The “golden years,” a common term of endearment for retirement, may no longer apply to those individuals who are following the beat of a different drum and envision a more active life as they get older. At the same time, many people may not be taking a conventional retirement in an uncertain economic climate, because they need to keep working for financial reasons. In the past, the idealized concept of a leisurely phase of life following decades of work and raising children was based on an assumption that work is the province of younger people, while older people exit the labor force to relax and enjoy themselves in retirement.

Since retirement planning is usually the main focus for long-term saving, ask yourself, what kind of retirement do you imagine? Is the golden years model what you really want, and will it still be relevant, especially if your retirement is years away? Rethinking retirement requires you to re-examine your dreams for the different stages of your life, which may or may not include a period of time during which you will not be working for yourself or an employer in the traditional sense.


Challenging the Conventional Wisdom

Embedded in the conventional notion of retirement are important expectations about work, money, and retirement standards of living. For previous generations, work was thought to be something you did for about 40 years (until roughly age 65), and then you never had to (or wanted to) work again. A company pension, Social Security, and some savings were generally believed to provide enough income for funding a comfortable lifestyle in retirement—a time filled with leisure, travel, and recreation.

However, for some people, working is too much of an integral part of their lives to abruptly end one day. With the daily structure, challenges, and rewards of going to work, some people may have difficulty readjusting to a new way of life without their own business or lifelong career and the social outlet it provides.

Further, the gradual disappearance of traditional pensions, or defined benefit plans, and the rise of defined contribution plans have changed the way people plan for retirement. Not only has the responsibility for funding retirement shifted from employer to employee, long-term retirement savings must compete with other major financial objectives—e.g., a down payment on a house or college funding for children—at the same time that earned money is being used to maintain a certain standard of living.

Finally, the golden years model assumed that the retiree’s standard of living before retiring would be sustainable in retirement. However, this may not hold true in future retirement landscapes. Perhaps another lens to look through for retirement is the multimodel approach whereby you consider what standard of living could be maintained based on different levels of projected resources. This may help determine what is realistic in your situation, and focus your retirement priorities. For some people, downsizing their standard of living in retirement may be just as valid as maintaining a preretirement standard.

Think “Unretirement”

“Unretirement” is a term used to describe working in some capacity after your long-term career has ended. Aside from monetary compensation earned from working, unretirement may help you maintain a sense of emotional well-being, connection to the world, and fulfillment. Unretirement may also provide new opportunities to engage in work that is completely different from your former occupation, and to do it on a more flexible basis (part-time, job-share, or telework).

Rethinking your definition of retirement may be a matter of choice: for others, a matter of necessity, or a combination of both. Whatever path you take, it is important to define your vision of retirement or unretirement to suit your individual needs and dreams for the future. $