What to do with our sages?
On the accelerating retirement wave and the very real human compulsion to find meaningful things to do
The under-appreciated science of psychology has grown quite a lot in its appreciation of meaningful work, particularly in the last decade. Even though there is vastly more work to do in this field, there is considerable evidence to suggest a widespread desire to feel like constructive, contributing members of human society. This knowledge is particularly illuminating -- and potentially alarming -- in light of the accelerating pace of retirements among the Baby Boomer generation.
■ Nobody is really surprised by the retirement wave; it's been obvious from even a cursory glance at a population pyramid. If there was a surprise involved, it was only that the Covid-19 pandemic came along and accelerated the pace of departure.
■ Surprise or not, as a country and as a culture, the United States needs to consider novel ways of helping people to cultivate that sense of having meaningful work to do. "Unretirement" is a real thing, too: Sometimes out of necessity, but also sometimes out of psychological need. A Pew Research Center review of the data found that, on average, Americans over age 60 spend half their waking hours alone. For many, it's even more than that, especially if they live without a spouse in the home.
■ Everyone needs at least some time alone, but too much time without others can lead to social isolation -- and we've witnessed the consequences of people having too much time to sit by themselves, with social media and mass media filling the connection gap with low-quality pseudo-interaction.
■ Age is often nothing more than an artificial barrier to doing productive things, either at work or in a volunteer environment. Norman Borlaug was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 at 56 years old, and went on to work into his 90s. Betty White has acting credits in her late 90s. Benjamin Franklin was, at 81, the oldest delegate to the Constitutional Convention -- and no slouch.
■ What we don't do very well is find roles for our sages -- both within our working environment and outside it (where much of life is lived). It's hard for firms and organizations to grow if people cannot see a viable path to senior leadership, which is why companies often have executives step aside in their 60s. But there really must be sensible ways to help people engage in meaningful productive activity even when it's time for the next generation to take the reins. (Prince Charles, about to turn 73, would likely agree.)
■ Senator Ben Sasse has spoken eloquently of the need to address the matching of people to meaningful work, which is a challenge already in an economy that is growing more skill-dependent all the time. We need to be conscious, too, of the generational dimension at play: Not only will people need to find ways to adapt and grow while they are in the conventional workforce, many will seek meaningful work (and work-like) things to do after reaching conventional retirement age. It is a double-sided coin, too: In order to remain a valuable contributor, most people will have to continue learning new skills along the way. Outside of hereditary monarchs, most occupations inevitably evolve with time. (Good news for Charles, but bad for everyone else.)
■ There has to be something better than just tacking the word "emeritus" to a person's last career and having them fade out. This is not something easily resolved by a big bill passed through Congress; it's likely to be more responsive to a bottom-up approach. But finding a place for our sages that doesn't look like a permanent Spring Break trip could well be one of the most useful things American business thinkers could do, not just for the economy, but for the well-being of society.