“Am I retired?” I asked my son.
“I guess so,” he said.
When I shifted from full-time work as a social entrepreneur to part-time consulting, there was no question: the IRS and I considered me employed.
Then I tried my hand at personal essays. Now I work full-time writing creative nonfiction, but since the number of writers competing for publishers’ attention rivals the number of stars in the sky, writing is a buyers’ market. Magazines “buy” what I “sell,” but between you and me, I give it away. That’s what prompted my question.
Uncle Sam may not count me as employed, but “retired” doesn’t feel like a fit.
If individuals follow their passion to find new purpose does the lack of a paycheck define whether they’re working or retired?
What Is Work Anyway?
Did I leave the social change arena that absorbed and challenged me for 30 years? Not entirely. I’m co-authoring an exploration of leadership transitions among founders of systems-changing nonprofits. And I interact often with the amazing, heart-driven change agents who welcomed me into their worlds when I led the U.S. program of a global fellowship of social entrepreneurs.
“Would you review the beta version of my book?” they ask. “Could I pick your brain about an idea?” They know I’ll gladly invest my time and thought. Compensation isn’t mentioned or expected. Does that mean it’s not work?
Writing is my full-time pursuit. It’s no way to make a living, but it’s intrinsically rewarding. The rush I get when an essay is published? Priceless. Uncle Sam may not count me as employed, but “retired” doesn’t feel like a fit.
Legions of artists, scientists, authors, inventors, entrepreneurs and civic leaders from age 60 to 100 “work” because they’re passionate about what they do or exploring roads not taken — all because, like me, they’re not done yet.
Purpose in Our Later Years
Whether paid in dollars, acclaim or gratification, these older adults haven’t “withdrawn from active working life,” as Merriam Webster defines a retiree. Arianna Huffington notes that “people are rejecting the idea of retirement as a withdrawal. They want their later years to have as much meaning and purpose as their primary working years — or, more purpose and meaning.”
In 1935, the U.S. government set 65 as the Full Retirement Age under Social Security.That predates the ballpoint pen! Since then, the retirement age has crept up to 67 for some, an underwhelming pace of change. Isn’t it time to stop equating the age for Social Security eligibility with the end of an individual’s productivity?
Leaving the workforce with those benefits around age 65 may be a godsend for some, but actuarial tables predict another quarter century for many — a long time to spend at leisure or to stretch your savings. Mandatory retirement? Don’t get me started.
Bob Dylan had it right: The times, they are a-changing. We see it, we know it, but we haven’t adjusted our thinking or our vocabulary to reflect the massive social change all around us.
How Will We Use Our Bonus Years?
We’ve seen the demographics: in this decade, we’ll become a population in which 25 percent of Americans are 65 or older; by 2030, more will be over 65 than under 15. For the first time in history, many will have an extra 20 to 30 “bonus” years of active, healthy life (compared with the average life span a century ago). How will we use our skills, knowledge and life experience?
Reading the demographic tea leaves, visionary Marc Freedman, the founder of the nonprofit Encore.org, predicted that “this windfall of human talent” could help solve social problems and that “individuals will look forward to the third age as a time to make some of their most important contributions to society.”
He founded that nonprofit to help people find “work that matters in the second half of life” and make the transition from “what’s last” to “what’s next?” Many “third-agers” enjoy and collect a paycheck for full- or part-time work. Others find socially valued, personally rewarding unpaid work — as volunteers, community leaders or pro bono professionals.
I serve on national boards of organizations led by vibrant social entrepreneurs past so-called “retirement age.” Freed from careers that paid the bills but didn’t tap their creative juices or spur social progress, many are bringing a long-standing or new interest front and center.
Others who love the work they’ve done throughout their careers keep going at it. Describing choreographer Twyla Tharp as “still restlessly creative at 74,” a journalist reported “she’s marking 50 years of work by doing more of it.” Aretha Franklin says she’ll never retire: “Just go somewhere, sit and do nothing? Please.”
Why So Many Keep Working
Many outside the limelight agree.
No one asks your age when you organize a community garden, engage teenagers in reclaiming a blighted area or invent a life-saving device. Increasingly, silver-haired grown-ups prefer employment or civic engagement to leisure.
Two-thirds of retirees continue working. Why? At 93, Marvel superheroes’ creator Stan Lee summed it up: “I’m doing what I love.”
Rather than retire, Dr. Samuel Lupin founded Housecalls for the Homebound; in 10 years, 4,000 patients benefited from the program. This late-life social entrepreneur was recently named an Encore.org Purpose Prize winner, sometimes called “a MacArthur ‘genius award” for retirees.”
Really? Retirees? Are post-career individuals working tirelessly to achieve social benefit, pursue intellectual inquiry or hone their crafts retired?