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Author's Thesis Falls Short
on June 28, 2007
Like an earlier book by Marc Freedman that I've read, I think the best part of his new book may be when he tells us of the history of retirement in America. In this case, it's Chapter Two, entitled, "Inventing the Golden Years."
Freedman really can tell a story. He takes us back to the era when there were no pensions and no Social Security. Workers worked until they dropped and/or they lived in poverty. Older people suffered greatly during the Great Depression.
But by 1940, the New Deal brought Social Security and a base of income for life to retired Americans.
Then, Freedman tells us of another milestone: He takes us to 1949 and the negotiations between the powerful autoworkers union and the Ford Motor Company. The union was demanding $100 per month in guaranteed pension income, and it got it for workers who put in 30 or more years. This would be in addition to Social Security.
By the end of WWII, retirement incomes got even better, as the post-war economy allowed for more generous pensions. And the companies wanted the older workers to move on, so they could replace them with younger workers at lower salaries.
But retirement lacked a psychological foundation, a reason for being. This is where the financial services companies came into the picture. Life insurance companies began to promote the idea that it was in retirement that life was at its best. "It was the chance for a second childhood, an endless vacation," said the marketers.
And by 1960, Del Webb entered the scene with the original Sun City in Arizona, attracting 100,000 at the opening weekend of the development. It is Webb that is attributed with inventing the term the "Golden Years." Soon, half of the residents of Arizona aged sixty-five and older lived in gated communities, like Sun City.
And this image was so good that it translated into the goal of "early" retirement for many other workers. The percentage of men in the workplace at age 65 dropped like a lead balloon. Says Freedman, "The older population had become the nation's true leisure class."
Like I said, Freedman can tell a story. And, it is a good one, one that is being lived to the hilt today by tens of millions of Americans, living the new American dream: Retirement.
But this last sentence is from me, not Freedman. No, Freedman spends the rest of the book trying to convince us that a life of endless leisure and a lack of responsibility is bad for individuals and for society.
You see, Freedman's thing is to make a case that those who seek "encore careers" instead of a life of leisure are the models that older folks should follow. He uses simplistic arguments and examples to degrade traditional retirement and lots of psychobabble to tell us that there is something "new" out there that is reinventing retirement. Golfing is his symbol of what cannot possibly be sustained as meaningful in retirement, for example.
In short, Freedman "turns" on retirement with a vengeance and, in my opinion, doesn't even try to fight fair. He just declares himself the winner. For example, he says, "...retirement, once a powerful version of the American dream, has been distorted into something that no longer works for most individuals - or for the nation." At one point, he even labels traditional retirement as "grotesque." And he claims that Boomers are "going to work longer than their parents did," using the fraudulent claim that "Four out of five Boomers consistently tell researchers that they expect to work well into what used to be known as the retirement years." Don't bet on that one, folks.
Friedman's heroes are his "Encore Pioneers." These folks, he says, are "Eschewing retirement in either traditional or reinvented forms, they are instead opting for work." He gives us profiles of people who he tells us represent such "pioneers." And these people are truly impressive. They are hard-working, dedicated older people who are to be admired. But who says that most Boomers will follow their lead? Even Friedman in one section admits that it is too early to tell how many Boomers will go this way, but then adds, "even a very small percentage would be a very big number."
But what if it were to turn out to be about 15%? If so, that would be about the same number as have been working full-time at age 65 or older for decades! If that turns out to be the case, then what is all the fuss about "encore careers?" And what is all this talk about something being "new" under the sun?
And here is where I begin to really dislike Freedman and his goals. He starts to make claims that older folks are going to have to go in his direction whether they like it or not. "We can't afford a leisure class that makes up one-fourth of the population," he says. And, in reference to extended life expectancies, he says, "Neither individual budgets nor the national budget can support three- or four-decade retirements."
He suggests that Social Security benefits be adjusted to "prod individuals to work longer." And he says, "Just as we pay farmers not to grow crops, we've made it worthwhile for people to stop working." How is that for a scary statement? Is he suggesting that the "we" guys should be in charge of reducing retiree benefits so that many, if not most, would have no choice but to return to work? That sounds like an evil "Big Brother" concept to me. I'll want no part of it.
And, get this: Freedman admits that many are totally burned out at the end of their working lives by the work they have done. They are exhausted. So, he says that these folks are allowed to take a "break before moving on to the next phase of engagement." Isn't that nice of him.
But, here, I think, is a major flaw in his thesis: He tries to convince us that most folks, after they catch their breath on their post-primary-career-working-life "break," will be more than ready to reinvent themselves in their "encore career" that will provide them with more purpose and meaning in their lives.
But is this based in reality? In my experience, it's not. I find that once retirees make it through the transition into retirement, and once they find that their finances pay the bills, about the last thing in the world most are eager to do is to rejoin the workforce - in any capacity. They will volunteer. They will do things for other people. But given the choice, they will much prefer to stay retired than rejoin the workforce, full- or part-time. They've been there; they've done that!
And I've seen studies that have followed up on people who said that they would be working in retirement, only to find that about half never get around to it at all, and most who did do not stay with it long, especially if they find they really don't need the extra money.
But to boost his argument, Freedman tells us stories of people who have retired, but hated it. Sure, we all know this can happen. The question is whether it happens to a significant number. I don't think it does. I think it is a minority.
He also tells us of publications that have run articles and special sections telling us why it is better to work than retire. I've read many of these. I've also read "The Joy of Not Working," by Ernie Zelinski, and "Get a Life," by Ralph Warner, both of which give solid counter arguments to the work-is-better-than-retirement crowd.
Friedman's vision involves waves of Baby Boomers "inventing a new phase of work." He sees this as potentially transforming the nature of work in America and even having the potential for creating "a society that works better for all of us." A major problem, however, is that this is coming from a guy who really does not play fair. We get occasional insights into an author with a vision of having people go in his direction whether they like it or not.
And Freedman has a deep-seated problem with the traditional retirement lifestyle, in the same way that AARP has. He really cannot acknowledge the traditional retirement lifestyle as being the best fit for the majority of retirees. For him, it is not to be mentioned, as if it does not exist. (Try to find the word "retirement" in an AARP publications. It is avoided like the plague. )
Freedman is too committed to his thesis to give up easy. I'm sure that he will be around a long time. But I fail to see that he is good for or even relevant to most of us who choose a traditional retirement lifestyle, based on the merits pointed out to us by the financial services companies. And if Baby Boomers turn out in retirement to be as independent and self-centered and skeptical of authority as they are said to be in their working lives, how in the world does Freedman think they will follow him like some kind of a prophet?
I don't see this happening. I think Freedman's vision is much to do about nothing. I don't see him leading any parades. I think, for the most part, he's a false prophet.