Boomers don't speak with one voice when it comes to retirement. Although about four in 10 admit that they can't wait to retire, just as many say they won't ever want to stop working. Even more expect to work in retirement. The media, policy analysts and worker advocates have zeroed in on the would-be workers: Boomers, they suggest, will be the new face of retirement; they will do things their way -- combining spells of work and leisure in creative ways later in life, forging second or third careers, becoming senior entrepreneurs, even working to very advanced ages.
Many boomers will do some or all of these things, as even older workers are doing now. But boomers will also retire -- often early -- despite assertions to the contrary. In fact, they are doing that already. True, retirement-age boomers are more likely to be in the labor force today than their counterparts of a generation ago, thanks largely to women's rising labor force participation, but those who remain at work at age 65 are still in the minority.
Although the eligibility age for full Social Security benefits is now 66 for the oldest boomers, relatively few are waiting that long to collect, despite the promise of higher monthly benefits if they do.
Not all retirement or early Social Security receipt is by choice, of course. Even the best-laid plans may be thwarted by a company that goes under, relocates or reorganizes, by illness or disability or by unexpected caregiving demands. Long-term unemployment, which once again topped a year for older jobseekers according to the latest employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is especially devastating to finances. For those whose earnings have evaporated, Social Security can be a lifeline.
But workers opt to retire, too -- almost half of the retirees in a Metlife Mature Market Institute survey of boomers at age 65 retired because they had reached retirement age and/or wanted to stop working, could afford to retire or had received a retirement incentive from their employer. The fortunate retiree has access to a defined benefit (DB) pension plan or saved enough to maintain pre-retirement living standards. Others are prepared to live on less and cut back on expenses to get out from under an untenable boss or stressful job situation or to do something new and fun.
Rich Lodish of Bethesda, Maryland was a planner; over the years, this boomer built up his assets and was able to retire voluntarily after a long career in education. Commitment to service led him to take a year off to help set up a charter school in a transition neighborhood in Oakland, CA. He wanted to continue serving in a different way and retired to volunteer with the inner city poor and homeless, working directly with people who need help the most. And he does that by assisting second graders with their reading, serving meals to the homeless and developing a long-range plan to set up a charter school in DC within the next few years.
Unlike some of his boomer counterparts, Rich is not working for pay in retirement. Nor has he yet begun collecting Social Security because he knows that the longer you wait up (up to age 70), the larger the monthly benefit and he wants to take advantage of that. He could afford to wait since he has a 401(k) and his wife has a traditional defined benefit pension.
Boomer educator Jack Williams of LaGrange, New York also planned for retirement, although not one quite as early as he ended up with. Jack retired by choice, albeit with a nudge from a heart attack. He says the health problem made it much easier to retire, but living below his means made it possible: He and his wife have always been frugal and have saved all their lives: "No fancy cars, no fancy home. We had some dollar amounts in mind where we would be comfortable and we made it." On their frugality diet, Jack managed to retire at 55 and put one son through an Ivy League College; he will soon be paying the college fees of a second son. Jack spends his time golfing, fishing, hunting, reading, working on the lawn and spending time with his high-school son, but he also drives one day a week for a dental lab: "There is no pressure and it adds a bit of spending money." Both Jack and his wife have DB plans.
Rich and Jack are among the lucky ones -- financially able to retire early and go on to activities that are meaningful to them. They saved, but those DB pensions undoubtedly make their retirements considerably more secure than they would be otherwise. Fewer retirees in the future will have access to such pensions, which is likely to keep younger boomers and those who follow working longer. But while some boomers may be postponing retirement, those that do are not going to work forever. They don't need to -- just a few years longer in the workforce can make up for much of the savings deficiency they face.
And they are likely to enjoy that retirement if their already retired peers are any indication. Boomers who have called it quits seem to have adjusted rather well to retirement -- seven in 10 in the Metlife study report liking retirement "a lot." Retired boomers in the most recent AARP boomer survey also find retirement to their liking; over half agree that it is better than they thought it would be. As economist James Schulz, Professor Emeritus at Brandeis University, observed 25 years ago, "the research evidence is also very clear that once retired, most older persons adapt quickly to their new life situation and indicate a high degree of satisfaction with their lives." That seems to be true today, even if it takes boomers a little longer to get there.
