The notion of retirement and the ways it is put into practice are both old and new. History tells us that people have always desired to reduce their labors at the end of life, just as they have always needed some plan to transfer authority and resources to younger generations. "The motive to withdraw and the need to have social succession have always been there," says David Ekerdt, "but how this works out is always changing-and that's what is interesting"
To bring readers up to date and to provide perspective on the new realities of work and retirement, Generations has invited Ekerdt, one of the premier researchers in the field, and Helen Dennis, a specialist on aging, employment, and retirement planning, to collaborate as guest editors for this issue. Their scholarly and practical work has spanned the growth of retirement as an area of study.
David Ekerdt is a professor of sociology and senior research scientist at the Gerontology Center of the University of Kansas. He was formerly on the faculties of Boston University and Harvard, served as a research sociologist for the Boston VA's long-term Normative Aging Study, is the former editor of the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, and has published widely on retirement and health and the social and psychological aspects of retirement. His research has been credited with dispelling many of the stereotypical images of retirement- as detrimental to health and relationships, for one.
Ekerdt, who edited the first issue of Generations on retirement more than ten years ago, describes an evolving field. "These days, retirement is no longer simply a concern of late middle-age," he says. "Now it is largely an issue across adulthood, a more general concern, because of the financial responsibility we are supposed to have for our own retirement. I am just fascinated by the explosion of interest in and information about the subject.
"Retirement, when I began, was mainly a problem of personal adjustment. Those questions have now been settled. By and large, people did find retirement to be satisfying. The questions now are more about demographics and economic costs to society-from personal adjustment to individual change to societal adjustments, with worries about Social Security, private pensions, the oncoming baby boom cohort. And in the 198os, we had that question about generational fairness.
"Retirement wasn't better financed in the past than it is now, but people had lower expectations. Perhaps we've seen the satisfaction of a good retirement. In the 1990s people were shown the dazzling possibilities for this. But it's going to take more money to support a longer, leisure-filled later life.
"And on the other hand," he says, " what once was a distinct transition to retirement is blurring. For many reasons, people are now thinking that it might not be bad to have longer work lives. The behavior is more complex"
Ekerdt continues to address the complexity of retirement and aging in general, most recently as editor in chief of the Macmillan Encyclopedia ging (2002), a four-volume reference work published this summer. "Our task of discovering how notions of aging and retirement mesh with reality continues to be important," he says, "for the work of practitioners and policy makers and especially so that older people and all of us can make decisions based on what is true. …