Jeff Haanen

Though I generally received positive feedback from my March 2019 story for Christianity Today “Saving Retirement,” I also received some pretty significant pushback. One reader, Rodney, wrote in:

“Your article ‘Saving Retirement’ in the March issue was a good summary of the situation facing retirees today. However, most of the examples of retirees doing something purposeful after retirement were people who had held leading positions in their field of work with presumably large salaries. The article definitely needed to portray what some ‘ordinary workers’ have gone on to do.”

Theology editor Caleb Lindgren wrote, “We agreed with Rodney that there is a much broader picture of post-work life that needs to be acknowledged. Do Christian understandings of work and aging accommodate those who can’t afford to retire?”

The brunt of the critique was that the article was class-biased. Since I’m rather sensitive to this subject, having written “God of the Second Shift,” a look at the class bias in the faith and work movement, I was rather miffed to read this! Especially since an earlier draft of “Saving Retirement” cut out a story about Joanne, a “retired” woman who chose to work at Eistein Bagels each morning rather than join her husband for golf – simply because she enjoyed the relationships of the workplace.

But after swallowing my pride for a moment, I came to the conclusion that the question is a good one: “What should I do if I can’t afford to retire – and still need to work?”

The Financial Crunch Facing Older Americans

In my book, An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life, I note that if the dominant paradigm for retirement today is a never-ending vacation, the fastest growing group of retirees are those who know they can’t afford it.

The economic problems facing most Americans at retirement are mounting. A recent Wall Street Journal article featuring Ted Benna, the “Father of the 401(k),” noted that 25% of Americans have no money saved for retirement at all.

If the great American dream is “financial freedom” in a blissful retirement, the great American frustration is that such a dream is out of reach for the majority.

A mix of factors is creating a perfect storm for Baby Boomers entering retirement:

  • Baby boomers are one of the largest generations in American history.
  • A growing number of Americans struggle financially during their working life, and struggle to save enough for retirement in the first place.
  • Pension plans – from corporations to state governments – are underfunded and some (like the state of Illinois) are facing insolvency.
  • Health care costs are rising.
  • Americans are living longer than ever, thus outstripping their savings.

The question is, what should you do if you – like millions of Americans – find yourself having to work well past official retirement age?

Working in Retirement

Christian faith offers a corrective to contemporary views of work in retirement. On one side of the cultural spectrum, work in retirement is seen as a curse.

This story about work is prevalent today in the financial industry. In 2018, E-Trade, a financial services company, ran a 2018 SuperBowl commercial featuring people working into their 80s. “Dropping sick beats, they call me DJ Nana,” says an 85-year-old granny at a turntable in a dance club. The refrain is sung to the Day-O (the Banana Boat song): “I’m 85 and I want to go home.” An elderly man picks up a fire hose – and is propelled across the room. A small, white-haired woman is dropping UPS packages, clumsily. The punch line: “Over 1/3 of Americans have no retirement savings. This is getting old.” The tag line: “Don’t get mad. Get E-Trade.”

This commercial points to a disturbing economic reality for America, as well as the stewing resentment of the I can’t afford the vacation camp. But it also suggests that if you work in retirement, you’ve failed. It’s as if the financial prophets of Wall Street are saying, “Who sinned, that you are working so late in life? You or your financial advisor?”

In stark contrast, ancient Christians and Hebrews believed work is inherently good and a way we reflect the image of God. In Genesis, God’s creative activity is called work (“By the seventh day God finished the work he had been doing”), which he blesses and calls good (1:31, 2:2). Poems and songs in Hebrew history celebrate God’s creation and his work: “How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104:24).

When God creates humanity, he too gives them work to do as a way of reflecting his own character. Gardening (manual labor) and naming the animals (intellectual labor) were part of an original, unstained world (Gen. 2:15,19). “We are made in the image of a Maker,” wrote dramatist and essayist Dorothy Sayers. Work is intrinsic to our nature and essential to a full human life.

The Bible calls Christians to never tire of doing good (Galatians 6:9), because “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45).  Though work changes over a lifetime, there’s nothing to suggest this posture ceases at age 62, 65, or 70. 

Working in retirement in modern America, however, is filled with practical challenges. Here are five:

1. You’ll have to make a counter-cultural decision to work in retirement.

If 19% of people over age 65 are were working at least part-time in 2017, that means 81% didn’t. Bucking the trend of increased golfing or television watching is not easy (the average retiree spends 4 hours per day watching television!). If your friends travel three months a year, and you limit your travel to three weeks a year, it will feel strange. It might also feel strange filling out job applications to work for people half your age.

2. Society doesn’t often provide flexible arrangements to work in retirement.

Sociologists like Matilda White Riley have developed the idea of “structural lag.” She says that social institutions – like corporations or policies – are resistant to change and lag behind cultural trends. One example is that when older adults look for meaningful work, instead they often find systems built for a complete cessation of work at retirement.

For example, many companies lack the flexible work arrangements for experienced, older professionals, whether that be part-time work or more time off during the year. A survey from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (TCRS) found that 47% of workers envision a phased transition into retirement, but only 5% of employers offer a formal phased retirement program.

