Americans forced to work through their retirement are missing out on an “encore adulthood”

Living her best life.
Living her best life.
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

How do today’s Baby Boomers—many of whom are still healthy and active—view their retirement? The traditional image of these so-called Golden Years involves leisure and freedom: mornings on the golf course, afternoons puttering in the garden, perhaps with some globetrotting and grandchildren thrown in for good measure. (Of course this option is only open to those who through pension plans or savings have the means for it.)

In recent years, a second image of retirement, known as “aging in work,” has emerged. This model, borne in response to the economic need to protect Social Security and retain experienced workers’ knowledge, keeps retirement-age employees working in part-time or contract positions. It’s sold as win-win: Companies and the country benefit financially, but employees benefit, too, because it keeps their brains active and their social networks strong. The assumption is that continuing to work, though under better, more flexible conditions, is what makes people happy. The mainstream media back the model. Why Working Longer Is Good For Your Health and Get back to work! Working past “retirement age” is beneficial are just a few recent headlines.

This provides some solace for those who continue to work because they cannot afford to retire. For those who can, though, there may be more satisfying ways to fill what sociologist Phyllis Moen calls “encore adulthood,” the now extended time between employment and old age. Peter Laslett, the British historian, describes “The Third Age” as a period of life characterized by health, vigor, activity, and a positive mindset. Seen through the lens of the Third Age, retirement is an occasion for self-actualization, for doing those things that have the most personal meaning, that keep people challenged and learning. In England, for example, there is the University of the Third Age, copied by many US university communities, where retired people teach and learn and participate in other fulfilling activities.

I am part of a group of other retired or near-retired academics studying this period of life in a project headed by Professor Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School. Part of our research involves 35 people recently retired from mid-level corporate jobs—all of whom, it must be said, have the financial wherewithal to retire. Based on our detailed interviews, most participants do not want to continue working except perhaps for a short transitional period. They welcome the freedom from the constraints of corporate life; they are delighted to leave behind their morning commutes, long hours, bureaucratic procedures, dubious practices, and routine jobs with little challenge. They embrace the opportunity to travel on their own and with their families, to do more physical activity, and to take better care of their homes and gardens. But many also want more.

Our retired participants do not see themselves as falling into leisurely golden years. They do not think of themselves as retiring from the world, but as transitioning to something new. They want to build satisfying encore lives “giving back” by volunteering in a school, championing a community initiative, or working on some other cause close to their heart. In short, they want to do the things they didn’t have time for amidst the demands and pressures of their daily work lives. And what is meaningful to them often is also advantageous for our society.

They realize that if you don’t enjoy and find a purpose in your encore life in your 60s and 70s, you may never get the chance. One of our study’s participants put it this way: “Toward the end of life, there are the go-go years, the slow-go years, and the no-go years.” The trouble is, if you keep working in a job during the go-go years, the possibility of having a Third Age diminishes.

To be sure, there are those who genuinely want to keep working. And I don’t doubt that there are aspects of working—including thinking, problem solving, and interacting with colleagues—that contribute to mental and physical wellbeing. But we want that to be an affirmative choice, not one made because of a lack of financial resources. That’s what worries me about the hype around aging in work.

Our society needs to accept the responsibility to provide everyone with the option of a secure Third Age. Individuals benefit when they have time for physical activity and travel, and have a purpose for their interests that allows them to give back. Society also benefits—not only from the activities that people perform, but from their better health both physically and mentally. A meaningful, fulfilling retirement shouldn’t be just for those lucky enough to have a good pension.