it is utilities, phones, financing, inability to compete fairly for jobs/positions requiring credit checks, get security clearances or executive level jobs, decent housing, or credit cards.

Let’s guess how much corporate America benefits financially from these punitive practices. While executives receive bonuses for failure & unethical behavior, those of us adversely impacted by their practices pay until we go to the grave. Welcome to the land of the ‘free’.

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By jhjewett, January 3, 2011 at 8:56 pm Link to this comment

if you remove infant mortality and deaths due to complications with childbirth you
will find that Americans arent living that much longer. it distorts reality when we
claim that people are living so much longer.

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By prosefights, January 3, 2011 at 8:18 pm Link to this comment

Hello Ms Goodman,

The legislative session that began today as the House convened will take aim at a budget deficit of at least $13 billion, including a backlog of more than $6 billion in unpaid bills and almost $4 billion in missed payments to underfunded state pensions.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-01-03/illinois-must-plug-13-billion-deficit-in-days-that-took-years-to-produce.html


Retiree checks may stop coming.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, January 3, 2011 at 1:11 pm Link to this comment

A simple mitigation of many problems brought about by increased longevity and the aging of the workforce would be to bust the 9-5x5, 40-hour week paradigm.  I don’t mean just for old folks; I mean for everyone.

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By prosefights, January 3, 2011 at 11:17 am Link to this comment

Super senior [septuagenerian] techie is trying to get back into the consulting business by offering a web course on his 1990 book Embedded Controller Forth for the 8051 family.

http://www.prosefights.org/cs/c/c.htm

Get proactive!

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Leefeller's avatar

By Leefeller, January 3, 2011 at 11:05 am Link to this comment

“Add to that old divide, the cultural assumption that people grow more conservative as they age. Indeed the one age group that didn’t vote for the “hope and change” message of 2008 was those over 65. The elders who already had universal health care—Medicare—were the least eager to assure it for others. And in the recent election they formed a disproportionate number of tea party voters.”

As I grow older I become more aware of things I never even thought about when younger. So when the time comes I will be so damn aware of everything, I will be like the guy dressed in a Tuxedo with no place to go!

Universal anything sounds so socialistic, especially to those indoctrinated for life, constantly living in fear of Pinkos and Reds coming to get them. I remember as a little kid diving under my school desk, cringing in Republican fear of the illegal Italian potential air raid.

Teabaggers being over 65 makes sense to me now, I remember the old lady asking with Christan accusatory concern, if McCain believed Obama was a Muslim.

Though it is nice to see Ellen Goodman writing again, I find the article seems to be coming from a cosmopolitan point of view and even a little unstable like my posts. 

Tao Walker, it seems to me the orthodox solipsist would have little reason for the implantation of survival and how would anyone else know anyway,.... since everyone else really does not exist?

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By Dennis, January 3, 2011 at 10:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Our life expectancy went DOWN last year. Most of the previous 100 yr surge was due to better health care for and survival of infants.
IMO we need to lower the retirement age for the benefit of newer/younger workers. While we are at it, we should also gradually lower the age for Medicare. Eventually getting to Medicare for all.
IMO none of this will happen. The elite are to comfy and the status quo will not change.

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By TAO Walker, January 2, 2011 at 10:29 pm Link to this comment

The underlying assumption here, as with so much of the domesticated peoples’ habits of perception, is that all the rest of the Living Arrangement is nothing more than the essentially static backdrop against which they get to play-out their “individual” dramas.  The grip this illusion has on so many of them is so far relatively unshaken, even by the always-present but recently growing by-leaps-and-bounds body of real-time everyday evidence that solipsism is simply not a good “survival strategy.”

As vital, though seriously dysfunctional components in Her immune system, even homo domesticus will sink-or-swim all together as She resists or succumbs-to to the ravages of the “civilization” disease….of which they are presently the chief ‘carriers.’

HokaHey!

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By flickervertigo, January 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

time for the media to crank up a generational war that will vilify boomers and rationalize putting an end to social security and medicare, and maybe even the boomers themselves.

there’s a great danger—if boomers are not disposed of—they will get around to figuing out they have to make a choice… a choice between wars to secure israel, or social security.

but that’s probably just paranoia… i’m sure boomers will be glad to give up their social security and medicare in defense of israel.

if jews can abandon their morals to defend israel, surely boombers can abandon social security and medicare.

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By thectw, January 2, 2011 at 9:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

my guess is that many in thier 60’s who are currently retiring will rest on their reputation as agents of “change” (when, in fact, many simply sold out and spent most of their careers furthering the interests of the corporate state), and grow more and more comfy and conservative. for those of us in our 30’s and 40’s, well, the media will continue to hammer home the message contained in the wells fargo ad mentioned above - basically this: retirement is for lazy people…damn near “un-american.” get out there and contribute…oh yeah, and please don’t forget to vote!

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By gerard, January 2, 2011 at 8:38 pm Link to this comment

It’s not so much a matter of age.  It’s a matter of urge.  Those with an urge to continue participating in public affairs and private connections—those who realize where they are needed, what their strong abilities and commitments are, and, in practical terms, what they can do, will do it. 
  Those who settle for the “I’ve done my share; it’s time to rest and let others take over” will do just that. Sad to say, those who feel useless will be useless, and since the younger majority has strong tendencies to regard their elders as defunct, we activists will have to fight—literally, psychologically speaking—against seeing ourselves as our children and grandchildren see us.
  Sad to say, this fight may not be what the younger ones wish to deal with, especially in urban cultures and in times when the “job market” is so skimpy that it needs to get rid of potential retirees and replace them with young energies that can be milked for a cheap wage.  It also may not be something the anti-welfare freaks want to deal with intelligently.
  So, looks like to me that we “elders” are going to have several fights on our hands till the day we kick off for Parody-ice, otherwise known as Beyond, or Above, or the subterranean caverns of Mr. Styx and Company.

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By surfnow, January 2, 2011 at 8:25 pm Link to this comment

The entire ” System” as some of these same boomers called it back in ‘65, just wish most of the elderly would just get sick, lose their medical benefits and social security and go ahead and die. And the System, more than likely, will get Its wish.

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