“What am I going to do with my retirement?”
The anxious question came from Anne Bell, a recently retired researcher at the University of Northern Colorado. As a staff volunteer for the 5280 Fellowship, a young leaders program in Denver, Anne decided to give her first year of retirement to young professionals struggling with questions about calling. Bright and soft-spoken, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and carrying her teacher’s bag, today Anne came to the office with her own questions about calling.
As our staff team discussed our weekly reading, Anne looked out on the snow-capped mountains from our seventh-story office. “What do you think, Anne?” I asked. She paused. Her voice began to quiver. “I just don’t know what I’m called to,” she confessed. “I need to know what’s next.”
The world is undergoing a massive demographic shift. Nearly 80 million Baby Boomers will retire in the next 20 years, at a rateof nearly 10,000 per day. By 2035, Americans of retirement age will exceed the number of people under age 18 for the first time in U.S. history. Globally, the number of people age 60 and over is projected to double to more than two billion by 2050.
But today a growing number of Baby Boomers like Anne Bell – both Christians and their neighbors – are discontent with current cultural assumptions about retirement, and are asking better questions about work, calling, and purpose later in life.
Today, the dominant paradigm of retirement is about vacation – how to afford it, and then how to make the most of it. A Google search for the word “retirement” shows articles, ads, and tips on how to save enough money for it, and a host of books on how to enjoy it. Retirement gifts follow suit: a coffee mug that reads “Goodbye Tension, Hello Pension.” A kitchen wall-hanging with the acronym R.E.T.I.R.E says Relax, Entertain, Travel, Indulge, Read, Enjoy. The wine glass that reads, “I can wine all I want. I’m retired.”
Yet cracks are showing in the hull of the never-ending vacation view of retirement. More Boomers are questioning whether living in a Corona commercial can satisfy the heart’s longing for purpose over a lifetime – even if they could afford it. Mitch Anthony, author of The New Retirementality writes, “Retirement is an illusion because those who can afford the illusion are disillusioned by it, and those who cannot afford the illusion are haunted by it.
Some church leaders have responded by saying retirement isn’t “biblical,” (which is of course true, since retirement is a modern construct. The closest the Bible comes is Number 8:25.) “Lord, spare me the curse of retirement!” says John Piper, the former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis and best-selling author. The late Ralph Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, said, “Most men don’t die of old age, they die of retirement…Where in the Bible do they see [retirement]? Did Moses retire? Did Paul retire? Peter? John? Do military officers retire in the middle of a war?”
Yet the problem here is that most people can’t imagine working 30, 40, or even 50 years without more than two weeks off. Work is often painful. Mind-numbing tasks, humiliating bosses, a lack of autonomy, crammed schedules, co-worker conflict, new technology, oppressive hours. The author of Ecclesiastes writes: “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind,” (2:17). Work can be creative service. It can also be toilsome pain.
Might the gospel lead the world’s aging population to a new way forward, which both questions the “dream vacation” view of retirement and a life of unbroken work?
Becoming elders, not elderly
A new generation of older Americans are seeing retirement as a chance to take a season of sabbatical rest in order to listen to God’s voice, rethink work, and commit to serving their families, neighbors, co-workers and communities as elders.
Bradford Hewitt retired in November 2018 from his role leading Thrivent Financial, a Fortune 500 not-for-profit financial services organization with a faith-based mission. “After being in an executive leadership role for 25 years, I’m planning for the next stage of service,” says Hewitt. “Before I start, I decided to do a sabbatical. The pace of being in leadership is intense. My idea of a sabbatical is just the opposite. I know I need to slow down and listen to God’s voice before I jump into something else.”
More Christians like Hewitt are spending early retirement in an intentional 3, 6, or 12 months of worship, feasting, silence, service, reflection, and learning in order recalibrate their hearts to hear the voice of the Caller.
Rather than buy into a culture that sees old age as a problem to be solved (think of “anti-aging cream”), a new generation of older Americans is also embracing aging as a “crown of dignity,” wrinkles and all (Proverbs 16:31).
Far from being an insult, the term “elder”was once associated with wisdom, character, and leadership ability, the assumed fruit of experience and age. “Stand up in the presence of the aged,” says Leviticus (19:32). The term elder (zaqen) is used in the Old Testament as an indication of one’s nobility. The elder taught wisdom at the city gate, the ancient place for public dialogue (Job 32:6–10).
Gordon Smith, president of Ambrose University in Calgary, believes two ideas – wisdom and blessing – are the biblical model for fruitful living in retirement. “To bless is simply to affirm the other, to take particular delight and joy in the other in a nonjudgmental manner,” he writes.
Smith tells the story of speaking at a family camp for Christian doctors and dentists. “These men seemed to have no other agenda than to enjoy the teens at the camp. And they had an immeasurable influence on my two [teenage] sons,” Smith remembers. “It seemed like they never used the word should, which all teens hate, and had no other plan than to bless my sons and the teens at the camp.”
The psalmist writes, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green,”(92:12-14). Retirement may not be biblical. But becoming an elder filled with life, hope, memory, and wisdom for a coming generation certainly is.
This is an adapted excerpt from my book An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life (Moody Publishers, May 2019) and was recently posted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.