The power of storytelling is vastly underestimated when it comes to our economic beliefs, approach to managing money and other aspects of everyday life.
I saw this a few months back, at the Gerontological Society of America’s annual meeting, when Jacquelyn James, co-director of research at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, introduced the preliminary results from a large study on flexible work practices. James’ data discussion really came alive when she described the critical role of “positive deviants” uncovered by the research. (These were the outlier, lower-level managers willing to buck the corporate rules to establish flexible workplaces.)
Storytelling and Savings
Of course, the storytelling in economics, money management and similar endeavors doesn’t come close to the narrative power of, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (beautifully capturing the dynamism of the Jazz Age and enduring doubts about the American Dream). Nevertheless, the stories we tell each other at work and at home, at neighborhood gatherings and in popular culture, end up creating a compelling narrative that shapes our desires and expectations —even our savings strategies and spending habits.
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"Our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with the stories that we tell,” observed the savvy literary critic Peter Brook. That is, until the evidence is so overwhelming that the main cultural narrative, the mainstream metaphor, is no longer realistic. At that point, writers compete to devise another narrative that holds sway over our imaginations and actions.
Our “Get Me a Rewrite” Moment
We’re at the “get me a rewrite” moment when it comes to retirement.
Boomers grew up with a relatively simple model of life’s arc — a life cycle with major markers to follow. You went to school. You worked hard, especially once you had a family. You stopped working, retired and pursued a life of leisure.
For years, the common image of retirement was defined by retirement communities like Sun City, Ariz., where residents lived off their employer-sponsored pension plans, Social Security and Medicare. They played golf in the morning and enjoyed cocktails on the patio in the evening, traveled the country in an RV and took bus tours to Europe. The vision of this kind of retirement became part of our common cultural currency.
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The Reality of Retirement
Truth is, a majority of retired Americans didn’t move to a retirement community; they stayed where they’d been living, near family and friends. They didn’t have a gold-plated pension plan; only a minority of retirees worked long enough at one company to enjoy a good pension, assuming their company offered one. Retirees did have Social Security and Medicare and those two programs made all the difference in living standards.
Yet, watch television (remember Jerry Seinfeld’s TV parents’ Florida condo, Del Boca Vista?) and look at magazine ads and you’ll see that retirement-as-leisure remains the vision of “the good retirement.” It’s the version so often pushed by the financial services industry, real estate developers and other advertisers.
In Main Street America, however, the retirement-as-leisure narrative is less compelling.
For many workers. it’s an unaffordable lifestyle. For others, the notion of whiling away the final third of life at play, surrounded by a sea of aging peers, is an anathema.
For a growing number of boomers, the desire to redefine retirement is a mix of the two: financial necessity and changing conceptions of the good life.
Boomers are calling for a retirement rewrite.
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We know the outline of the new story: An aging workforce realizes it hasn’t saved enough money and that its members will have to earn incomes well into the traditional retirement years.
The Tension in the Retirement Story
The tension in the story — critical for any good plot line — is the uncertainty about what “working longer” means.
Does continuing to work mean years of drudgery, finding a job as a greeter at a big-box retailer, unappreciated, underpaid and exploited? Sounds like a dystopian tale, no?
Yet there’s another story making the rounds, finding an audience. This narrative is more optimistic. Its main characters are aging boomers, armed with knowledge and experience, searching for a task, a job, a career, an entrepreneurial opportunity that offers meaning and a paycheck. Think Huck Finn reimagined and rewritten as an older worker in the 21st century.
Writers of gloom at the moment have a powerful story about aging boomers. The tale told is of aging, spendthrift Americans living in penury in their old age, scraping by on reduced Social Security payments, suffering from the ills of obesity, dementia and other disabilities.
The competing story line, however, emphasizes a series of broad, mutually reinforcing changes in the economy that are transforming an aging population into a more valuable economic asset than ever before. Boomers are healthier and better educated than previous generations, eager to stay engaged at the workplace and in their communities, exploring options that range from bridge jobs to starting their own businesses.
A Different View of Old Age
In society and the U.S. economy, these “positive deviants” are pointing the way for others toward a very different view of old age.
The tension over competing visions at aging was apparent at that Gerontological Society of America meeting, which brought together 3,600 researchers from around the world to present research dealing with the demographics of aging populations. While there were sessions on working longer and entrepreneurship, that theme was in the minority. Moreover, in many of the workshops I attended, there was often skepticism about the idea of working longer. The speakers often left attendees with the impression that the shift from thinking about an old-age pension to a lifetime of work was unrealistic at best and a misery in the making at worst.
Inspiring Second Acts
In sharp contrast, and around the same time, the social venture nonprofit Encore.org announced its newest Purpose Prize winners.
The goal of Encore.org is to write a narrative with a far more positive outlook on the embrace of work and meaning for boomers. Key to this story is the group’s annual Purpose Prize, highlighting people over 60 who’ve harnessed their passion and experience to address social ills.
Among the new recipients is Carol Fennelly, 64. She retired in 1998 from a career as an advocate for the homeless. However, moved by a story about what one mother went through to visit her son in prison, Fennelly left retirement behind and established Hope House, a venture that uses video conferencing, audio recording and summer camps to keep families in touch with imprisoned family members. Another Purpose Prize winner, Violet Little, 61, left her congregation of 14 years to create a refuge for the homeless in Philadelphia.
Of course the Purpose Prize winners are extraordinary individuals. (Have you ever sat in an audience and said to yourself, “Wow. What have I ever done with my life?” I had a moment like that several years ago when I met Purpose Prize winners at an Encore conference.) Still, their stories are meant to be inspirational and aspirational for the rest us.
Work In Retirement
My own sense is that work will lie at the core of the rewrite about retirement.
The script isn’t well written yet, but the major elements draw on subplots illustrating how we as a society and as individuals embrace a more vigorous and engaged vision of aging. Bridge jobs, part-time work and starting your own business will become key chapters in how we think about and plan for our elder years.
This more positive vision of aging has practical personal-finance implications. The key investments go way beyond stocks, bonds and cash — the traditional triumvirate of retirement planning. What’s vital now is investing in your skills and in education, along with networks and connections, to open up opportunities for meaningful work when you get past midlife.
Work in retirement also means changing the conversation about so-called spending on “entitlements” such as Social Security and Medicare. Rather than wringing hands over how America can’t afford the cost of entitlement spending (we can, but that’s another column), the emphasis should be on what public and corporate benefit policies would create incentives for boomers to stay productive longer.
Now, that’s an intriguing, compelling chapter to write.
This story was done as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows Program organized by The Gerontological Society of America and New America Media.
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