© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Lake Effect Segments

Essay: The Retirement Revolution

Hi, I’m Carol and I’m retired. Now without thinking, does your mind immediately picture someone ancient and befuddled, physically and mentally in decline? That’s one of the ageist stereotype applied to retirees; people worn out, dried up and a burden on society.

Just so you know I’m an active 59 years old, work out four times a week, and I just finished writing my first book.

Granted I retired early, adding one more to the 8,000 baby boomers  who, starting in 2011, retire every single day. People who on average will live 20 to 30 years past retirement age.

But before you start wailing the economic sky is falling because of the burden we pose to the Social Security and Medicare systems, know this: most retirees today are still healthy, and probably will remain so for years.

Another thing you should know about the new retirees? Some of us are ticked off.

Why? Because of the stubborn stereotype foisted on us, not only that we’re old and decrepit, but worst of all, that when a person retires we will never make another meaningful contribution to the world ever again. I mean how could we? we’re not WORKING.

Well kids, welcome to the next revolution. Surveys over the last few years show most baby boomers have no intention to stop working. Oh, they’re going to retire, not crawling off to die, or slotted into 30 years of forced leisure. They are retiring in order to live -and work- in the ways they want.

Why? Because baby boomers have always anchored their identities to their jobs and careers. What boomers do for work defines who they are. Just because we decide to collect out pensions doesn’t change that. What it does change is the kind of work boomers intend to do.

Baby boomers are, speaking in general terms, altruistic. They believe they can make the world a better place. Those surveys also show the work boomers want to do in retirement is often in education, health care or social services, and they have set their collective sights on joining the nation’s struggling non-profits. Just a heads up there, folks.. so prepare yourselves. 

Many boomers talk about working at least part-time because they have to, to supplement pensions and IRAs that shrunk in value during the recession.  But it’s also because they want to do something meaningful with the rest of their lives, to work for a cause, for personal satisfaction, for a purpose.. to not just leave a legacy, but to live that legacy, leaving the world in better shape because of their contributions. 

Why do boomers think they can do that? Because they already have! Baby boomers were the demographic shove behind most social revolutions of the last decades, like civil rights, feminism and the environmental movement.  Historically, whenever baby boomers run into a barrier they don’t like, they bust it down with the sheer force of their giant collective will.

And the wall they are now running into now is the social and professional barrier of retirement. 

Oh, pshaw, you say. There’s nothing preventing a retiree from working or pursuing a new purpose in life.  I thought that once, too.  Was it just me? Why couldn’t I get anywhere?  All those unreturned phone calls and emails, the indulgent smiles from working people about my new “hobbies.” How nice for yooouu. All that free time, such a wonderful carefree life you must have... call me sometime, we’ll do lunch!

I finally checked with older retirees and learned the ugly truth.  There is an unspoken prejudice against those who have left the mainstream workforce.  We’re not taken seriously, our dreams of new pursuits are considered a form of dementia. We’re thought of as people who have to be taken care of, except for the services we provide in babysitting, volunteering, or sending gifts.

Let me cue you into something. The baby boomers are not going to stand for being shrugged off into insignificance. It’s not in our nature. Already there are retired boomers starting new businesses, non-profits and service organizations, muscling their way onto town boards, school committees and into political action groups.

Boomers see their retirements as a new phase of life when they can live -and work- on their own terms, and as assets to their communities.  These are people who already know what they’re doing, who are storehouses of knowledge, and yes, even wisdom.

So with that, here’s another final revolutionary thought. With all the new retirees’, all their experience and know-how, and their desire to make the world a better place, the retirement of the baby boomers might not be the cause of more problems in this world.. they just might provide the solutions. 

Now an award-winning writer, Carol Larson is an alumnus of Milwaukee TV and Wisconsin Public Television. She retired in 2010 after a 33 year career in broadcast journalism. Find her at CarolsVoice.net.