Jeff Haanen

For many, the thought of working in retirement surfaces feelings of both pain and possibility.  

On one side is weariness. In Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah interviewed executives, government employees, school teachers, and small businessmen on how they felt about retirement. He found they were “sick of working,” hated “the pressure,” had “paid their dues,” and “wanted to get out of the rat race.” So they chose to retire to “lifestyle enclaves,” as Bellah puts it, or retirement communities built around leisure and consumption, usually unrelated to the world of work.

Today Gallup reports that 87% of the world’s workforce is disengaged from their work. If retirement offers a way out of painful or unsatisfying jobs, it’s no wonder most choose to retire as soon as they can.

On the other side, however, is a spark of energy, enthusiasm, and genuine curiosity about new possibilities for work in retirement.

My friend Dr. Mark Roberts leads the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. In a series of focus groups he conducted with recent retirees, he paraphrased many who said, “I felt like it was time to let younger people lead; but I still have gas left in the tank. I’m not ready to be completely done yet.” For many, retirement offers a budding hope for work that better aligns with calling, yet is less subject to the economic and deadline-driven pressure of their careers.

Caught between “by the sweat of your brow” and the creative “work of your hands,” millions of Baby Boomers are dipping their feet in the waters of working in retirement.

After a “purposeful pause,” Barry Rowan decided to go back into business working as the CFO of two public companies. “I came to see that the purpose of business is to bring about a better society as seen through the eyes of God,” Rowan said. His work was endowed with new peace and purpose after his sabbatical. He saw his work as not just a way to make money, but a God-given opportunity to build businesses around “responsible value creation, creating an environment where employees can flourish, serving customers, and being good corporate citizens.” Now in his sixties, he is also seeking to mentor young, Christian business leaders. “I don’t think I’ll ever fully retire,” says Rowan.

A 2016 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the proportion of Americans over age 65 who were employed, either full-time or part-time climbed from 12.8 percent in 2000 to 18.8 percent in 2016.  Some call it “unretirement” – others, a “purposeful retirement.”

Today a growing number of Boomers are making a shift from a Let’s vacation mentality to a life of service; from purposelessness to 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. 

The possibilities are exciting – but the challenges are real as well. In a 2016 report by the Federal Reserve, 38% of adults aged 60 or over said they planned to continue working in retirement. Yet a Gallup poll found that only 4% of retirees worked until age 70 or beyond, and only 7% had income from a job. Why the disparity?

Research shows that health problems, age discrimination, caring for loved ones, social class, and the lack of work arrangements for older adults today all help explain why Baby Boomers who plan to continue working in retirement sometimes abandon those plans. 

Yet Rebecca Sahr, a 61-year-old accountant in Colorado, thinks the biggest problem is a lack of planning. “I’ve seen so many friends,” says Sahr, “completely fail at retirement because they weren’t intentional. They didn’t write anything down, didn’t talk with friends – they planned to save for retirement, but not what to do once they did retire.”

As you start making your plan for working in retirement, new questions need to be answered: What is God’s original design for work? Why do people choose to work in retirement? What are the challenges older adults face while working later in life, and how can they be overcome? What questions should I ask when making my own plan for working after retirement?

Made in the Image of a Maker

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?”

For many, the story about is that it is was just something you have to do until you make enough money. “Mr. Money Mustache,” leader of the FIRE (financial independence and retiring early) movement, advocates austere living in order to, as quickly as possible, stop working and live off of investment income. Work is seen as an unholy trade of hours for dollars, and its central purpose is…to work no more.

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.

Yet Scripture doesn’t idealize work in retirement or at any time of life. Unjust working conditions, under-compensation, dehumanizing or mind-numbing tasks – work has been twisted by the Fall (Genesis 3). Yet even when work reflects our “crooked timber” human nature (a phrase philosopher Immanuel Kant used to describe our human condition), Christianity offers a clear hope. Even painful work, offered to Christ in worship, can be redemptive.

On the other side of the spectrum, our secular age tends to idolize work and success. Pastor Timothy Keller writes, “Many modern people seek a kind of salvation – self-esteem and self-worth – from career success. This leads us to seek only high-paying, high-status jobs, and to ‘worship’ them in perverse ways.” The essence of work in a secular culture is about individual achievement and personal fulfillment. In this framework, work in retirement becomes another way to prove individual worth. Those caught is this web struggle in retirement with letting go and finding identity apart from formal job titles.

Again, in contrast to this view, for Christians work is an expression of love because it’s the principal way we serve the needs of our neighbors. Just after World War II, theologian Elton Trueblood said, “A Church which seeks to lift our sagging civilization will preach the principle of vocation in season and out of season. The message is that the world is one, secular and sacred, and that the chief way to serve the Lord is in our daily work.” Through our work, thought Trueblood, we provide legal systems, electricity, health care, clean water, groceries, and innumerable goods and services that provide for the needs of our neighbors. Work is the primary avenue for fulfilling Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself.

For Christians, work is not fundamentally about compensation but contribution; it doesn’t define our identity but is an expression of our identity; it’s not about personal success but humble service of others.

If work is an act of love, whether paid or unpaid, then for Christians, work is an activity that should continue, in different forms, as long as we’re alive – even in retirement.  

This is an excerpt from An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life.

On August 21 we’re hosting a gathering for pastors, financial advisors, and those entering retirement to ask better questions about aging, work, money, calling, rest and a fruitful life. You’re invited.

Image credit.

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