David Nathan of AARP Media Relations contributed reporting to this blog.
"I have over ten thousand names in my [genealogical] file and am hooked on not just the facts, but the story-writing. I reconnect with cousins I haven't seen since I was a teen. I meet new relatives online and in person, even fifth cousins, who I never know I had... There's nothing like knowing that you had an ancestor in the Battle of Saratoga..." -<em>Jean Benning</em>, 75
"I traveled with the Hershey (Pennsylvania) Community Chorus to sing in Wales. When you visit the valleys in the east it's like going back in time; people aren't attached to their computers and mobile phones. I started renting an apartment in the city of Pontypool for six months a year. Now I have a lot of friends there and even volunteer at a shop where the proceeds support cancer research." -<em>Judith Emmers</em>, 69
"I'm lucky enough to live across the street from a gym. I go over there two mornings a week and work out for an hour at 5:30 a.m., and then see a trainer for another hour. I also do water aerobics three times a week. I do it so I can keep doing the things I love, not because I love the exercise. I didn't start exercising until I was sixty-six." -<em>Corinne Lyon</em>, 74
"I spent my seventieth birthday in a hot tub six thousand feet up Mount Hood. I didn't want my kids to think they had to do something special." -<em>Carolyn Rundorff</em>, 71
"A group of us organized a trip along the Natchez Trace from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi. We researched stops and places to stay, and every day one of us was the designated driver to haul the gear. You want to know the people fairly well before you set out on something like this. We covered 444 miles in less than a week." -<em>Bill Dunn</em>, 65
"We started the Canetti Literary Society in December 1981. [Elias] Canetti...had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I have a Masters in Literature and had never heard of Canetti. So I thought it was a good time to read his work, and the best way would be to have a book club with other women who might be interested in reading good literature. We are still in existence." -<em>Anne Richtel</em>, 95
"I'm training to be a museum docent at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The training to be certified is rigorous -- six hours a week for six weeks, then shadowing a certified docent, then delivering your spiel to two different staff members in two different areas of the museum." -<em>Therese Wilkin</em>, 63
"I began morris dancing in 1984 and long sword dancing in 1989. These forms are English and date back several centuries. I get exercise; a very close bond with a group of people of both genders and a variety of ages; the challenge of learning and performing a wide variety of rather complex and demanding dances; and the satisfaction of helping keep ancient traditions alive and growing." -<em>Robert Orser</em>, 79
"It is lovely to come to this physical and spiritual, scientific and creative body of knowledge at this point in my life. When I talk over the back fence with my gardening neighbors or give someone a bouquet of flowers from my garden, I know just how my grandmother and mother felt when they did the same thing." -<em>Ally McKay</em>, 68
"We had one piece that we were doing at a festival, which we had only a short time to learn, and we rehearsed on the bus to Abilene. We were the last to perform, and our director was very nervous. We rehearsed one last time before going on, and everyone in the choir got every note right. It's a pleasure you can't understand if you haven't done it. It really keeps you going." -<em>Mary Roberson</em>, 70
"The best part of community theater is that no one cares about your politics, your religion, or your money. Everyone's on the same bus. I've gotten so much out of it. My closest friends come from there. The ones I depend on, the ones who have my back, come from the theater." -<em>Ellen Kazin</em>, 71
"When I retired I took several Road Scholar watercolor trips and subsequently read everything I could find on Winslow Homer... My wife suggested that I had uncovered so much material on Homer that I should write a book... The rewards are beyond my fondest dreams...I believe that has brought me as close to the Master as one can get." -<em>Robert Demarest</em>, 83
"I started [studying Italian] when my husband and I were planning our first of four Road Scholar trips to Italy. I have found other people -- over two hundred of them, to be exact -- in an organization called Il Circolo Italiano on the Philadelphia Main Line, who come together to speak and promote the Italian Language and culture... They are the warmest people you would every want to meet." -<em>Jean Benning</em>, 75
"I wanted to do something in retirement that would give back to the community and to people in need, and this seemed to be an excellent candidate... The major reward is seeing families that are living in great need...partner with us in building first other people's and then their own homes, and then move into what in most cases is the first home they have ever owned." -<em>Robert Bond</em>, 75