Social Studies

One Thing I Know: Redefining Retirement

If married women’s movement into the workforce was the labor market story of the 20th century, the aging workforce and growing retired force will be the story of the early 21st.

But everything we think we know about retirement is wrong. Indeed, one thing I know is that retirement as we know it is unraveling.

Not so very long ago, retirement was regarded as the capstone to a successfully built career. It was the endpoint in a rigid, prescripted life (and work) course—a linear progression from education to employment to the “golden years” of retirement.

This lockstep model, though, really only reflected the experiences of some white, middle-class, and unionized blue-collar men in the 1960s and 70s. Even so, 20th century public policies such as Unemployment Insurance, the Fair Labor Standards Act, Medicare, and Social Security were all based on a standardized model of full-time, continuous employment followed by continuous retirement. And they, too, served to institutionalize the taken-for-granted, lockstep model of retirement.

By the 1980s, most American men and a growing number of women aspired to the mystique of a rewarding career followed by a fulfilling retirement—the “good life” in return for hard work, long hours, and continuous employment. Retirement, a time of uninterrupted leisure, was seen as a well-deserved “prize” for playing by the rules. In fact, better health, larger pensions, and the allure of the golden years led to earlier and earlier retirements, with many leaving the workforce at or before age 62. Language and aged-based cultural expectations divided the adult population into “workers,” “home makers,” and “retirees.”

The early 21st century presents a very different picture. The vast cohort of older boomers, and those just preceding them (the war cohort), are confronting shifting policies and challenges to job and economic security, even as they enjoy unprecedented levels of health, longevity, and education. For the first time in history, large numbers of women hold jobs from which they expect to retire. And, for younger workers, the notion of a “career” has been supplanted by a series of jobs, sometimes arranged into a “career path,” but often experienced as discrete—and disparate—periods of employment.

Further, people around the conventional retirement age are no longer considered “old.” As the transition to adulthood is postponed and longevity increases, Americans in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s find themselves in the middle, rather than at the end, of the contemporary adult life course.

Today, then, retirement is no longer an “event,” but a project. No longer a one-way, one-time, age-graded event, retirement may come unexpectedly as part of a forced buyout or layoff (followed by job searches thwarted by age discrimination). It may become impossible at any age because of a worker’s economic situation. Or, it may be eagerly undertaken as a chance to take up a second or third career, casual employment, or unpaid but rewarding civic engagement.

Whatever it looks like, though, Americans have not established a language or system to address the older workforce and growing retired force of the 21st century. The customs, rules, and laws dividing retirement from work all require reexamination as growing numbers of retirees expect to work (part-time, part-year, or as a volunteer) in retirement. As old norms break down, so, too, must our rigid expectations and definitions of contemporary retirement.

This article first appeared in Contexts magazine, Winter 2010.