WELLNESS
02/24/2017 08:04 am ET Updated Feb 24, 2017

The Way Americans Retire Is Broken. Here Are 5 Ideas For Fixing It.

Because we need a better plan for those next 20 years.

Retirement, for me, is like stepping off the diving board into the deep pool of the rest of my life ― a little scary with no turning back once I’ve done it. 

I’m 67, squarely in the crosshairs of the “when should I retire?” conversation. The discussion is generally framed around how much money you need, but trust me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

While the average baby born in 1900 didn’t live past age 50, life expectancy at birth today is 78.8 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If retirement starts at 65, that means a lot of people are looking at 15 to 20 years of doing whatever they desire. Does anyone really want or need 20 years of unstructured time?

For that matter, why do we assume that everyone is ready to stop working at one predetermined age? We aren’t, and the numbers prove it. Over the coming decade, older workers are predicted to be the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among 65- to 74-year-olds, labor force participation will hit 32 percent by 2022, up from 20 percent in 2002. For those age 75 and up, the rate will jump from 5 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2022. 

The reasons why people don’t retire are multi-faceted. It might be financial ― the recession wiped out their savings or adult kids are still living at home. It could be to maintain health care coverage for a spouse who is too young to qualify for Medicare. But it may be because they like going to the office every day and have no burning desire to do anything else.

The idea of retirement has shifted through the ages. So perhaps today’s concept needs revamping. Here are some ideas:

1. Replace retirement with sabbaticals.

If someone wants to leave the workforce because they have a bucket list of things to do with their time and money before they die, they should go for it. But I happen to love my job ― which is not to say that I wouldn’t mind a little more time off. I also love to travel and want to see some far-away places.

Instead of the Big R, a much better idea for scratching my travel and adventure itch would be a nice sabbatical.

As Linda Sharkey and Morag Barrett write in The Future-Proof Workplace, “For many, retirement at the end of a career no longer makes sense, but sabbaticals during careers may.”

Once the sole purview of academia, sabbaticals are a hot employee benefit these days. Paid sabbatical leave is offered at just 5 percent of U.S. companies, according to the Society of Human Resource Management. Yet nearly 25 percent of the employers on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2012 offer the option. Even people who aren’t anywhere near retirement applaud the inclusion of sabbaticals in their benefits package.

Simply put, paid sabbaticals are the things workers’ dreams are made of: a chance to step out of the Dilbert cubicle and pursue a project, travel, break from the daily grind and spend time with loved ones. In other words, a short-term retirement. 

Sometimes that’s all we need, regardless of our age.

2. Phase in retirement.

Why does retirement have to mean that one day you’re a vital part of the organization and the next day you’re chopped liver?

Letting people retire gradually is less jarring to the corporate eco-system than abrupt departures. It gives the company time to hire and train someone for the position being vacated. Remember, it’s not just skills that are walking out the door. Older workers have institutional knowledge that can be hard to replace.

A transition period helps the retiring employees, too. Reducing the number of hours worked ― say, cutting back by 12 hours a week to start ― gives people the chance to figure out how to fill their free time before they’re looking at a yawningly empty calendar. It clarifies why saying “let’s do lunch” when all your friends still have day jobs isn’t a plan.

A happy retirement often requires time to make or re-establish friendships. There are psychological adjustments to be made: coping with the loss of your career identity, replacing support networks you had through work and spending more time than ever before with your spouse or partner. Phasing that in just makes things run more smoothly.

3. Keep retirees in the corporate family.

It used to be that once you got the gold watch, the pension checks kicked in and that place where you worked for 40 years was done with you. Now, very little of that happens. Not the gold watch, not the corporate pension and not the experience of staying at one company for 40 years.

But how great would it be to erase the “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” mentality? People need to belong to something bigger than themselves, and places of employment have long assumed a paternal role in our lives. Maybe it’s time companies reconsidered how they treat their retirees. 

Instead of kicking them to the curb, keep them involved. Why not give them the same corporate discounts they had when they worked there? How about some free legal advice for estate planning, gym memberships, etc.?

If nothing else, the business sets a tone of respecting one’s elders ― which, with America’s aging workforce, isn’t such a bad idea. And it keeps in touch with a group of people who know a lot about how the company works ― people who could be brought back as mentors, trainers and vacation fill-ins.

4. Don’t cap the financial incentive for delaying Social Security benefits.

The government set my retirement age at 66 ― that is, the point at which I was eligible to collect full retirement benefits from Social Security. But it also allowed me to take a pass on that birthday gift and delay receiving my monthly checks. By not claiming benefits until age 70, those checks will be 32 percent higher.

But 70 is where it stops. There is no additional increase after you reach age 70 even if you continue putting off retirement. Why not? There should be.

The prevailing wisdom says to delay the start of Social Security benefits for as long as possible. But the statistics show that few Americans are listening. Most people claim benefits before their full retirement age. Of those who started receiving benefits in 2012, around 40 percent were 62 years old, the earliest age allowed. That year, a mere 3 percent had waited past their full retirement age to begin claiming benefits.

To be sure, some people can’t wait, for financial or health reasons. But think of how much money the Social Security program would save in the short term if everybody who could do so delayed claiming benefits until age 75. And then when we did collect, the benefits might actually be enough to live on.

5. Make volunteering great again.

Some retirees shun the idea of volunteering. Maybe there’s some old-school thinking at play here where a person’s value is measured in dollars and the idea of giving away your talents and skills just doesn’t sit well.

Someone recently told me that they didn’t volunteer because it would be “taking a paid job away from someone.” Others claim lack of time or even lack of opportunity. Seriously.

In 2014, the volunteer rate among Americans was 25.4 percent and dropping, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s just 1 in 4 adults, and the lowest rate in a decade. (Official data on volunteer rates go back only to 2002.)

If the rates for retirees are at all similar, that’s a tremendous waste of talent.

As educator Charlie Nelms wrote four years after he retired as a university chancellor, “Imagine for a moment the positive impact a corps of organized and trained volunteers could have on the educational achievement of kids who struggle with reading, math or achieving foreign language competence.”

Nelms added, “Just imagine the impact we retirees could have if we each volunteered just one hour a week as a GED tutor or reader for the blind.” 

Kind of a win-win, isn’t it?

As for me, I think I’ll be testing out the diving board for a while longer.

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