The woman to my right at the table was beautiful; striking smooth grey hair, an elegant style of dress that I admired and would happily have copied. At one point when I asked her to introduce herself — I was leading a workshop on promoting books through social media.
It was then that I learned that she was 70 — I had assumed she was in her sixties. Her vibrant enthusiasm for her project was infecting me, and I thought, not for the first time, about how much time I have to be productive. Decades!
Last summer, I joined the board of a longtime nonprofit for writers in Oregon. “New blood,” said the co-founder and president, as she welcomed me and a group of other near-40-year-olds. Soon I realized that she and her friends had launched the organization when they were all our age.
I’ve been impressed as we’ve tried to schedule meetings only to find that they are busier than we “young” folks. One woman has her family’s timber farm to manage and teaches violin three days a week, when she’s not volunteering in schools.
These people are examples of what some reporters have taken to calling “the retireless,” and if you ask me, they are lovely examples to follow. Note that the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks workers 75 and older, projecting that by 2020 10% of those in this age group will still be in the workforce.
Retirement or retireless?
When I was looking for a link to a piece I had heard on APM’s Marketplace, I came across an interesting headline. The story didn’t look worth clicking, but I loved the provocative question: “retirement or retireless?”
It’s a worthwhile question. After almost four years of “points” for his Desert Shield deployments, my husband is likely headed toward a career in what’s know as AGR, “Active Guard/Reserve,” meaning that he may be one of those rare individuals who retires with an actual retirement.
But more and more of us (me) are employed in careers that only offer elective retirement plans — 401(k) and the like — or are self-employed entrepreneurs. Many of us have no future that involves a retirement party, and certainly not pension checks or other third-party income in our late 60s and onward.
Need or want?
And then there’s the question of desire…
While many of those working into their 70s are doing so because they haven’t saved enough money, those that I know seem to be doing so partly because they’re not ready to stop yet. Take all my friends at the writers’ nonprofit; while they’re interested in doing things that they want to do, not things that a boss orders, they’re still interested in doing things.
My eyes pop when I see the great spreadsheet of conference registrations sent to me by a retirement-aged conference chair. She’s done everything I would have expected from a paid event planner, and more. The writers who have left their corporate careers spend hours each day on their book projects. One is a retired judge, writing a book on mentoring boys. Another is a retired school teacher, writing middle grade thrillers.
At the coffee shop where I hang out sometimes, I run into a lot of grandparent-aged women who are caring for their grandchildren during the day, or the children of friends. These women are grateful for the chance to spend time with the small children in their lives, but they’re also grateful for the income.
It’s need AND want
The government projects, and the prevailing belief in personal finance theory agrees, that as we live longer, with better health in the later decades, we’re more likely to want to be productive in those years. And that is borne out by a look at my icons from my early twenties…
Poet Sharon Olds, over 70, just won a major poetry award for her latest book. Warren Buffett, 82, is still the head of Berkshire Hathaway. Hillary Clinton looks headed for a presidential race at the age of 69, taking her comfortably into her 70s as chief executive of America if she wins. Joan Didion is 78 and still writing incisively.
Even those of us who are not famously amazing are doing wonderful things; I have only to look to my community to see good work being done past retirement age. I suppose the big question for us to ask ourselves is, “can I do the work I love in retirement, or must I do work just to work?” — and that is the thing we can answer best by sensible savings.
It could be something to free us all from the serious anxiety that many face when retirement approaches. Maybe we can’t all save enough to allow us to play, travel, and live a high-octane life without work. But maybe we can save enough to do only the work we love when we hit retirement age.
For me, that is a lovely goal, and one that reflects what I will likely do with my life. I can’t imagine ever deciding — unless I was very ill or had other limitations — to retire from writing. It’s something I’ll always do, and my focus is to create a retirement savings plan that gives me the flexibility to only write (and edit, and teach writing, and promote writing) for love when I hit my 70s.
What about you? Do you think you’ll retire entirely from the world of work? Or do you imagine you’ll still be working when you hit “retireless” age? Will it be need, want, or a combination?