A large proportion of our lifetime is focused on earning money as a means to support ourselves during retirement. In order to retire, we need to earn an income by participating in the economy through work. This participation in the workforce is commonly viewed as “a contribution” to the economic growth of our society. Retirement is often viewed as a reward for these years of service. However, a working retirement is quickly becoming a necessary mode of financial survival for many people.
The media often characterizes the aging population as an economic problem, a kind of inconvenience or threat to economic progress. The aging population is viewed as a significant economic problem. It is strange to think of human life in these terms. This perspective can be viewed as a veiled form of ageism. Perhaps we do not participate in the economy as much as we are confined by it. The essence of the problem is not the aging population; the problem is our inability to evolve our assumptions about economic growth and sustainability in a sensible, flexible, adaptable, and meaningful direction. In this sense, the economy is the problem that threatens the well-being of the aging population.
The Elder Economy
The last decade demonstrates that global economic growth is really a relentless soul-searing obsession with money, acquisition, consumption, environmental degradation, international conflict over resources and cheap labor, wrapped in a fatal attraction to want and greed. In Making a Choice Between Money and Meaning, Umair Haque notes that work in the absence of meaning and significance, “is the deepest kind of theft; not merely prosperity having been looted from societies, but significance having been stolen from human lives.” This is a potent and compelling insight that shares an intimate connection with how we as a society embrace aging and elderhood.
When we enter into the second half of life we also begin to feel time differently. Things that were once important priorities begin to lose their sheen, and we become aware of a new sensibility arising within; because our own life is now contracting, the feeling of becoming older generates an intimate urgency to move toward and begin to inhabit the deeper questions about our life. Our internal rhythm begins to moderate, and our priorities and assumptions enter into the crucible of senescence. As we become more aware of the internal rhythms of our bodies, we naturally begin to slow down.
Obviously, there are practical realities and obligations that require attention to money; poor personal financial management does lead to undesirable consequences and potential problems when we are older. Ideally, we manage our money well enough in order to free up our mental energy and not give it any more attention than it deserves. We can possess more money than we could ever spend, and still internally suffer from a poverty of fulfillment.
Retirement is a unique time in life when we have hopefully built a resilient financial foundation that relieves us from the burden of having to “make money.” Our elders should not be forced into a working retirement unless by choice; the purpose of retirement is to offer an essential time and space in life to embrace authentic living. Ultimately retirement is a time period in which our hopes are centered on the pursuit of meaningful and enjoyable experiences while remaining relatively free from the pressures of money.
Personal financial pressures originating in a fragile and broken global economy are penetrating deep into the fabric of retirement. The change is so profound that we are beginning to change our assumptions about what retirement is. The idea of retirement as a period of time that is free from the requirement to work is fading. The new reality is that work, in some capacity, will be a likely requirement for us in the future. Work during retirement is not necessarily a negative consequence; work in the absence of significance during retirement is deeply unfortunate. It would be quite sad to spend the final phase of our lives engaged in a form of work that offers no meaningful reward.
It is immensely practical to ensure that the work we engage in is intimately connected and married to our need for authentic meaning and purpose in life. Others might, unfortunately, judge this perspective to be exceedingly idealistic, a view that only serves to further mire our lives in the bog of the status quo. Work is not in itself a problem; however, work is fundamentally a question of meaning, purpose, and authentic fulfillment. This question is exceedingly important for an aging population and the future of retirement.
David Whyte has created powerful and inspiring ideas about the relationship between work, meaning, and purpose. In his landmark book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity Whyte explores the creative aspects of engaging in work that inspires our journey through life. It is a book that should be read by everyone. One of the most profound quotes from the book that has remained with me is a brief yet potent poem written by a student:
I turned my head for a moment, and it became my life.
I have felt this way at times in my life, that is when I have found myself committed to a form of work that has moved me in a direction in life that intuitively feels unnatural and obtuse. This is a common experience for all of us I suspect, and it is completely unreasonable to assume that everything we do can fit neatly into our own individual sense of purpose. We have less control over our lives than we might imagine. However, we can also become distracted from our innate authenticity; we can lose our sense of identity by becoming subservient to imposed ways of life that are bleak and uninspiring.
One of the most unfortunate aspects of the modern economy is the denigration of small business. Our sense of community is deeply maligned by the continuing expansion of big-box stores. We are quickly becoming mired in rampant depersonalization. The senseless and rampant expansion of corporate presence in our world is accompanied by the mass destruction of local vibrancy and color. One of the worst consequences is the imposition of part-time employee status on more and more people; corporations do not respect individuals, they assimilate them. A working retirement does not necessarily imply meaningful work in retirement.
Along with rescuing the environment from our continued neglect, one of the most important initiatives of an aging population is to find a way to reclaim meaningful work. In my view, the aging population will also give rise to an increased presence of wisdom in the world. This, in turn, can become a potent force for fundamental changes in the ways we have chosen to co-exist that are long overdue.
A Creative, Intimate and Unpredictable Conversation
Yet, the unforgiving truth is: the trade-off between meaning and money is as real — and as toxic, as characteristic of our post-prosperity present, and as strikingly intensifying — as climate change…
One day, in the far-flung future, our so-called not-really-leaders-in-anything-but-name might get their act together and begin to patch up this clapped out, wheezing train wreck of a so-called economy… Until that day, the simple fact is: right here, right now, there’s a trade-off between meaning and money.
– Umair Haque in Making a Choice Between Money and Meaning.
Just as David Whyte explores work as a pilgrimage of identity, we might also consider retirement to be a journey deep into the realm of our individual and collective identity. The traditional separation between work and retirement is becoming less relevant; more people in retirement will be required to engage in some form of work in order to supplement their income. We are entering an age when retirement no longer means an absence of work, but a change in the essence and nature of the work we choose to do during the later years of life.
Life is a creative, intimate and unpredictable conversation if it is nothing else, spoken or unspoken, and our life and our work are both the result of the particular way we hold that passionate conversation.
David Whyte in Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity
In The New Retirement, I briefly explored the notion that retirement might be best thought of as a kind of debut, rather than a retreat. This captures the essence of a meaningful working retirement. It is essential for us to find a way to unify the “creative, intimate and unpredictable conversation” with the ability to ensure we engage in meaningful work that provides adequate financial security into elderhood. This is the hallmark of a healthy economy and way of life.