For decades, retirement in the United States has meant a pat on the back, a gold watch, and a dozen or so years of golf, gardening, and increasingly frequent visits to the doctor.
But retirees - and therefore retirement - are changing. People are leaving their jobs at younger ages and living longer than ever before. In the process, they're creating a new stage in their lives that finds them in good health and ready for interesting and challenging activities, not for the rocking chair. Sociologists haven't yet come up with a good name for this new life phase - post-career? pre-geezer? - but whatever they call it, it's clear that society needs to make some adjustments for this new class of Americans.
"I like to call them 'seasoned' citizens rather than 'senior' citizens," says Phyllis Moen, the college's Ferris Family Professor of Life Course Studies. "They're an entirely new breed of retiree. They're young and healthy and they're not ready for our traditional version of retirement. You can only play so much golf or watch so much television. I think the idea of retirement itself is going to be 'retired.'"
Moen, who also is director of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center and codirector of the Cornell Applied Gerontology Research Institute, says that because of earlier retirements and increased longevity, Americans can now expect to spend as much as one-third of their lives in the "golden years," with many of those years in good health. The average age at retirement has dropped from 67 in 1950 to 62 today. Nearly 2 million people retire each year and, as the baby boom generation begins to leave the work force, that number will rapidly increase. By the turn of the century as many as 3 million people may retire annually. By 2030 there will be more people in the country over 65 than there are people under 18.
"We have a life phase that's never existed before," she says. "For example, when my grandmother was my age, she was an old woman. When my mother was my age, she was healthier than my grandmother had been yet still nowhere near as vigorous and capable as I am. But we're applying the same retirement rules we had for my grandparents to people who are much healthier and more energetic."
The concept of retirement is only fifty or so years old. Before the industrialization of America, most people worked until they died or until illness or infirmity forced them to stop.
"In the United States, retirement didn't become widespread until the New Deal," says Moen. "Prior to that, only the railroad industry had a retirement program, and that was created because people of a certain age were considered no longer skilled. It was the creation of Social Security and generous corporate pension programs that made retirement both affordable and commonplace."
Moen points out that during the sixties, seventies, and early eighties, there was a normative time to retire. For most people, 65 was the magic number. Social Security kicks in fully at that age and many companies had policies for mandatory retirement at 65.
"But now there's much wider variation," she says. "It's like other social transitions. People used to marry within a fairly narrow time band and have children at a certain age. Now all types of transitions are occurring all across the board."
Moen is in the midst of an ongoing study of retirees and older workers that is providing revealing information about their life quality and how their retirement years might be made more rewarding. The project focuses on a random sample of 762 men and women between the ages of 50 and 72. Respondents are drawn from two Fortune 500 companies, a large utility, two hospitals, and a large university, all in upstate New York. At the time of the first round of interviews, about 60 percent of the respondents had retired and 40 percent were still employed but nearing retirement age. The average age of the retirees was 62 and that of the workers was 56. …