When I ask groups to define “retirement,” people inevitably come up with images of endless golf, fishing, lunches, time to kick back, and a reward for years of hard work.  Our stereotypes of a leisure retirement are relatively recent, however.  Before the Social Security Act of 1935, retirement wasn’t in the cards for many in the U.S. 

Historically, older adults continued to work for as long as possible, in jobs or through self employment, often living in multigenerational households to pool resources.  For farm families, older adults might turn in their plows and sickles for less physically demanding roles, such as making clothing, tending animals, teaching grandchildren, and working at all the myriad of tasks necessary to run a farm.  Even in the city’s factories, older adults worked, figuratively “dying with their boots on” as Marc Freedman said in his book Prime Time.

The “leisure retirement” concept grew out of a brilliant marketing campaign by Del Webb.  In 1960, Del Webb launched an innovative plan – to create a separate retirement community offering fun in the sun for older adults.   Sun City was billed as a place to live out the “Golden Years” in style.  Webb touched a nerve with a population that was floundering with an identity crisis.  A generation with a strong work ethic suddenly found itself struggling with identity and self worth.  In 1949, labor leader Walter Reuther coined the term “too old to work, too young to die,” powerfully capturing the sentiment.  Webb offered an alternative image to the bleak view of retirement of the day.  Even Webb was surprised by the enormous response to his retirement community concept, attracting 100,000 people in the first weekend.

The 21st Century retirement model will look very different from the images at the turn of the last century, as well as the leisure model that emerged in the 1960’s.  Part of the shift will come from social realities.  In 1950, 16 workers supported one recipient of Social Security.  Today, 3.3 workers support each recipient.  In 1940, an average male at age 65 could expect to live an additional 11.9 years, compared to 16.7 years in 2004.  Women age 65 can expect to live an additional 19.5 years, compared to 13.4 years in 1940.  These figures represent a 40% and 45% increase in real longevity prospectively for men and women. 

As a society, we will need to explore alternative models that integrate work with leisure, to extend the viability of our social programs like Social Security.  The beauty is that work can enhance quality of life for older adults.  Meaningful work that promotes an active lifestyle, builds social interactions, and offers mental stimulation, as well as purpose will be an important component of the 21st century retirement model.

For more on this topic, see Marc Freedman’s book Prime Time, and visit these websites:



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