The Longevity Bonus
When Wayne Smith decided to join a hiking group after he retired from teaching at age 55, he couldn’t have imagined it would lead to a 31-day, 500-mile hike of iconic El Camino in Spain close to 20 years later.
“One of the best things I ever did when I retired was join the hiking club,” says Smith. It wasn’t just the benefits of getting to know a different side of the city that he and his wife Mary have lived in for years, or the health benefits that are evident in the now-74-year-old’s tall, sturdy frame. It was also the fact that, as Smith puts it, “I’ve gotten to know people from all walks of life, whom I would never have known. I really enjoy their friendship.”
In other words, at the age of 65, there’s still a lot of living left to do.
More than just hiking, though, Smith’s days include woodcarving and volunteering at a soup kitchen. And more recently, he’s planning his second hike abroad, this time along the French arm of El Camino. Though Smith admits that he never put much thought into how he was going to spend his post-retirement years, to hear the experts tell it, he’s doing everything right.
An Extra 30 Years
Smith is just ahead of a generation that is redefining what it means to age. By 2029, when all of the Baby Boomers will be 65 years and over, more than 20 percent of the total U.S. population will be over the age of 65.1 But the age at which many believe it’s time to retire and prepare to wind down means something different to these Boomers, who find themselves the recipients of what’s been called the “longevity bonus”—an average 30 years additional life expectancy, courtesy of 20th-century advances in nutrition, health, and hygiene. In other words, at the age of 65, there’s still a lot of living left to do.
“People aren’t just living longer but healthier lives,” says Nancy Collamer, author of “Second-Act Careers,” who has worked with those Boomers seeking a way to stay productive. “When you consider 30 years, that’s a lot of hours to fill and a lot of years to fund.”
“It can be sort of a puzzle of what do I do with this extra time,” says Dorian Mintzer, a licensed psychologist and retirement transition coach in Boston, MA. She encourages her clients to reframe the idea of old age. Some, she says, imagine an additional 30 years of being old, but it’s more like providing an extended middle age. “Retirement is no longer a destination, it’s a transition,” she says.
It’s uncharted territory for a group that hasn’t had a lot of role models to look to, given that their parents, born in the first half of the century, didn’t have the same extended life expectancy.
Still Working, Still Growing
In fact, retirement hardly describes it anymore, given that an increasing number of those aged 65 and older are still working—roughly 20% of them, in fact, according to a Pew Research Center study conducted in May 2016.2 For some, work is a necessity. Those who had faithfully invested might have found their savings wiped out by the economic collapse in 2008. But even for those with a reliable pension or healthy savings, work is a chance to continue their career in a different capacity, try a new career, or pursue a passion project.
“[Retiring] can be a real jolt and not just to your pocketbook, but to your psyche and your sense of self,” says Collamer. “You need to feel like your life has some sort of meaning or purpose. And that can take a while to replace.”
It’s uncharted territory for a group that hasn’t had a lot of role models to look to, given that their parents, born in the first half of the century, didn’t have the same extended life expectancy. “They’re on the frontier,” says William Sadler, PhD, the 85-year-old author of “The Third Age” and “Changing Course.” The old theory of aging, says Dr. Sadler, was that “as you get older, you start pulling back and shutting down and that’s normal. But that’s not normal. It’s a waste of life.” It’s a theoretical model that has been largely discredited, he says, as it should be. But some of those negative stereotypes about aging have stuck around and should be challenged, he says. “We need a different vocabulary to talk about what’s next.”
That vocabulary, of course, must fit into a larger conversation that includes everything from how workplaces can help their older employees transition (either out of the job or into more flexible work options) to more introspective conversations with friends and family around not what we want to do, says Dr. Sadler, but who we want to be.
Nancy Collamer points to inspiring stories of reinvention that she uncovered while researching her book: from retirees who work in U.S. national parks as part of a countrywide program, to the tech executive who combined his work expertise and a love of magic into a paid gig helping magicians market their services.
Wayne Smith is gearing up for his next big hike. He’s not sure what’s on the horizon after that trip, but whatever it is, he plans to be ready for it.
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1 U.S. Census Bureau; The Baby Boom Cohort in the United States: 2012 to 2060. Sandra L. Colby and Jennifer M. Ortman. May 2014.
2 Source: Pew Research Center. More older Americans are working, and working more than they used to. Drew Desilver. June 20,2016.