“The days are long, but the years are short.” How should I use my time in retirement?
“Teach us to number our days that we might gain a heart of wisdom.”
“The first thing you have to know about retirement,” says Allan Spies, a 68-year-old retired US West executive, “is that you could live another 40 years.”
Spies recalled a conversation he had with his pastor when he was on the cusp of an early retirement in his 50s. The pastor reminded Spies of all the time he had ahead of him As Spies started to spend his newfound time, he was also jarred by how much his schedule changed. “The other thing you’ve got to know,” he says, “is that suddenly your clock changes.”
Many enter retirement busied and harried from the last few months of work. Then, like jumping off a moving train, the forward momentum comes to an abrupt halt. Weekdays melt into weekends. Long breakfasts can become early lunches. The time that was lacking in the pressure of raising a family and pursuing a career now floods into a quiet home.
After an initial honeymoon period, many early retirees find themselves quickly looking for structure to their days and weeks. “I had to do something,” says Lynn Haanen, about her early retirement. “My days lacked a schedule and a sense of purpose.” Initially relieved to leave the “grind” of teaching third graders, Lynn (my mom) gloried in finally having time to herself. But eventually, she realized her weeks were amorphous and needing structure.
Her life in retirement had traded the stopwatch for the lava lamp, with hours and days slowly blobbing into each other without direction.
For millions of Americans, early retirement can feel like entering Dr. Seuss’s “The Waiting Place.” In his classic Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Seuss warns about “a most useless place” for “people just waiting”:
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
Fear of being caught in a useless cycle of waiting leads many to backfill their days with activities, errands, and “busy work” to avoid the anxiety of purposelessness. Time becomes a burden, something to be used up, like too much corn overflowing a silo after harvest. “Oh, I stay busy,” becomes the anxious response to “How’s retirement?”
New research shows that human longevity is giving people a newfound abundance of years – a change few have planned for.
Time, Time, and More Time
In 1900, the average male could expect to live to age 46, and the average female age, 48. Today, “if you are now 20 you have a 50 per cent chance of living to more than 100; if you are 40 you have an even chance of reaching 95; if you are 60, then a 50 per cent chance of making 90 or more.” Over the last 200 years, life expectancy has increased at a rate of more than two years every decade.
If you retire at age 65, this means that you will have an evens chance of living 25 years beyond retirement. (Studies show that half of Americans retire from ages 61-65, and a full two-thirds of Americans are out of the full-time workforce by age 66.) If you exercise, eat healthy, minimize alcohol consumption and have generally healthy relationships, plan on at least three more decades of life.
In Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s fascinating book The 100 Year-Life, they see drastic changes coming to the world in the next 50 years as it ages – and lives longer than ever before.
- Out of necessity, people will work into their 70s and 80s. Gratton and Scott ask their MBA students at the London Business School, “If you live you 100 years, save around 10 percent of your income and want to retire on 50 percent of your final salary, at what age will you be able to retire?” The answer: in your 80s. Human longevity is changing the equation of financial planners and government pensions.
- There will be new jobs, skills, and a new need for life-long education. If you live to 100 and work into your 70s and 80s, the economy will likely have been completely transformed since your high school, undergraduate, or graduate education. The need to learn new job skills – and to take time to re-invest in your education – will rise in importance.
- Family and home relationships will be transformed. Four generations living at the same time will become a norm, and as Baby Boomer budgets are stressed, intergenerational living will become commonplace.
- People will be younger for longer. With advances in medical technology, many reporters and social observers have said “60 is the new 50.” Though we should carry a healthy skepticism of the “forever young” narrative of our culture (as we’ll explore in the next chapter), we also shouldn’t ignore the fact that people are now living longer, healthier lives than ever before.
One of the most fascinating changes already happening due to human longevity is that the three-stage life is starting to lose its meaning. For generations, it was assumed that you lived in three stages: first education, then employment, and finally retirement. (Many Christian books have adopted this paradigm and called retirement a “third third,” or a “third calling.” Other books have assumed that “aging” and “retirement” are the same topic, which is no longer true. “Old age” is something that – for most – will happen decades later.) But today, the seasons of life dedicated to work, family, education and rest will become more fluid. You might start a new career at 50, become an undergraduate at 60, and a great grandparent at 70.
Christianity can, and should, dump a bucket of cold water on much of a secular culture’s near-worship of the medical technology that has elongated our lives. “From dust we came,” we say on Ash Wednesday, “and to dust we shall return.”
But Christian thinkers, pastors, and leaders also need to lead the way in communicating that retirement is quite simply no longer a life stage “preparing for the end,” but instead a contemporary social construct that allows men and women to prepare for a new season of life.
This is an excerpt from my book An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life.
 Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott, The 100 Year-Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 2.
 Emily Brandon, “The Ideal Retirement Age – and Why You Won’t Retire Then,” US News & World Report, 12 May 2014, Accessed on June 15, 2018: https://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/articles/2014/05/12/the-ideal-retirement-age-and-why-you-wont-retire-then.
 Dan Kadlec, “The Ages When Most People Retire (Hint: Probably Too Young),” Time, 1 December 2016, Accessed on August 12, 2018: http://time.com/money/4584900/ages-people-retire-probably-too-young-early-retirement/.