THE BLOG
09/05/2014 09:12 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

It's Time to Retire Our Definition of Retirement

Tomorrow in San Diego I'm speaking on "Thriving After 50" at the AARP's annual Ideas@50+ conference, which has me thinking about what retirement means in our culture today.

To withdraw, to go away, to retreat: These are the literal definitions of "retire," but, increasingly, they fail to accurately describe the possibilities of modern retirement. If we were choosing a word today for what life looks like as we hit our mid-60s, 70s and 80s, it seems unlikely that we'd land on "retirement." While these years bring many changes, for a growing number of people, this time of life is about anything but withdrawal or retreat.

So what to go with? "Second act"? F. Scott Fitzgerald notwithstanding, most people have long entered, and exited, multiple second acts long before they hit retirement age. So "third act"? "Next act"? "Final act"? (Much too morbid.) "Evolution"? "The shift"? "Metamorphosis"? "Transformation"? They're at least closer, because retirement now is mostly about change. And it may not look all that different from what immediately precedes it.

Just as the binary division of our day-to-day lives into "work" and "non-work" has broken down, retirement no longer means simply ending a long career. In the workplace there's a growing movement to think more holistically about our time -- a realization that our productivity, creativity, work time, leisure time, sleep, mental health, physical health and general well-being are all of a piece.

The same principles that allow us to thrive in our daily work lives can also help us thrive in retirement, or whatever we call it. Just as a productive workday depends on how we prepare ourselves for it (for example, by getting enough sleep and taking time to recharge ourselves in our off-hours), a productive, meaningful and purposeful retirement depends on what we put into it.

And right now putting enough into it, at least financially, isn't happening for far too many people. Experts estimate that for workers to keep their current standard of living, they need to have available anywhere from 10 to 20 times what they earn each year, yet, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, around 36 percent of American workers have less than $1,000 in retirement savings (outside their homes and pension plans), 60 percent have under $25,000, and 58 percent of working Americans say they have debt problems. Another study found that among middle-class working Americans, nearly half will be poor or almost poor in their retirement years, able to spend just $5 a day on food.

All this comes at an especially challenging time. The Great Recession has not resulted in anything like a "Great Recovery," with millions of workers still left out in the cold and many of the job gains coming in lower-wage sectors or in part-time work, neither of which is great for building up a retirement-savings account.

Add to that the fact that the so-called "sandwich generation" -- those who are supporting parents aged 65 or older while at the same time supporting a child -- will soon be approaching retirement. Though we Greeks have been happily sandwiching for, well, generations, for many it can be a severe financial strain. An astounding one in seven middle-aged American workers is giving some kind of financial support to both a parent and a child, and this is a number that seems likely to increase, as 14 percent of those aged 24 to 34 are still living with their parents.

All told, according to Boston College's Center for Retirement Research, the current retirement-income deficit -- the difference between the retirement resources current American workers will need and the retirement resources they have -- stands at a staggering $6.6 trillion.

On the upside, we're also living longer, with the remaining life expectancy of a 65-year-old American male having risen from 14.7 years in 1980 to 18.7 years in 2012. So it's no wonder that, on the downside, retirement is the top financial worry of most Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll.

So financial security is obviously important. And that means incorporating our retirement years into our day-to-day thinking in our younger working years -- something that's easier to do when we think of our lives and our well-being as a whole rather than split up into "work" and "non-work." This requires us to regularly pause, reflect and think about what it is we really want out of retirement. If we are engaged in a manic and distracted climb up the career ladder, it becomes just as easy to ignore our long-term financial well-being as it is to ignore our day-to-day well-being. At the moment only 44 percent of American workers say they've even tried to add up what they'll need for retirement.

I know, I know, every piece gives us all the same financial advice, on maxing our employer contributions, saving, etc. We all know it, just like we know we should eat a healthy mix of fruits and vegetables and get daily exercise. But we also know that life doesn't always work out the way we plan. And at a much larger level recent years have seen major changes in our economic and job landscapes, prompting more and more arguments that government policy should reflect those changes. Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at the New School, says it's time to acknowledge that simply recommending that people save more isn't enough. "This do-it-yourself pension system has failed," she writes. "It has failed because it expects individuals without investment expertise to reap the same results as professional investors and money managers." So she calls for the government to create mandatory, guaranteed retirement-savings accounts, which would be managed professionally. Likewise, Steven Rattner, who ran President Obama's task force to overhaul the automobile industry during the recession, advocates more government involvement, especially given the low savings rates of millennials. He notes the Australian policy of requiring that 9 percent of wages be put into retirement accounts, along with tax incentives to encourage even more savings voluntarily. "Young Americans are on track to be worse off in retirement than their parents," he writes. "Let's not just sit by and watch that happen."

Unfortunately, given the current toxic situation in Washington, it's unlikely that grand solutions, even those that would benefit almost everybody -- especially those that would benefit almost everybody -- are going to be getting a presidential signature anytime soon.

In a practical sense what this means for many Americans coming up on retirement is... not retiring. Indeed, three quarters of American workers believe they'll continue working past their retirement age. Many already are: Another poll found that the average retirement age is now 62, the highest since Gallup began asking the question in 1991. And for those born after 1960, the Social Security Administration has upped the age of retirement with full benefits to 67.

Of course, many will keep working because they have to financially. Others will keep working because the "gold" in our so-called "golden years" doesn't have to come from just watching sunsets. For many 70 really is the new 50. Increasingly people are rejecting the idea of retirement as a withdrawal. They want their later years to have as much meaning and purpose as their primary working years -- or, in the case of many, more purpose and more meaning.

