How do today’s Baby Boomers—many of whom are still healthy and active—view their retirement? The traditional image of these so-called Golden Years involves leisure and freedom: mornings on the golf course, afternoons puttering in the garden, perhaps with some globetrotting and grandchildren thrown in for good measure. (Of course this option is only open to those who through pension plans or savings have the means for it.
In recent years, a second image of retirement, known as “aging in work,” has emerged. This model, borne in response to the economic need to protect Social Security and retain experienced workers’ knowledge, keeps retirement-age employees working in part-time or contract positions. It’s sold as win-win: Companies and the country benefit financially, but employees benefit, too, because it keeps their brains active and their social networks strong. The assumption is that continuing to work, though under better, more flexible conditions, is what makes people happy. The mainstream media back the model. Why Working Longer Is Good For Your Health and Get back to work! Working past “retirement age” is beneficial are just a few recent headlines.
This provides some solace for those who continue to work because they cannot afford to retire. For those who can, though, there may be more satisfying ways to fill what sociologist Phyllis Moen calls “encore adulthood,” the now extended time between employment and old age. Peter Laslett, the British historian, describes “The Third Age” as a period of life characterized by health, vigor, activity, and a positive mindset. Seen through the lens of the Third Age, retirement is an occasion for self-actualization, for doing those things that have the most personal meaning, that keep people challenged and learning. In England, for example, there is the University of the Third Age, copied by many US university communities, where retired people teach and learn and participate in other fulfilling activities.
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Lotte Bailyn is the T. Wilson professor of management, emerita and a professor of organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management.