3. Ageism is a reality.

“I quickly found that with being older, people don’t call me for an interview,” said Sarajul Islam, a 60-year-old man living in the U.K. “When contacted personally or over the phone, a few recruiters have directly said, ‘We don’t call back old people.’”

Often older adults are passed up for jobs or opportunities because of false assumptions about age.  Though outlawed in most countries, tacit ageism is still active in many companies and cultures.

4. Health and family issues impact work more frequently in retirement.

Many find that staying healthy in retirement is one of the most important factors in being able to work. Nearly 40% of workers retire for unexpected health reasons. Personal health issues affect your ability to work in retirement – and can quash plans to work into retirement if not addressed.

5. Social class and income will deeply impact your view of work in retirement.

And this point directly addressed the concerns of our working-class friends who often have a very different view of retirement.

There are two very different visions for work, depending on which of the two very different Americas you inhabit. If you have a college degree and worked in the professions, the challenge in retirement will be resisting the temptation to splurge on grandkids, over travel, or otherwise live for yourself. But you’re far more likely to work in retirement – even though you may not have to financially. You probably enjoyed your career, and wouldn’t mind doing it part-time well into retirement.

But if you’re a part of America’s working class, working in retirement may feel very different. Doug Muder grew up in farm country, Illinois. As a kid he remembered his dad working in a factory that made cattle feed. He “came home stinking of fish oil,” Muder recalls. It was a good job in that it paid the bills, but his dad had a very different relationship to his work than Muder did as a journalist.  Muder offers an important insight on work in retirement:

“Here’s what sums it up to me: When professionals retire, we keep dabbling. The retired newspaper editor in my hometown still writes. When the professor retires, he’ll keep reading journals and going to talks. But in the thirty years since my Dad took early retirement, he has never brought home some fish oil and mixed up a batch of cattle feed in the garage. When you retire from Wal-Mart, you don’t set up a bar-code scanner in the basement, just to stay busy. You do that stuff for money, and when they stop paying you, you never, ever do it again.”

Working class Americans experience more barriers than their college-educated peers when attempting to re-engage work in retirement. For example,

  1. Physical labor is much harder to do at 65 or 70, making re-entering the workforce especially difficult for those in the trades or manual labor.
  2. Wages are likely to be lower for working-class Americans, providing less incentive to work.
  3. If you didn’t enjoy your work or you’d need significant education to find a new job after retirement, the road back to work may have more obstacles.

Fully acknowledging these challenges, if you find yourself having to work – either full-time or part-time – later in life, might Christianity reframe our conversation around work in retirement?

Is Working Part-Time in Retirement “Significant?”

In the aforementioned critique, Amy Zietlow, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Decatuar, Illinois, told the story of Bob, one of her congregants who retired at age 58 from a career working at a local power plant. Because his work was physically taxing, he was counting down the days to retirement. Yet he knew that financially, he couldn’t completely stop working. So he got a job at a local Home Depot. He now works from 5am-10am at a loading dock.

Zietlow followed this story with a critique of the article:

I found it interesting in the article, the sense of even if you do seek part-time employment or an encore profession vocation, that that should be one of significance. So, I started thinking about the folks in the pews here in Decatur and realizing I think Bob would even tell you, he’s a pretty funny guy, like ‘look my work at Home Depot is not significant.’ You know, it does draw on some of his skills some of his background in terms of his expertise in life, but he would say this is a necessity, and not necessarily something he would say he feels called to do in the sense of other people who find ways to do maybe more what they might consider more significant work. However, having that part-time employment allows him to do other significant things, so it’s more of a means to an end.

Bob doesn’t necessarily want to be working, but needs to work to maintain his standard of living. But I’d ask Bob – and Zietlow – this question: is working at Home Depot part-time less significant than working during your career?

Zietlow goes on to say, “And I find for folks like Bob—and we have many kind of recently retired late 60s, mid-60s folks in our congregation—it both frees up time for them to serve more at church and be more actively involved in sort of the day-to-day maintenance and care for the church—which isn’t necessarily exciting, but is really necessary in terms of just cleaning, and yard work, and general maintenance for the church.” But is general maintenance for a church building more important to God than general maintenance at Home Depot?

Here’s the big picture: Only Christianity crowns the daily work of laborers – even done out of necessity – with intrinsic worth and dignity. The truth is that meaning does not come from “meaningful work,” but from the God who endows every moment with a sense of meaning when it’s offered back to God in worship and love. Even when our lives are painful.

Today a growing number of boomers are making a shift from a Let’s vacation mentality to a life of service; from purposelessness to thoughtful re-engagement; from consumption to “wisdom and blessing;” from free floating days to committed work for the well-being of their neighbors over a lifetime.  And the Christian church could encourage many who have to work well into the retirement years to re-engage both well-paid and poorly-paid jobs as “elders” who see the needs of their neighbors in whatever they do and respond with love, humility, and wisdom (Matthew 25).

As millions of men and women find themselves in a tight spot financially as they enter retirement, Christian leaders can whole-heartedly help the men and women who are not living the retirement “dream” to go back to work and live a better, deeper dream, borne not of self-actualization but self-surrender.

This article adapted several sections of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement (Moody, 2019).

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