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University sociology professor Phyllis Moen

University sociology professor Phyllis Moen.

Great Conversations explores the changing face of retirement

May 9, 2006

In the boom years following the end of World War II, increasing numbers of Americans began retiring. Cut off from work and much of society, these retirees assumed "roleless roles" with nothing really expected of them. People passed into retirement around age 65, with death often occurring soon after. In the 1950s, a transformation began, shifting the ideal of retirement into that of an "endless vacation."

On Tuesday, May 16, Twin Cities audiences will have the opportunity to join two innovative thinkers as they look through new lenses at the social forces reshaping retirement. The Great Conversations' season finale features the U's Phyllis Moen, professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in the University's sociology department, and Marc Freedman, founder and president of Civic Ventures, a national nonprofit organization that works to expand the contributions of older Americans to society. "Social Forces Reshaping Retirement" will take place at 7:30 p.m. in the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the West Bank.

"Retirement became part of the lock-step career mystique," says Moen. "People went from preparation (education) to continuous full-time employment throughout adulthood, to the 'golden years' of continuous leisure."

Marc Freedman
Marc Freedman

This lock-step ideal, Moen reminds us, was possible only for white-collar and unionized blue-collar men; it was never a reality for women, minorities, immigrants, those with little education, or those with disabilities--people who moved in and out of the workforce often in jobs without retirement benefits. Nonetheless, the golden years idea became part of the culture, taken for granted. Yet, these years were often isolating and empty as no one really knew how to best occupy that time.

Since then, medical advances and lifestyle changes continue to increase longevity, and retirees now can expect another 10, 20, 30, or more years of good health after they retire from their career jobs. "Older workers confronting retirement are better educated, healthier, and more energetic than ever in history," says Moen. "What has not changed is the fact that retirement largely remains a passage to the sidelines of society. Americans still view older people as dependent and requiring care. However, most older people are, and want to be, independent, but find it hard to fit in to our youth-oriented society."

Now emerging is what Moen calls "converging divergences" as men and women of all ages and stages are experiencing lives that are definitely not lock step. Moreover, Moen says, couples now have to coordinate two retirements and must customize their plans on a moving platform of technological, economic, and organizational changes. "People know they will not experience their father's retirement, but life after the career job, or the patchwork of jobs throughout adulthood, is fraught with ambiguity. Many people today feel ambivalent about when to retire and what to do with the second half of their lives."

Podcast available

Past conversations, from as far back as May 7, 2002, are available at the Great Conversations Web site. Topics include water quality, 9/11, human rights, germs, and Black intellectual history.

Although many retirees want both leisure and the opportunity to make a contribution, they find they have no roadmap. "There is a lot of financial planning and less of the kinds of creative lifestyle and life planning I'd like to see," explains Moen. "It shouldn't be age-graded. Life planning should go on at all ages and stages. It could be something offered by employers, libraries, and universities. Institutions of higher education could make a real contribution by facilitating these 'second acts' of life."

True, there is increasing recognition that retirement is not the final stage of life, but rather, an interlude between stages and a time for people to take a breath before moving on to the next chapter of their lives. However, there is still much question around what, exactly, the purpose should be during this time, Freedman says. What is becoming apparent, he adds, is that a large majority of older adults will continue to work in some fashion during their retirement years. Part of this is out of financial need; as people live longer, fewer can afford to "live well" that long on a fixed income. But it's not just about extending work years for financial reasons, but doing so with the goal of adding meaning to these years.

Still, Moen cautions, there is a wide divergence in goals but limited real possibilities for new careers, returning to school, taking on volunteer work, or starting a small business.

"As a society, we have no institutions or organizational arrangements that foster second acts or take advantage of this experienced, energetic, and growing segment of the population. Baby boomers are more technologically advanced than current retirees. The challenge is getting companies to see that they should invest in and hire older workers."

Tickets to "Social Forces Reshaping Retirement" are $28.50 ($23.50 for U faculty, staff, students, and alumni association members); to order call the U of M Ticket Office at 612-624-2345.

Edited from cce Times, spring 2006, a publication by the College of Continuing Education.