Why Baby Boomer Retirement Will Be An Improv Act
Joseph F. Coughlin is director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab (http://agelab.mit.edu). His research explores how demographic change, technology and consumer behavior drive innovations in business and society. Coughlin teaches in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Sloan School's Advanced Management Program. He is author of the new book The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World's Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market (Public Affairs, 2017).
Who would ever think of aging and retirement as something new? The baby boomers are certainly not the first to grow old – but they are certainly headed for a different old age than their parents and all generations before them.
The first six or so decades of life are generally a series of events reinforced by social norms, periodic rituals, e.g., graduations, weddings. Mass media adds stories, advertises products and lifestyles to guide and entice the way forward. For many it goes something like this – birth, typically easiest for the person being born, school, learning the social ropes (for some this is a lifetime endeavor), managing hormones, work or maybe more school then work, marriage, setting up your own household, kids, maybe a few pets, more work, cleaning up after kids and pets, care of parents and older relatives, increasingly likely is a divorce, maybe a second marriage, and then a déjà vu of rituals that are familiar but rather than being the focal point of the events you are now the financier.
About this time is “retirement”. That’s where we get a little hazy on what to do next – no expert advice, no definitive directions, no time-tested self-help book to buy, not even an app to download to guide what for many will be at least 25-plus years of life.
People tend to learn from examples or from stories handed down from previous generations – but there are few stories to navigate the new context of old age and retirement for the baby boomers. When there are no set rules – you make them up. The future of old age and retirement will be improvised. But what new factors might shape the improv act of baby boomer retirement?
Family Matters – Family has traditionally been the cornerstone of healthy aging. Grandparents might live with or near their children, care for grandchildren and be the elder statesman or woman of the family. But, family dynamics have changed.
Tomorrow’s older adults have far fewer children than their parents a generation ago. It is less likely that there are children to share common stories let alone a common roof. The mothers of the baby boomers had an average of ~3.8 children per female, compared to their daughters who had ~2.1. Those with higher incomes and education had even fewer. And even for those with children the lure of economic opportunity has led adult children to move away from home today to the fast growing urban regions of tomorrow – effectively emptying out once thriving mill towns, industrial regions and rural agricultural areas.
Managing House & Home – The support structure once provided by family is greatly diminished or gone. Aging-in-place was once helped along by adult children who provided everything from home maintenance to transportation. How to maintain a home and get around in the face of diminished physical or cognitive capacity is a new element of retirement and longevity planning that many will now face alone.
Undefined Retirement – Years of work with a single employer guaranteed dad, sometimes mom, a watch and a pension that was defined and a predictable source of income. Retirement planning was blending that pension with savings and social security benefits. Today there may be a defined contribution from two or many more employers over three-plus decades of work requiring creative, informed and vigilant financial planning that does not necessarily guarantee of a reliable stream of income in old age. With the recent economic downturn the likelihood of your lifespan outliving your wealthspan is very real.
Work-Retire-Work Cycle – AARP among others has reported that to many 50 and 60-somethings retirement now means working longer. A cycle of work, retire, work, repeat again may characterize “retirement” for many. Full-time, part-time employment in the same organization or profession or somewhere else doing something else is a new question for older boomers who once thought a variation on their parent’s retirement was just around the corner.
Health & Well-being Management – Living longer may also mean managing disease, multiple diseases, longer. The complexities of managing one, two, three or more chronic conditions requires multiple skills:
Legacy – While greater longevity may pose new challenges, it also provides great opportunity. More time will give many older adults the chance to not only plan for their legacy but set it into motion. The coming waves of retirees are the best educated most efficacious in history. They could become the best educated volunteer workforce in history bringing new energy to communities and having real-time social impact that no previous generation has enjoyed in their later years.
The new context of aging and retirement is a call to innovate. New life events, activities, organizations, technologies, services and professions must be developed to address the changing face of old age. For example:
The next-generation of retirees are about to put on the single largest most watched improv act in history. It is an act that will set the tone of public policy, business innovation and the behaviors of generations to follow – lets hope it’s a good one – and a little fun too.
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