In 1976, when my father was 60, he and his peers held a fairly optimistic view of later life.
They had survived the Depression and two world wars; they would retire with modest pensions; their mortgages were paid off, so they could live in their homes at low cost for a long time; their children were grown, had good jobs and families of their own. Finally, there was plenty of time for hobbies and fun.
In 2013, many of my boomer peers hold a very different view of later life. Our future is less predictable and those golden years sometimes seem more like tarnished brass.
Instead of coasting into our 70s and 80s, we face interruption unimagined by our elders: discontinued income streams; increasing rates of later-in-life divorce and bankruptcy; the potential for sharp declines in the value of our retirement portfolio and property.
What Boomers Will Encounter
Although boomers are not a homogenous group culturally, politically or spiritually, nearly all of us can count on three things in the future:
- Interruptions in our lives will persist.
- Our capacity for flexibility and adaptability will determine quality of life.
- Many of us will live significantly longer, healthier lives than once expected, which means we’ll need appropriate financial resources to make them worthwhile.
The 5 Key Abilities to Flourish
Under these circumstances, there are five key abilities boomers will need to flourish:
1. Identity Ability. When the roles that define us — parent, spouse, employer, employee, athlete, homeowner — come to an end, we have to adapt our sense of self accordingly.
Some people relocate after a divorce to create an entirely new social life with no connection to the one they left behind. They then start considering themselves as independent, rather than one-half of a former couple.
2. Selecting Ability. Making informed choices for our circumstances, even as those circumstances change, is essential to navigating uncharted territory. Let me give you two examples of people I know:
Roger is a 62-year-old business owner in Stamford, Conn., whose primary focus had been work. After his cancer was diagnosed, he was suddenly faced with choices he’d never considered. Who would run his company when he was in treatment? Should he sell the business, and if so, would it be wiser for him to stay on as an executive or stop working altogether?
Then there's Steve, a 59-year-old from Seattle who had a serious bike accident. He found himself needing to decide how to spend his leisure time if he couldn't ever ride again.
Both men sought the counsel of friends (and, in Roger's case, professional advisers) who knew them well and would speak frankly enough to help them remain realistic as they sorted through their options.
3. Meaning-Finding Ability. Managing disruptions and putting them in perspective is a process that can take years. In that time, you must decide how to contextualize the events that are turning your life upside-down and find ways to add meaning to the years you have left.
(MORE: How to Start a New, More Meaningful Career)
If you lose a job, do you look at the experience as a failure or a stepping stone to a better position? If a spouse leaves you for a trophy wife or a trust-fund husband, have you been dumped or liberated from a crummy marriage?
Making your life meaningful is especially important as you work through the grieving process — whether you've lost a job, a home, a significant other or something else important to you.
So learn a new skill or make new friends or plan a massive project, like remodeling your house. Since the interruption can't be undone, it's up to you to recognize that the event has led to a new time in your life that you can embrace and, at least in part, control.
4. Community Ability. One way to manage an interruption is to use it as a launching pad for new activities that challenge and nourish you while also helping others.
Join local organizations, volunteer and stay involved. You'll meet people with similar interests and will be able to contribute your expertise in a way that keeps you intellectually stimulated, socially connected and useful.
5. Financial Reality-Check Ability. Regardless of your best-laid plans, after losing your job or money in an investment, you may have to embark on a new career or find another means of income generation to sustain a reasonable lifestyle as you age.
Fortunately, a new job can bring you unexpected advantages (structure, new friends, fun) in addition to a paycheck. Some companies also provide attractive benefits, like health insurance and paid vacations for employees who work at least 25 hours a week.
Whether or not you're going to work after the age you thought you'd retire, it's a good idea to take a personal finance management course or work with a certified financial planner. Either can help you determine the most suitable savings plan, an appropriate asset allocation for your portfolio and retirement income projections.
Expect the Unexpected
Boomers must face the fact that their decisions, however carefully made, won’t stay made. Interruptions and redirections are inevitable. Many, if not most, of your choices after 50 will be short-term, rather than long-term.
This means making constant reassessments and adjustments. But take Ability No. 3 to heart: The unexpected will also give you opportunities for renewal that weren’t on your radar earlier in your life.