Since retirement is often discussed in purely financial terms, we tend to think of retirement as a fixed supply of resources, to be drawn down little by little. So we are advised to prepare for our retirement by amassing a big-enough supply of resources and planning for how to protect those resources and dole them out in amounts as small as we can.

As necessary as this may be financially, there can be a tendency to let this kind of thinking dominate our approach to other aspects of retirement. This is what can make retirement seem like a diminishing, a disengagement, a time of constriction and shrinking possibilities.

But this doesn't have to be the case. A thriving retirement can, and should, be an amazing time of connection, engagement, expansion and widened possibilities. And the same forces that are converging to redefine success in the workplace -- the growing rejection of burnout, overwork and exhaustion, along with the recognition that thriving should go beyond the pursuit of money and power to include well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving back -- are also redefining retirement.

A growing number of resources exist to help people find their way in this new retirement landscape. The AARP has launched a project called Life Reimagined for Work, which bills itself as "a think-and-do lab dedicated to helping people reimagine their lives." The project helps connect people with companies looking to hire experienced employees, hosts group LinkedIn discussions on work and life issues and features stories about people who have gone on to successful second, third and fourth acts.

In partnership with the Small Business Administration, the AARP has also promoted April as Encore Entrepreneurial Mentor Month, in which those over 50 can attend workshops and seminars and take free online courses. This year nearly 120,000 people participated.

In 2007, at age 75, Jan Hively co-founded Shift, a nonprofit networking group that helps people find fulfilling and sustainable work later in life.

Encore.org is a nonprofit dedicated to promoting "second acts for the greater good" for those over 50. "We're envisioning this chapter as a time when we make some of our most important contributions, for ourselves, for our world, for the well-being of future generations," says founder and CEO Marc Freedman.

And just this week saw the publication of a new book called Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life, by Chris Farrell. "I don't think there will be a retirement crisis if we continue to work longer," he told Time's Mark Miller. "But we're going to want to do it with jobs that provide meaning rather than those that make people just miserable enough that they have to continue to work." The first step to a thriving "unretirement," he says, is to "begin by asking yourself what it is you want to be doing."

But to really know what we want to do, we have to know ourselves, what we really value and what makes us truly happy and fulfilled. It's not a surprise that when we define ourselves solely by our work and that work is taken away, we can find ourselves feeling lost and adrift, as happens to so many retirees. But if we realize that we're more than our résumés, it will make for a much easier transition to a time when we stop adding new items to those résumés.

One of the best ways to know ourselves is actually to connect with others. And giving is one of the most meaningful ways to connect. Of course, the principle of giving has been a pillar of virtually every religion and philosophical enterprise for millennia, but recently there has been a deluge of scientific studies validating this ancient wisdom about the power of giving to transform the giver as much as or more than the recipient. And retirement can be one of the richest opportunities to give.

More and more businesses are creating programs that encourage volunteering among their retirees. For instance, when 72-year-old Alan Toney retired from Michelin, he bought a motorcycle for a long-planned ride across all seven continents. Nine years later, having traversed all but Antarctica, he began volunteering by teaching underprivileged boys as part of Michelin's retirement program. "I love travel and motorcycles, but in the classroom it comes down to one basic truth," he said. "When I see the light come on in a kid's eyes, and he says, 'I get it!' It's priceless. I feel invested in these kids."

It's the kind of investment that's not often included when we talk about retirement. Whether our financial resources when we retire are fixed or not, our mental, emotional and spiritual resources are definitely not. They need to be regularly replenished and can continue to grow. And the way to make those resources grow the most is to constantly give them away.

As a building contractor, 59-year-old Barry Duckworth was looking for something where he could, as he put it, "be a kinder person." So he created a tutor-placement business that matches tutors to children who need them. "I get to hear about children who blossom as they grasp concepts that were alien to them before," he says. "Success for us means losing a customer."

Then there's 72-year-old David Roll, who was a Washington lawyer until his retirement 10 years ago. Now, in addition to writing books about history, he runs a nonprofit called Lex Mundi, which offers free legal services to social entrepreneurs. "I love it," he said. "It has its frustrations, because you've got to raise money to keep it going. But to have created something that is having an impact. ... Not every social entrepreneur is changing the world, but they are some doing amazing things."

Still other seniors are choosing to downsize, often selling nearly all their possessions, which they trade for mobility and freedom, qualities that can become diminished for many seniors. And with that freedom they have an even greater ability to connect and engage, like Gary Norton, who, after retiring from his 34-year career as a science professor at a South Dakota community college, bought an RV with his wife. Now he drives around the country volunteering, guided by organizations like Nomads on a Mission Active in Divine Service and Habitat for Humanity's RV Care-A-Vanners. Their projects often include helping rebuild communities hit by natural disasters. "Now what we're doing is so satisfying and fulfilling, even though we have some health issues, we say we don't want to quit," Norton said.

When we talk about retirement, we often use the same rhetoric that dominates our economic debate: how big our deficits are, how little we have to work with, what we can't do. It's time to open up the conversation to include our surpluses and what we can do, not just individually but collectively. All around us there are millions of the most creative, productive and entrepreneurial workers, people who have amassed incredible expertise and talents over decades, and then we "retire" them, along with all that accumulated talent, expertise and potential.

The way we think and talk about retirement needs to catch up to what is already happening. The time has come to retire the old definition of retirement. A thriving retirement is, of course, greatly aided by financial security, but to truly thrive means much more than just having met your "number" on a 401(k) statement. It means realizing that retirement can be a time of expansion, engagement and adventure.