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The Great Retirement Swap: A Radical Proposal

March 17, 2011, 11:01 PM

The way that we think about retirement in America is fundamentally flawed. The current retirement system assumes that people must diligently invest in the stock market over an extended period of 30 years or more in order to buy things in the future - like food, shelter, and clothing. But what if people are free to share, barter and swap for these goods? To travel to wherever they want, provided someone has a spare room for them to use? To have access to any item they need, as long as they have an item of similar value to swap?

That's where the ground-breaking idea of collaborative consumption comes in. As Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers explain in their new book What's Mine is Yours, we are undergoing a transformative moment in capitalism as we transition from a "shopping" to a "swapping" mentality. The relentless accumulation of consumer goods is being replaced by a more sustainable model based around bartering, sharing and swapping. Instead of financial capital, it's all about reputation capital: it's not how much you earn, it's how trustworthy you are in your community.

The pioneers of the collaborative consumption movement are companies like Airbnb,TaskRabbit, Swaptree, Zipcar, Couchsurfing and SnapGoods -- all of which are fundamentally reshaping the way we think about how we live. Other companies emphasize swapping of goods or services within geographic communities - why buy that expensive new snowblower if your neighbor down the block already owns one and is willing to share with you? The new Trade School in New York City enables people to barter for classroom instruction - no money changes hands.

So what in the world does this brave new world of swapping and sharing have to do with retirement? 

Well, what if we fundamentally change the way we think about retirement to take into account the new trend toward collaborative consumption? Call it The Great Retirement Swap. At a macro-level, Americans would be swapping a bleak version of retirement for a positive, hopeful one. At a more tactical level, older Americans would be swapping for goods and services, rather than owning them. Wealth in retirement would become a relative issue - are you wealthier if you own a second home in Florida, or if you have unfettered access to apartments across Europe, at any time of the year?

Senior citizens could "swap" their accumulated knowledge from a lifetime of hard work within a certain industry for tangible goods. The higher their reputation capital, the more they would be able to get -- giving teachers, factory foremen and civil servants the chance to become equals of more highly-paid workers in other industries. They could barter away goods they no longer need -- like leftover items from their children -- for goods that they do need. They would share access to cars and bikes with neighbors in their community. Any savings they have acquired through diligent investing would be a "bonus" for them.

While all this sounds a bit "un-capitalistic," it's actually the free market at work, on a grand scale. When you barter for goods, there is a market price established for those goods. And best of all, it doesn't require 7% annual compounded returns in the stock market to succeed. 

With millions of Baby Boomers set to start retiring within the next few years, retirement nest eggs shattered by the financial crisis, and even eternal optimists convinced that Social Security is no longer sustainable in the long-run, it's time to start thinking of a ground-breaking, innovative - dare I say it - radical solution for helping Americans attain the type of retirement they always dreamed of in their golden years.

Who knows? Maybe all those TV investment commercials showing senior citizens sitting on the dock of the bay, enjoying a little quality time with their new yacht will actually become a reality. A famous book about the Wall Street investment industry once asked: Where Are the Customers' Yachts? I'll tell you where these yachts might be -- one day, they'll be jointly owned by thousands of people, who are willing to lend them out to trustworthy senior citizens in oceanfront communities across the country.


The Great Retirement Swap: ...

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