The long expected flush of new retirees looms very large in the future of our society. Will Social Security last? (Yes, I believe that it will for the boomers but the next generation will likely see necessary cuts and the age you can draw benefits will continue to rise or the system will fail.) What will happen when so many millions of Americans reach 80 and beyond, living far beyond what was expected in previous times? In a little more than a century Americans have gone from a life expectancy of 47 to 78. By 2025 there will be 66 million Americans over 65. For many of us retirement is turning out to be what has been called “un-tirement.” Boomers are likely to alter the landscape in more ways than one, just as they have from the 1960s to now.
Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman says there are two diverging narratives about older age and the idea of the “Golden Years” of retirement. I think she is on to something worth considering.
The first narrative can be seen in book titles and various references to “the third age” or “the next step.” I’ve even heard about the “age of active wisdom.” (I rather like that myself.) The idea of a post-retirement career is heard everywhere. One has called it an “encore career.” This idea is to applaud and encourage people to seek purposeful work after they leave one stage of life for another. Senior life, in this vision, is less about entitlements and more about about contributing.
The second narrative competes aggressively with the first. This vision sees a “shock of gray” overrunning Social Security and Medicare. In this narrative, elders are the problem, not the problem solvers. The attitude of boomers themselves, in this narrative, can be summed up in one word used by a recent Pew study: “glum.” Charles Schwab represents this narrative when it says: “My wild retirement dream? Actually retiring.”
The culture sends many signals about elders. They clog the pipeline to tenure and keep jobs younger and better workers want. They are inflexible and chronically obstreperous. They are great creators of music, film and art. They even build growing companies. But which is it? What is the dominant narrative to be?
Goodman rightly says these two narratives might not be the only choices but they do seem to frame two sides well. In the first, older Americans are strategic to the future of the country and the future. In the other, they are burdens to be dealt with. She calls this: “The Longevity Revolution.”
I have all the questions about the future that anyone in my generation has but I have hope. Whatever befalls me I am in God’s care and his love will protect me until the end of my days. But I also consciously opt to frame my life by the first narrative more than the second. Maybe this is a result of my optimism. I think it is clearly a result of my missional vision of the church. This is a time to truly redefine aging. It is a time to be good stewards with the years God will give us. It is not the time to quit but to gain new perspective on service. After all, we already know that those who lose themselves in giving and serving others remain healthy and happy longer. Christians, of all people, should know this and be planning accordingly.