Go-go, slow-go and no-go: Longevity and retirement lifestyles

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday June 29, 2014

Remember high school physics where we learned Newton’s laws of motion. Think about Newton’s first law, his Law of Inertia: “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by another force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by another force.”

Translated to the bonus years, that means our natural tendency would be to continue to work in some capacity. And that’s exactly what people are doing, increasingly so.

Following the retirement event, they continue to stay “on-the-go” – either by taking an active time-out to travel to visit family or check off bucket list items or by continuing to work full time or part time. They do volunteer work for the church or hospital or to help young people. They volunteer for SCORE or Partners-in-Care or provide caregiving work for family, friends or neighbors, sometimes for compensation but most often as unpaid Samaritans

At the same time, there are many “outside forces” that might cause us to slow down after the retirement event. Among the most powerful are cultural expectations. For example, the idea that you are to throw in the towel and retire to Golden Years of endless leisure and amusement has been a powerful force to divert people from a bonus years lifestyle that is active and productive.

Other outside forces can also cause you to slow down: Examples: physical dysfunction – e.g., bad joints, weak bones, chronic pain. Mental dysfunction – e.g., depression, melancholy, dementia. Spiritual dysfunction – e.g., loss of a sense of purpose, paralysis from too many choices, aimlessness from too much freedom, isolation from family, friends and God.

However, with increasing longevity, improved medicine (e.g., joint and organ replacements), and expanding opportunities to work or volunteer in later life, there are many forces that take the momentum of a career into the bonus years.

I have interviewed a few people who, after retirement, abruptly slowed to a rest. But the rest is often short-lived. Remember Newton: “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by another force.”

In my experience that “outside force” is often a scolding partner who reminds his or her better half, “I married you for better or for worse but not for lunch – and dinner, and breakfast, and TV. Jettison the remote and get off your duff. Use your gifts. Find something to keep busy.”

Translated: “Get outta my hair.” I’m sure that’s exactly the kind of thing Newton was thinking about when he invented his Law of Inertia in the 17th century.

Newton’s laws are reflected in the world of retirement by Michael Steiner, who describes different stages of retirement.

First are the “Go-Go Years,” referring to that period following the retirement event – a period that may last for a decade or even longer. These are called the go-go years because most people continue high levels of activity and engagement as they indulge in new-found freedom and unscheduled time.

As longevity increases, more and more people reboot to a different, but still active, lifestyle – or they continue the same lifestyle they followed before they retired. They live in the same home. They participate in the same social networks. They engage in the same social activities, belong to the same clubs, go to the same sporting events. Life goes on, pretty much the same – just with more freedom and discretion, less stress, and more choices.

Second are the “Slow-Go Years,” referring to a time when people scale back on engagements and activities that defined their first 10 to 20 years of retirement. This is a period – usually somewhere between the mid-70s to mid-80s – when less energy and fading health may reduce the capacity to give back and diminish enthusiasm for work, travel and living out of suitcases.

Slow-go people are still engaged with others but less frequently and less intensely. This is a time of “quiet pleasures,” the beginning of a more passive stage of retirement – fewer trips, no new cars or homes and fewer new clothes – and a much less expensive lifestyle.

Third and finally are the “No-Go Years,” referring to a time when rest and relaxation take a high priority. The quiet pleasures of the slow-go years give way to the unpleasant, usually health-related, realities of the third stage of retirement, which can also be the most demanding financially, owing to the costs of medical care, assisted living and nursing care. This stage may be painfully long or blessedly brief.

I like this go-go/slow-go/no-go way of thinking about the bonus years because I can see it in the lives of so many I know and have interviewed.

We have a consensus around the various categories we use to describe young life – such as “infancy,” “pre-adolescence,” “adolescence” and “young adult.”

That same consensus doesn’t exist when it comes to describing the cycles or stages of later-life. In fact, most Americans describe later-life in a single category – such as “senior,” “elder,” “oldster” or worse.

Yet we know that the life of most “seniors” goes though many stages. Readers of this column know we do not consider retirement as “God’s waiting room.” Nor do we view the retirement years as the endgame of life.

Instead evidence grows that the bonus years are the beginning of a whole new life cycle and, for those who retire at age 60 or even 65, many can expect to enjoy more “retirement” years than “working” years. The challenge is to maximize the number of go-go years.

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