THE BLOG
09/30/2011 12:00 am ET | Updated Nov 29, 2011

The Truth About the "Golden Years"

Sorry, folks. We've been scammed. For decades we've been dedicating our lives to our jobs on the premise that when we retire, we can do nothing and life will be bliss. It's a lie.

You think this is a whine about how the economic meltdown has robbed us of our right to the "good life," right? Nope.

The "golden years" model of retirement has never been a good fit with the reality of what people need to thrive -- at 40, 60, or even 90. The idea that you deserve a life of complete leisure was the spin insurance companies (who wanted to sell whole life policies) and Del Webb (who wanted to sell real estate in Arizona) came up with in the 1960s.

According to Ken Dychtwald, a guru on aging who's been studying this stuff since the 1970s, satisfaction with the leisure-centered lifestyle of the "golden years" lasts about a year. Then you start to get restless and yearn for something with more meaning. Finding it is almost impossible if you're mired in the "golden years" mindset.


This intractable economic mess we're enduring is a bit of blessing on this issue. It's forcing each of us to take a more careful look at what we want to do once we're old enough to give up work. It's not just a matter of walking out the door for the last time. We need challenges to thrive and more significant decisions to deal with than where to go for dinner. A sense of purpose is essential to overall well-being, but it's hard to come by in a round of golf.

So what makes more sense?

The real benefit of retiring isn't the option of full-time leisure. It's the chance to focus your effort (aka "work") on what has meaning for you personally. Once you're able to give up the all-day/every-day version of work, you can start over in a direction that truly excites you and at a pace that works better for you.

That may be a paid position. (For many of us, that will be unavoidable.) It may be as a volunteer. It may be as a creative where the talent you're developing takes years of practice before you're any good at it.

What you need to live well once you're old enough to retire isn't leisure, it's flexibility and purpose. In the last third of our lives we finally have the time to do what we want to do. Time for family and friends. Time to learn new things. Time to work on something you believe in.

The key is to figure out what's important enough to do. That's not as easy as it looks. We've been doing what's important to other people -- boss, company, spouse, kids, friends -- for most of our adult lives.

Too often, we don't decide what's important consciously and rely instead on "whatever comes along." Bad plan. Once you retire, you're out of the mainstream. "Whatever comes along" can be pretty limited.

Studies abound that show the positive mental and physical health effects of staying engaged as we age. A recent British study even reported that the onset of Alzheimer's seems to be delayed by continuing to work. We need better blueprints for what we're building as the last third of our lives. We're likely to live another 20 or even 30 years once we retire. "Go home and putter until you die" just doesn't fetch it.

This doesn't mean people should keep slaving away with 60-hour weeks doing work they've learned to hate. It makes sense to let go of that if you can. But it's not about giving up work entirely either.

It's about finding work you love that feels like play most of the time. And if you've been fortunate enough to find that kind of work early in your career and are already doing it, throttling back so you have some time for the rest of what you want in your life makes more sense than retiring. (If you already have a perfect balance, why even do that?)

Each of us is different, so how we shape this stage of our lives will be a kaleidoscope of variations. But in some ways we are the same. Everyone needs to feel relevant, useful, and valued. That's not part of the "golden years" model.

Defining the kind of life you want when you retire is just as important as having the money you need when it's time to let the job go. It's not something that can wait until after you retire to figure out. At least not if you really do want "the good life."