Making Good Use of the Bonus Years

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday June 3, 2013

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

With America’s 78 million boomers turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day for the next 18 years, Bonus Years will tell stories of people, places and issues that challenge the conventional “rest and relaxation” idea of retirement, focusing on individuals and institutions in the Chesapeake Bay area.

Indeed, between now and 2030 the number of Americans age 65 or more will increase from just over 41 million to 71 million, and most Americans who retire at 65 can expect to live 21 more years – and nearly half will live to be 90 years or older.

America’s later-life men and women are doing amazing things – not unlike Grandma Moses, who began painting at 76 years old, completing more than a 1,000 canvases before passing at 101.  But unlike the uncommon achievements of Grandma Moses – born when Abraham Lincoln was president and lived to see John F. Kennedy – continuing achievement and engagement are now common place among post-career Americans.

That’s why Bonus Years will spotlight new post-career lifestyles as more Americans reject the “Golden Years” idea of retiring to a life of endless leisure and amusement.  New post-career lifestyles come in many flavors, including:

  • ŸLater-life entrepreneurs, like Little Rock’s Frank Hickenbotham, who founded TCBY at 68.  There are also many later-life entrepreneurs in Annapolis.
  • ŸExplorers and adventurers, found living on a boat in City Dock or in Elder Hostels around the world.  My wife and I met some just last month on a two-week trip to Israel.
  • ŸVolunteers who are essential to the operation of places like the Chesapeake Maritime Museum, local hospitals or the Annapolis chapter of the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE).
  • ŸPhilanthropists, like Pat Sajak and many other area residents whose contributions, both large and small, helped build the still-evolving Anne Arundel Community Hospital.
  • ŸThose working for pay because they desire to work, and they are found in every imaginable job – from running a non-profit to sacking groceries.  They work in “encore careers” to keep engaged in activities that are productive and satisfying.
  • ŸOthers, the “stretched and stressed,” continue to work because they must, because they are struggling to make ends meet – because they didn’t save enough or got wiped out by the Great Recession or the collapse in housing prices…or all three!

Post-career bonus years are a result of increasing longevity, arguably the greatest achievement of the 20th century.  It was during the past 100 years that US life expectancy nearly doubled, from 47 years in 1900 to 78 years by the year 2000.  In fact, if we indexed the retirement age of 65 to longevity increases since 1935 and the enactment of Social Security, today’s “retirement age” would be 82 – and we wouldn’t have a Social Security solvency problem.

But Bonus Years will focus primarily on individuals, not policy, spotlighting how longevity is creating many new opportunities.  Most important are the 20-35 bonus years that were not available to our parents and grandparents.  In fact, for some of us the bonus years will equal or exceed our “working years,” a time that included marriage, raising a family, and jobs we held.

In the “old days,” before the 20th century’s longevity boom, most people either died with their boots on or retired after a lifetime of work to a few months or years of rest and relaxation.  Today, most people in their late 50 and early 60s are at the top of their game.  They are gifted with time, talent and treasure – especially the treasure of know-how, knowledge, wisdom and experience.  Most 60- and even 70-somethings today are in generally good health (despite a few aches and pains and a longer recovery time when something does go wrong) and still able to make a contribution to society – to the life of a business where they work full time or part time, for pay or as a volunteer, or to coaching a young professional or looking after the well-being of a child or ailing parent, performing Samaritan work.

Based on interview with hundreds of later-life Americans, including many here in the Chesapeake Bay area, plus a year-long review of the best research from the social and medical sciences which I’ve reported in Reboot!, I’ve found that most later-life Americans today are choosing to retire retirement – both the concept and the practice.  Instead, they use their bonus years to pursue purpose-driven, intentional lives, helping others or continuing to work in some capacity until they are sidelined by frailty or disability.

Bonus Years will tell a variety of stories of how later-life Marylanders and other “Main Street Americans” have devoted their bonus years to rich, productive, sometimes novel and always engaging activities.  We will spotlight those engaged in post-career work of some kind – including what I call (1) paid work – both full time and part time; (2) volunteer work – such as Habitat for Humanity, helping out with after-school safety patrol or Neighborhood Watch, serving on the board of the community association or the Boy Scouts, or fund-raising for a local school; (3) in-kind work, such as taking tickets at the performing arts center in return for seeing a show, or managing a small apartment complex in return for “free” rent; (4) Samaritan work, which involves caring for others – such as elder parents or disabled children; and (5) enrichment work for self-improvement – from learning digital photography or a new language to earning a Master Gardener certificate, attending the Community College or engaging in organized sports, such as Masters swimming – in addition to (6) leisure time and recreation activities and (7) time for reflection and contemplation.

While TV ads continue to glamorize retirement as “Golden Years” and Hollywood vacillates between idyllic  “Golden Pond” and the comedic “Grumpy Old Men” images of later-life, opinion surveys clearly show that the Golden Years scenario is now rejected by as many as 4-out-of-5 Americans, as most so-called “retirees” continue active and fully-engaged post-career lives, with many returning to work in some capacity.

Few things are more inspiring than the many interesting, productive, and unpredictable lifestyles that later-life Marylanders, are now following.  Place like Ginger Cove, Sunrise and Bay Woods are no longer “God’s waiting room.”  Instead, most of those in active retirement communities as well as the thousands who “stay put” in their homes but fully engaged with their families, neighborhood and the wider community are living out a revolution in the way we think about and practice what used to be called the “retirement years.”  Increasingly, purpose-driven lives are replacing boredom, aimless busy-ness, diminished self-worth, depression and the anguish (and cost) of lingering death that often accompanies those who spend their post-career years “doing nothing” or who say, “I’m just retired.”

For readers navigating life’s transitions, striving to finish well or assist others to finish well, Bonus Years will provide clues from close-to-home, real-life examples for living a purpose-driven, post-career life of meaning.

Though some today continue to retire to “doing nothing,” most people are writing a new post-career script – most often many new scripts – to guide the final chapters of their life. Those scripts are the subject of Bonus Years.

Because we are commenting on a revolution in progress, one that is unfolding before our eyes, many readers will know of interesting people and situations that deserve comment.  If you do, please let me know.  In the meantime, I firmly believe that retirement is a deadly disease; that work after a life of work is the best option for bonus years that are productive, healthy, and satisfying; and that we can all learn from those who are pioneers in these new approaches to a life that matters in the bonus years.

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