Reimagining Retirement: Recovering a Vision of Elderhood for the Global Church (Lausanne Global Analysis)
This essay on retirement, targeted toward ministry leaders, was first published in the November 2019 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis. Here it is in its entirety.
Greg Haanen recently turned 65 and retired from a career selling print advertising. For over 14 years, he lived in Minneapolis, while his wife Gayle ran Interlachen Inn, a small restaurant in Alexandria, Minnesota. Having lived apart from her for over a decade, he was ready to say good riddance to the two-hour commute every weekend, to spending nights alone, and to a life of hurry and obligation. They sold their house in Minneapolis and renovated their cabin with a deluxe fireplace, big screen TV, and farmhouse kitchen. He was eagerly awaiting a new season of rest and relaxation.
Yet his honeymoon period was short-lived. Less than three months after retirement, his sister went in for another round of chemotherapy, having battled cancer for years. However, this time, she started to decline fast. In only weeks, he found himself coordinating hospice details, calling family, and moving her out of her apartment. As images of a carefree retirement on a beach slowly receded, he confessed to me, his son, ‘I feel like there’s something more for me; but I’m just not sure what.’
An aging world
My father is part of a larger, global trend. The world—and the Christian church—is aging quickly:
- Roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers retire each day in the US, and, this year, for the first time in American history, there will be more Americans over age 60 than under 18.
- By 2050, the global population of adults over age 65 is expected to double to 1.6 billion.
- The median age of Christians is also on the rise. In the US it is 53 (higher if you are in a mainline denomination); in the UK, 61. Pew reports that Christians, unlike Muslims, are dying faster in Europe than they are being born.
Yet people are also living longer, which makes the current experience of retirement such an awkward fit for people like my father:
- For example, if you were born in 1947, you can expect to live to age 85.
- If you were born in 1967, your life expectancy is 91.
- For those born in 2007, life expectancy is now 103.
In an age of human longevity, people are asking how they are going to spend what could be 20, 30 or even 40 years after official retirement.
Furthermore, governments are asking how they are going to foot the bill. A USA Today staff editorial claims, ‘The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in just ten years, half of all federal spending (except for debt service) will be benefits to senior citizens.’ As global pensions are stretched (especially in Europe), promises of never-ending government benefits for retirees are looking thinner by the day. One TIME magazine article made the case that China’s aging population is a major threat to its future, largely due to its one-child policy and the imbalance of older to younger adults. Many believe an aging population is China’s biggest economic problem.
Globally, paradigms for aging are beginning to show cracks. The notion of sitting on the porch while living out one’s ‘golden years’ is becoming less attractive to healthy, older adults. Yet that ambition is tempered by the fact that most retirees have deep seated (and empirically founded) fears about affording the retirement ‘dream’. Why, then, in an age where people are healthier for much longer than at any time in modern history, does the idea of ‘retirement’ persist?
One reason is that retirement may be the most lucrative idea in the global economy. By one estimate, the US retirement industry alone is worth about USD 27 trillion. While we have rarely connected the global economy and the notion of retirement, the primary reason most individuals invest in the stock market is that they are saving for retirement. Work, often laced with deep money-based fears, becomes a frenzy of activity all directed toward the goal of ‘hitting your number’ so that you can finally retire and ‘be free’.
Have Christians been complicit in this narrative? What can be done to reform our views of work, rest, aging, and retirement in a new moment in global history?
The time has come to change our views about retirement—not only for the sake of the global economy, but for the sake of the millions of men and women, like my father, who are longing to make a meaningful contribution with their lives, but live in a society that has relegated them to the margins.
Christians have started to reimagine retirement, but efforts to date are incomplete. Some Christians have attempted to baptize the idea of the retirement village, without a deeper view of age, rest, vocation, and elderhood. Several of these faith-based living communities exist around the world, yet look very much like secular retirement communities, complete with pools, shopping, happy hour, and golf courses. The only visible difference is more Bible studies.
Other leading voices are calling for Christians never to retire. ‘Lord, spare me the curse of retirement!’, says John Piper, former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Yet the problem with the ‘never retire’ stance is that people are tired—sometimes physically, almost always spiritually—from their careers. When we observe that 87 percent of the world is disengaged from their work and that many have made their work their religion, it becomes understandable that as soon as people are eligible to retire, they generally do. What is needed is a recovery of the balance between work and rest, not a call to plough the thistles and thorns until you die (Gen 3:17-18).
