Giving back by ‘paying forward’ works for ‘young-old’ retirees

• Dear readers: Your humble scribe has been producing content on what is being called an imminent pension crisis, for the Alliance for Retirement Income Adequacy (ARIA), a site designed to foster an informed discussion about retirement issues. It has been quite an education, and I thought I’d share some of the stories with you. A category has been created, ‘Not so golden years,’ where this content will be archived.

“If retirement hits all of a sudden, unexpectedly, take some time to digest the new reality before rushing into a whole new set of commitments. Take a little ‘flounder-around time’ to reconnect with your own personal internal value system. People who have taken the time to clarify their retirement vision will adjust to retirement more easily than those who simply plunge into it without forethought.” – Dorothea Bye

By John Devine

Unlike other stages of life, retirement is a journey that doesn’t come with a collective map. Essentially, one walks into it alone, forging new adventures and challenges based on personality, resources and interests.
It’s not like childhood where the road ahead has clear markers leading from the early days of learning, through to high school, more education, work and beyond. In fact, for most people life is pretty scripted, that is until they reach the traditional retirement years. Then, it’s off in what may be a variety of directions, or just one based on new opportunities and/or past experiences.
Retirement, aging expert Dorothea Bye tells ARIA, is a transition, not a destination. Where one ends up after that transition depends on the actions taken.
“Unlike most changes in status across a lifespan, a correlative institutionalized role does not typically await the retiree,” says Bye, a certified consultant on aging who earned a PhD after five years working on the longitudinal Study on Aging at Concordia University’s Adult Development and Aging Lab.
A degree of forward thinking will help ease the transition to retirement, as people plan for what lies ahead. Of course in today’s economy, that may not always be possible and retirement may arrive suddenly, whether one is prepared for it or not. For those pushed into retirement, Bye has a bit of advice.

“If retirement hits all of a sudden, unexpectedly, take some time to digest the new reality before rushing into a whole new set of commitments. Take a little ‘flounder-around time’ to reconnect with your own personal internal value system. People who have taken the time to clarify their retirement vision will adjust to retirement more easily than those who simply plunge into it without forethought.”

Research suggests that after the first thrill of retirement, where people start to tick off items on their bucket list, many people settle into a comfortable and familiar lifestyle connected to their pre-retirement selves, says Bye.
“In other words, without undue provocation, things won’t really change that much. Once people get past the early honeymoon stage of retirement … they soon settle down to the lifestyle with which they have always been most comfortable.”
The degree to which they settle down to what’s comfortable may be complimented by what psychoanalyst Erik Erickson called generativity, the seventh stage of his theory of psychological development. Bye says these people, mid-lifers who many researchers call the young-old – not young anymore, but not old either – want to leave a legacy of helping others, and generally improving the human condition.
“According to Erickson, the young-old are at a stage in life where they can occupy themselves with the well-being of future generations and become involved in various life projects aimed at creating a positive legacy that will ultimately outlive the self. This involves providing care, guidance, inspiration, instruction and leadership for others who can benefit from their expertise, from their social capital.
“Generativity is all about giving back by paying forward. People that score highly in measures of generativity are more resilient to stress, have higher positive affect and better satisfaction with life. They have better psychological resilience, higher levels of well-being – in other words, they are happier.”
This drive may explain why many retirees get involved in volunteerism, mentoring and other avenues of giving. As identified by Erickson, the opposite of generativity is stagnation.
The current generation of people moving into retirement, the “boomers,” are the young-old, says Bye, and they’re bringing with them expectations that will change the definition of retirement, focusing instead on what healthy, older adults are able to contribute to society. She even suggests that terms that identify age groups, like “boomers,” may be counter-productive, as it leads to a generalization of what people need and want in retirement.
“While there has to be an informed and responsive public policy awareness of issues related to all stages of life, which implies a reliance on population averages, critical thinkers must nonetheless always lead the way in showing that we are each best defined by our own values and actions. So, we have to get used to talking instead about things like the second half of life, or the third age (depending how you slice it), or the prime of life,” she says.
At the end of a traditional working life, Bye foresees instead of retirement a shift to a “mature work/life balance” that is “not necessarily age-defined, but is individually age-appropriate.” The shift will be easier if it’s planned, and like other transitions it can be reversed or sustained, depending on individual situations.
“It can lead to the best years of your life, but doesn’t necessarily do so without a little daily effort on your part. How happy you are after you’ve made the shift also depends on life choices you made years ago: we are the result of where we’ve been before,” says Bye.
“Now that I am out in the community, I see evidence of things through the eyes of the layperson rather than the academic. And I appreciate the huge variation in retirement situations that makes it difficult to define and study retirees as a group. Also society and technology are in a state of continual unprecedented flux, so trying to study retirees is like trying to aim at a moving target.”
When the young-old become the old-old and require institutional care, they will bring with them expectations that characterize the “boomers” – they will want someone on staff who can meet their IT needs as well as take their blood pressure, says Bye. Boomers will be more demanding than previous generations, as they should be, she adds.
As has been identified by numerous experts and policymakers, a retirement crisis is upon us, driven by the lack of adequate retirement income. More than 65 per cent of working Canadians have no retirement plan of any type, and for millions of people the dream of a traditional retirement has faded. For people not able to retire when and how they want, Bye has some advice: don’t waste your energy being jealous of those who are in a position to retire earlier than yourself, and do make changes to improve your own quality of life now by looking for ways to work fewer hours, counting your blessings, and expanding your interests beyond work.
“The key for everyone, regardless of work status, is to maintain a healthy balance on that work/play seesaw. Smart people find a way to investigate new learning, new hobbies, and new social groups before they retire, with a view to spending more time with those activities later.”
Because people have different interests, Bye dislikes giving examples of what retirees should be doing to remain active and alert, but does say crossword puzzles aren’t enough. In workshops she often uses an old Fred Astaire quote: “Growing old is like everything else in life, to be good at it, start when you’re young.”
Most of all, she says, “keep an open, active, searching, learning mind. Above all, Always Be Curious, the most important ABC of life in the later decades.”