In their seminal 1991 book Generations, A History of America’s Future, authors Neil Howe and William Strauss presented the idea that social generations are cyclical and that four “archetype” personality types define all generations. They suggest that each archetype typically lasts approximately 20 years, meaning that each archetype will repeat itself roughly every 80 years, or as they suggest, over the course of one average human lifespan.
Similarly, over the last few years as the Rethinking Retirement Institute has studied the social and cultural history of retirement, we’ve come to identify four separate versions of retirement that have existed in the United States since the inception of Social Security.
Retirement version 1.0 was the original ”one-foot-already-in-the-grave” version of retirement. It was created when FDR signed the Social Security Act in 1935 and extended into the late 1950’s. During this time retirement wasn’t viewed as something to celebrate, but rather as the somewhat public recognition that as a worker, one had very little left to contribute to society.
Retirement version 2.0 became known as the “Rocking Chair Retirement.” As life expectancies increased through the 1960’s and ‘70’s, retirees entered this phase of life with somewhat better health, but social attitudes kept many retirees of this era relegated to the sidelines with little to do but pass the time.
Retirement version 3.0 saw the birth of retirement as a “20-30 Year Vacation.” The mantra of the era changed from “He who dies with the most, wins!” to “He who retires first, wins!” Early retirement became a sign of personal and professional success. These became the golden years where your only objective was to enjoy the luxuries and benefits of a lifetime of hard work.
By the time the early 2000’s rolled around however, 60 had become the new 50, and people were “retiring” from their primary careers with more gas in the tank and a strong desire to give back and continue to contribute in a personally meaningful way. Retirement version 4.0 became a chance to “Renew” yourself and finally go do what you had always wanted to do.
In the course of our work in identifying these versions of retirement, we began to see similarities in these ”versions” of retirement and the “archetypes” identified by Strauss and Howe. The Missionary generation who entered retirement in the 1940’s and viewed retirement as one step from the grave share the same archetype as today’s baby boomers. The Lost generation who passively endured the “rocking chair” retirement share the same archetype as today’s Gen X. Does that mean they’ll transform retirement the same way? Maybe not exactly, but the similarities are striking.
Just as the Missionary Generation viewed retirement as the public acknowledgement of being “all used up”, today’s baby boomers are deathly afraid of being considered irrelevant. For a generation that has impacted everything they’ve touched and every stage of life they’ve gone through, the idea of being relegated to the sidelines is tantamount to a death sentence. Various studies - including the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s Retirement Confidence Survey - continue to show how boomers are increasing the average retirement age with many saying they will never retire.
What’s important about this is to recognize that while many will point to the Great Recession as the reason for boomer’s delaying retirement, the underpinnings for a longer working career have been in place for decades. The lack of financial preparation for retirement didn’t just appear in 2008, the attitudes and behaviors of this generation have been leading to this moment for decades. While many in the media continue to talk about the retirement tsunami that is the baby boomers, the reality is that the real retirement legacy of the baby boomers may be to readjust our perception of retirement not as encompassing the final one-third of one’s life, but rather as a return to the idea that retirement – true retirement – is meant to encompass perhaps only the final 10-15% of one’s lifetime. Only when they feel they’ve made their contribution to society, will the boomers be ready to retire with one foot in the grave.