Other proposals from Christians call for various versions of ‘refirement’ or ‘rehirement’—calls to muster new energy in retirement—but often fail to acknowledge that work can, and should, change as we age. The closest the Bible comes to the subject of retirement is Numbers 8:25: ‘And from the age of 50 years they [the Levites] shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more’. Since hauling around the furniture of the tabernacle was hard physical labor, later in life Levites were commanded to ‘minister to their brothers in the tent of the meeting’, a hint that God did not intend for our work to stop completely, but to morph and mature with age.
Finally, many aging churches and denominations organize a ‘seniors’ ministry’ for the ‘elderly’; but can we do better than pulling older adults out of society and recruiting them to be door greeters?
Four practical suggestions
Here are four practical ways to bring biblical hope to the millions of men and women approaching or experiencing retirement:
1. Encourage rhythms of rest, renewal and re-engagement as people enter retirement.
What if Christian leaders across the world encouraged those entering retirement to take an intentional three, six, or twelve months of Sabbath rest, rather than planning for a vacation? Leviticus 25 and the Ten Commandments suggest that God intends not only for a day of rest, but seasons of rest, in order to reorient the heart to trust God, re-center one’s identity in being God’s people, and heal social divides.
Brad Hewitt, the recently retired CEO of Thrivent Financial, says: ‘After being in executive leadership for 25 years, I decided to take a sabbatical before the next season of service. I know I need to slow down before I jump into something else. This sabbatical season may be short, yet at the end I trust God will show me the next place or way to serve.’ Hewitt plans on a six-month sabbatical to pray, be silent, rebuild old relationships, and listen to God’s call for his next assignment.
2. Change the conversation from one of benefits to championing the work of elders in our communities.
Today, conversations around retirement are often embroiled in controversy. As pension funds buckle (like that of the state of Illinois, which has a USD 134 billion hole in its public pension system), older adults are often seen as a problem to be solved. To call somebody ‘elderly’ is an insult. However, the Judaeo-Christian tradition shows us elders were once associated with wisdom, character, and leadership ability, the assumed fruit of experience and age (Lev 19:32).
As older Americans re-engage in both paid and unpaid roles, the way to normalize this biblical notion of ‘love your neighbor’ through our vocations in the latter years is through storytelling. Marc Freedman, the talented CEO of Encore.org, is leading the way in telling these stories of intergenerational friendships, civic service, and the counter-cultural decision to work—even after ‘retirement’.
3. Challenge financial advisors to counsel their clients to consider the different seasons of work over a lifetime.
The cultural caretakers of the idea of retirement are financial advisors, and they have a critical role to play in the future of an aging world. Rather than unthinkingly adopting secular notions of retirement as self-focused pleasure, what if they spoke with clients about seasons of work and rest over a lifetime?
Alongside encouraging generous giving, wise spending, prudent saving, and investing in businesses that align with God’s good purposes for the world, financial advisors could be the key change agents in healing broken notions of vocation and elderhood for an aging world.
4. Encourage intergenerational relationships in the church.
Elders have much to give a coming generation. Rather than practicing age-segregation, many churches are deploying the elders of their congregation for the well-being of a coming generation:
- Providence Mount St Vincent’s Intergenerational Learning Center in Seattle—the subject of the documentary film ‘The Growing Season’—has excelled at spawning intergenerational relationships.
- St John’s-St Margaret’s Church in Singapore has built Project Spring-Winter, inspired in part by Zechariah’s vision, ‘Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem. . . and the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets’, (Zech 8:4-5).
A biblical picture of retirement is not one of heroism nor hedonism, but listening to God’s voice and responding in love as elders, intent on sharing wisdom and blessing with the next generation. It is simply a life of service, pointing beyond our self to the Servant in whose image we are made.
I recently called my father. He told me he was contemplating a new way to spend his retirement. After caring for his dying sister, and having always felt an acute concern for ailing family and friends, he told me that after a career in advertising he was going to attend a training session to become a hospice volunteer at Knute Nelson Hospice in Alexandria, Minnesota.
