“Wake up and live in Sun City, for an active way of life! Wake up and live in Sun City, Mr. Senior Citizen and wife. Don’t let retirement get you down! Be happy in Sun City; it’s a paradise town.”
In post-World War II America, this Del Webb jingle was one of many popularizing not just retirement communities, but an idea that quietly sits underneath most investing in the United States — the hope of a blissful, care-free retirement.
Though we rarely connect the behemoth of the American stock market to images of gray hair, shuffleboard matches, and Florida swimming pools, we should. Underpinning nearly all investing is a vast web of IRAs, mutual funds, and financial instruments that are sold to the public with promises of a utopian retirement where every day is a vacation.1 Invest enough and you too can live the dream.
But today major voices are calling for a sweeping reconsideration of how we think about aging and retirement.2 Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP, recently wrote in Barron’s that as Americans are living longer and longer, the idea of a permanent vacation at age 65 (or earlier) seems less and less appropriate. She noted that most 65-year-olds today will live into their 90s. That’s an awfully long vacation.
Nevertheless, most Christian investors fail to ask this most essential question: exactly what vision of the future is actually driving my investing behavior?
The Problem with Investing for Retirement
Retirement as the driving motivation for investing needs to be challenged. In fact, there are a host of problems with retirement as the principal motivation for our investing.
The Fear-Greed Combo. Will I have enough for retirement? This subtle fear — in two opposed manifestations — lurks around the edges of countless articles on Yahoo Finance or MarketWatch. It causes workers to stash away increasing amounts of money in order to survive a retirement that could last 20, 30, or even 40 years. And most know they’re sorely behind what they should be investing. The result is that more and more Americans — contemplating longer lifespans and growing doubts about Social Security — are afraid they won’t have enough money to see them through old age.
But there is another version of this fear. For those who have amassed meaningful resources, they contemplate the rather considerable costs of the retirement idea that they’ve been sold. Its high points are periodic trips to exotic destinations — an African safari next month, followed before long by a leisurely cruise down the Rhine or a tour of the Tuscany vineyards. In between are the ‘ordinary’ days — golf and cocktails at the country club, punctuated by regular lunch and shopping trips with friends. Throw in the occasional trip to DisneyWorld with the grandchildren and even those who’ve saved a good deal feel anxious about affording the retirement they’ve imagined.3
It is this combination of fear and greed, often bound together, that actually drives much of our investing. The net result is a largely unquestioned drive to accumulate more and more, motivated by the sense that ‘enough’ seems always farther down the road.
The task of stockpiling assets to last for decades in retirement often then obscures seeing investing as God intends — as a means of providing capital to businesses to enlarge human flourishing. What’s left is a focus on maximizing returns in portfolios that often fail to assess the consequences of a company’s impact in the lives of others.
To Work is to Be Human. God worked for six days and rested for one, baking into the created order a rhythm of work and rest that’s as natural as the rising and setting of the sun (Genesis 2:2). Yet our modern notion of retirement evidences a quite different understanding. Instead of the biblical idea that work and rest should exist in an ongoing balance for as long as God gives us strength to serve, we have embraced the idea that at age 65 (or earlier) our working life is over, to be followed by a permanent life of leisure.
Most retirees experienced frustrations and disappointments over the course of their careers. No doubt more than a few feel the truth of Ecclesiastes: “The work that is done under the sun is grievous to me, a chasing after the wind” (2:17). They are understandably eager to swap commutes and deadlines for long walks and happy hour on the 19th hole.
Yet many more feel they still have much to contribute well into their later years — a feeling that is crowded out by the retirement-entertainment complex that prizes pleasure over productivity. They also report missing the sense of purpose, and of human community, that work provided.4 Unfortunately, our public systems built around retirement have created a sharp cliff, disconnecting work over a lifetime from a vision for human flourishing in one’s later years.
Retirement Doesn’t Satisfy. Many are coming to realize the vision of retirement as a never-ending vacation simply doesn’t satisfy. “I’d done all the preparation, except to really think about what life was going to be like,” said Sue Ellen King, a care nurse and educator at the University of Florida, in a New York Times feature. In her first three months of retirement, she organized photos, took a trip to Hilton Head, and enjoyed a good many long lunches. But after a brief honeymoon period, she says she felt more and more adrift.5 Many swap the feeling of meaninglessness in work for meaninglessness in retirement, a phenomenon a growing number of Christian financial advisors see regularly.6
Retirement Isn’t Healthy. One BBC study found that retirement can increase chances of clinical depression by 40 percent.7 And retirement often accelerates aging as people disconnect from purpose, often driving up health care bills well before the actual onset of ‘old age.’ Conversely, another study found putting off retirement can keep your brain sharp for longer.8
The Majority Can’t Afford the Retirement Dream. For a growing number of Americans, the retirement dream is a mirage, like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of a vanishing rainbow. In 2019, savings in the average retirement account totaled just $65,000. 25% of Americans had no savings at all, and 28% of those in their sixties had less than $50,000.9 Many believe retirement is actually exacerbating the yawning economic and social divides of America, splitting those who own public equities from the 45% who own no stocks at all.10
Retirement, of course, is not all bad. It was formalized in the US with the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, which had as its original intent the care for the elderly poor in post-Depression America. Indeed, a Christian, Frances Perkins, helped to pass the New Deal out of concern for the vulnerable.
Today, though, the very idea of retirement has metastasized. It provides the foundation for much of our investing yet, overall, it tends to diminish rather than enlarge the human flourishing God intends.
How, then, should Christians think about retirement? Join us for Part 2: A Biblical Perspective on Retirement.
This article first appeared at the Eventide Center for Faith & Investing. Subscribe to get more updates on topics related to faith, investing, and the economy. For references, please visit the ECFI website.