The prevailing assumption is that as we age, we like living where people are all like us and activities are ready-made. Active retirement communities are built on those two assumed needs. The whole thing is a tragic loss of vitality for those who buy in. Diversity is essential to good mental health. And when you fill your days with “something to do” that has no impact beyond your own entertainment, life gets confusingly empty after a while.
Playing all day every day is not all that satisfying for competent adults. And that is why this leisure-centered mentality we have about retirement is all wrong.
Writer Calvin Trillin easily noticed the “frantic busyness” of Sun City, Arizona residents when he visited in the early 1960’s. He observed that there was little to delineate the value of their assorted activities when the Golden Years model was still new. Yes, there were a lot of things to do, but few were meaningful. Over fifty years later, we’re still trying to wring blood out of the same turnip.
Even volunteer programs that could add essential meaning are too often focused on “keeping the old folks busy” rather than maximizing the use of their experience and skills for that cause. “Doing something” for the sake of being active is a far cry from doing something that makes a real contribution. But as a culture, we’re still stuck on the idea that “old people can’t do much and need to be entertained.”
Recent research clearly establishes the importance of meaning and purpose for both mental and physical health. Human beings do not thrive doing nothing. In particular, we don’t thrive doing “whatever I want” all day every day when we are old enough to retire. We are capable of much, much more and need to be finding that.
Ken Dychtwald, one of the foremost experts on aging and retirement, established the following pattern in how “the Golden Years” mindset plays out:
- 15 to 6 years before retirement – Imagination: you start to see retirement as part of your future and visualize it. You see the pluses—the adventure and empowerment that’s possible because you don’t have to show up for work every day.
- 5 years before retirement – Anticipation: you begin to realize it is actually going to happen on a specific date and start the countdown to that. Your emotions become a combination of euphoria over your impending freedom and worries about whether you really do have enough money to stop working.
- Retirement day to plus 1 year – Liberation: the freedom you’ve just been blessed with makes you euphoric. “Doing nothing” or at least doing whatever you want is fun.
- 2 to 15 years after retirement – Reorientation: Feelings of emptiness and boredom surface as you tire of the lack of meaning in your life. Self-worth begins to suffer, sometimes resulting in emotional meltdown. You search for ways to give your life value.
- 15+ years after retirement – Reconciliation: You find enough of what you need to settle into an acceptable groove as a retirement lifestyle. Your life is less exhilaring than the Golden Years model intimated, but it’s good enough.
This is Dychtwald’s summary of how it works based on research with thousands of people. Your personal route through that desert may not be that drawn-out. When my aunt, who raised seven kids and held a challenging job as a civil service employee the whole time, retired, she spent the first month in her pajamas because she was too depressed to do anything else. She was to disenchantment without any sense of liberation at all. Lee Iacocca said he lasted about three weeks before he gave up and went back to work.
The Golden Years approach was better than what preceded it. Before this model, those who retired had neither ways to contribute or ways to play that were intended specifically for them. But it’s simply not enough given how much has changed since The Golden Years idea made the scene 70 years ago. We are healthier and living longer. The economy has moved from manufacturing to information in terms of the heavy lifting. And there are way more of us.
It’s no longer a case of moving workers who can easily be replaced out of the picture and giving them the chance to putter for a few years. As a culture, we need to be using every ounce of talent we have the best way we can for benefit of both society and every individual—no matter how old they are. There are too many problems that need solving to squander this talent pool. And there are too many retirees who need more than fun to stay healthy.
Having a sense of purpose is critical. More and more research is coming out to support that. But to get a bead on your sense of purpose, you have to know yourself on a very intimate level. Your sense of purpose has to mesh with what you think is important if you want it to sustain you. Most of us haven’t had the chance to take a serious, straight-on look at what we value since we joined the work force. You really want to do that. Now.