‘I think I could do that, Jeff’, he told me, contemplating a new vocation. ‘I visited my dying friend Hugh today. It was a powerful reminder of what a beautiful gift each new day is.’
Jeff Haanen is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and the founder and CEO of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. He lives in Colorado, USA, with his wife and four daughters.
 This story was adapted from my book An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life (Chicago: Moody, 2019).
 Editor’s Note: See article by Peter Brierley, entitled, ‘The Aging Church and Its Implications’, in May 2016 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2016-05/ aging-church-implications.
 Glenn Kessler, ‘Do 10,000 Baby Boomers Retire Every Day?’ Wall Street Journal, 24 July 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2014/07/24/do-10000-baby-boomers-retire-every-day/?utm_term=.b8f3e33fe0b1.
 Marc Freedman, ‘Building Bridges Across the Generational Divide’, Wall Street Journal, 1 November 2018, http://webreprints.djreprints.com/4460340932488.html.
 Wan He, Daniel Goodkind, and Paul Kowal, ‘An Aging World: 2015’, United States Census Bureau, March 2016, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p95-16-1.pdf.
 Conrace Hackett and David McClendon, ‘Christians Remain World’s Largest Religious Group, But They Are Declining in Europe’, Pew Research Center, April 5, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/.
 ‘No Matter Your Age, Ignore It At Your Peril’, 100 Year Life website, accessed on 28 December 2017: http://www.100yearlife.com/the-challenge/.
 ‘Social Security Plan Robs from Future to Pay for Past’, USA Today, 13 February 2019: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2019/02/13/democrats-social-security-plan-robs-future-pay-past-editorials-debates/2861184002/, emphasis mine.
 John Mauldin, ‘Europe’s Pension Funds Are Running Low as Boomer Retire’, Forbes, 2 July 2018: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnmauldin/2018/07/02/europes-pension-funds-are-running-low-as-boomers-retire/#329a34af63a0.
 Charlie Campbell, ‘China’s Aging Population is a Major Threat to Its Future’, TIME, 7 February 2019: http://time.com/5523805/china-aging-population-working-age/.
 Nancy Cook, ‘Will Baby Boomers Change the Meaning of Retirement?’, The Atlantic, 18 June 2015: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/06/baby-boomers-retirement/396950/.
 Heather Gillers, Anne Tergesen and Leslie Scism, ‘A Generation of Americans is Entering Old Age the Least Prepared in Decades’, The Wall Street Journal, 22 June 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-generation-of-americans-is-entering-old-age-the-least-prepared-in-decades-1529676033?mod=hp_lead_pos5.
 Nick Thornton, ‘Here’s What the $27 Trillion US Retirement Industry Looks Like’, Think Advisor, 2 January 2018, https://www.thinkadvisor.com/2018/01/02/heres-what-the-27-trillion-us-retirement-industry/?slreturn=20180714204623.
 Editor’s Note: See article by Mats Tunehag, entitled, ‘Creating and Sharing Wealth’, in May 2019 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2019-05/creating-and-sharing-wealth.
 ‘The Engaged Employee’, Gallup, https://www.gallup.com/services/190118/engaged-workplace.aspx.
 Derek Thompson, ‘Workism is Making Americans Miserable’, The Atlantic, 24 February 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/religion-workism-making-americans-miserable/583441/.
 ‘American Project Average Retirement Age’, Gallup, https://news.gallup.com/poll/234302/snapshot-americans-project-average-retirement-age.aspx.
 Jeff Haanen, ‘Saving Retirement’, Christianity Today, 15 February 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/march/cover-story-saving-retirement.html.
 Amanda Albright and Danielle Moran, ‘Illinois Turns Warily to Bonds to Plug $134 Billion Pension Hole’, Bloomberg, February 20, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-20/why-bonds-seen-as-fix-for-illinois-s-134-billion-pension-hole.
 For more information, visit Encore.org.
 Jeff Haanen, ‘A Manifesto for Financial Advisors’, available at: https://www.uncommonretirement.com/financial-advisors.
 ‘The Growing Season’, Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=66&v=6K3H2VqQKcc.
 Project Spring-Winter, http://psw.sjsm.org.sg. Thank you to Eunice Nichols for making me aware of both ‘The Growing Season’ and Project Spring-Winter.