If 75 is the new 65, is death the new retirement?

A few years back, my buddy Chris taught me about bluegrass music. Because we lived in southwest Virginia, it was easy to go to bluegrass concerts and festivals, and it seemed like half the bars in my area hosted a bluegrass night with live music.

In 2000 and 2001, one of the themes of my education was the great John Hartford. As Hartford fought non-Hodgkins lymphoma, he continued to tour the country, playing an impressive schedule of concert dates and leaving a final legacy of amazing music. I was lucky enough to see him a few times over those two years, and I was left with a bottomless admiration for his skill and dedication. I realized that, like John Hartford, I never wanted to retire. I wanted to love something so much that I would be happy to continue doing it up until the moment of my death.

This was a fantastic revelation, as I also realized that, things being what they are, I would probably never be able to stop working. While my parents' jobs in the military and the government carried hefty pensions, my work in academia was only going to leave me with a small monthly stipend. While my grandparents' generation could look forward to fairly hefty social security checks and private pensions, it was pretty clear that I couldn't count on living off the government teat. Assuming that Social Security still exists in 30 years, I am willing to bet that my monthly checks will cover a few packets of ramen and some cat food, with enough left over for a box of Tic-Tacs.

Of course, there are other ways to approach the revelation that my retirement won't be subsidized by the Man. A recent survey by Agewave and Charles Schwab revealed some very interesting perceptions of retirement and old age. For example, the 21-31 age cohort (Generation Y) expects that 61% of their retirement funds will be self-supplied. By comparison, the 63-83 age cohort expects to have 68% of their retirement funded by other sources. To the extent that they expect to retire, Generation Y is planning to foot the bill themselves.

According to the survey, the general perception is that old age begins at 75. With the average retirement age currently in the early 60's and life expectancy constantly creeping upward, many people are expecting to have up to 30 years of post-retirement life. This is not to say that they plan to be idle: 40% of respondents stated that they expect to cycle between periods of work and retirement after they leave their careers. Some 60% stated that they intended to enter a different line of work, and most respondents agreed that staying mentally active was their dominant reason for working in retirement; presumably, the paycheck was irrelevant.

Many also see retirement as a time for reinforcing family bonds. Some 40% of Schwab's respondents anticipate that they will have to support their parents, and 10% anticipate having to support a sibling. 45% have stated that they see old age as a time to give back to their families, friends, and community.

Schwab's survey is pretty amazing, as it indicates a revolutionary shift in the way that communities interact and people relate to their work, their retirement, and their old age. For example, it seems to indicate that current retirement trends will encourage the sort of family/community bonds that have been absent for much of the last fifty years. Once upon a time, multiple generations often lived under the same roof, alternately providing money, child care and elder care to each other. It looks like this may be the case again.

Another side of the survey is its awareness that traditional retirement is probably a thing of the past. For those of us who have grown up on the downward slope of the largest demographic bulge in history, it always seemed like a foregone conclusion that, if Social Security survived the Boomers, our benefits would probably kick in somewhere around age 96. While the fact that I'm likely to work right up until my death may seem a little grim, the knowledge of that fact gives me some room to prepare. After all, if I'm going to die at my desk, I want to be sure that my workspace is located in a place that I like, and that I'm doing something worthwhile!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Somehow, the idea of dying at a computer, surrounded by grandchildren, and trying to come up with the perfect word doesn't seem like a tragedy.
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