It’s hard to find a discussion of retirement these days that doesn’t start out marveling at how retirement has changed. People living longer and healthier, not content to just sit in a rocker or play golf every day.
True, but also not true. First of all, not everyone is living longer and healthier. By definition, half of all people die before their life expectancy (the other half live longer than life expectancy). Second, lots of people do want to mainly kick back in retirement. Yes, few just want to sit all day or play all day, but to them, the focus of retirement is rest, leisure, enjoyment, and getting things done that one didn't have time for while working full time – some of which can be very active and purposeful. There are lots of ways to expend energy that don’t involve paid work, and golf is only one of them. Travel for instance, or taking care of the grandkids, or spending time and sharing interests with friends old and new. And anyone who thinks having a vacation home, getting into gardening, owning a boat, starting up a new hobby, or lots of other things "retired" people stereotypically like to do, are not time-consuming and heavy on effort simply hasn't tried them.
And none of this is new, by the way. Although in olden days fewer people lived into old age, there have always been a lot who did. And they mostly didn’t just sit in rockers, and most of them never played golf in their lives. Before the time of Social Security (which is less than 80 years old) and employer pension plans, the concept of “retirement age” barely existed. People worked as long as they had to, could, or wanted to. “Retirement” then, much like retirement today, generally didn't mean not being productive. It just meant slowing down, and leaving the heavy lifiting to the younger folks. But there were plenty of ways to help out on the farm, or in the family business, or in the family itself, and age was usually no exemption from responsibility. Only the financially well off (and the infirm) could retire into leisure. But even then, many did not.
The Roman emperor Diocletian actually retired from being emperor, the only one to do so voluntarily. He “retired” from his throne to a farm, but being lord of an ancient farm was not exactly a life of leisure. This is my own life plan by the way: to retire to a farm after being emperor of western civilization.
But seriously, there is little “new” about the “new retirement” – except the number of people who now live long enough, and have enough financial security, to do it. And that does make a difference, because with this growing population of elders there is an increasing variety of organizations that are there for them, offering every imaginable kind of service: specialized health care, housing, job opportunities (paid and unpaid), leisure and travel opportunities, educational programs, programs for spiritual renewal, matchmaking services, transportation, clothing, exercise programs – and lots more, including advice on how to pull it all together, which is my own specialty.
Being out in the country here in Harvard, we locals don't have all of these options close at hand, but you don’t have to travel very far to find them. And many are as within reach as the nearest computer or smart phone.
Human nature doesn’t change, but opportunities do, and that’s what’s new about the new retirement. Whatever it means, in your case, to retire your way, there are plenty of new opportunities to make it happen.
Chuck Yanikoski is a retirement adviser who lives in Harvard. You can reach him through his website,