After 31 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 60-year-old Frank Gordon retired — to three part-time jobs.
Deatra McGary’s successful sewing machine business never brought in enough to let her save much. Now, at age 62, she keeps working while she dreams of a more traditional retirement spent traveling and volunteering — a lifestyle she got a taste of in her 20s.
Thanks to a university pension and Social Security, 77-year-old Roy Wilson divides his time between golf and more exotic pursuits, such as surveying elephants in Kenya or floating the Amazon River.
These three Columbians are at or near the end of their traditional work careers. Each has approached this stage of life differently, depending on each one’s desires and circumstances.
Over the next two decades, the largest generation in American history will enter retirement age. In 2006, an estimated 3 million Americans turned 60 — the first wave of the massive Baby Boom generation born between 1946 and 1964.
But as with every other life passage, baby boomers are rejecting the norms of the past and having it their own way. They came of age in the post-World War II era of Social Security and advanced health care. They are living longer and demanding more of life.
Along the way, they are forcing fundamental questions. Some are financial and political: Can the government continue to support a growing senior population? But others are more personal: When, and what, is old?
“In the U.S., your identity is so often linked with what you do,” says David Oliver, assistant director of the MU Interdisciplinary Center on Aging, and a post-retirement worker himself. “If you are who you are based on what you do and what you produce, who are you when you retire?”
As longevity increases, life spans are dividing into distinct stages: the first quarter as children and students, a second building family and career, a third settled into a mature personal and professional life. That leaves a final one-fourth of a person’s life for “retirement.”
Through each stage, identities are constantly changing, but in the fourth stage, assuming basic financial security, people have the freedom to redefine and re-evaluate their goals and roles.
Oliver has lived that trajectory. He spent a traditional career as a gerontologist in the MU Health Care system, only to retire and return to MU to work with seniors. He has identified four basic life elements, or “pillars,” that gain importance as traditional careers end: family, church, recreation and activity, both physical and mental.
“When you think about retirement, you really have to think about all the pillars in your life,” Oliver says. “Those are huge ties and they bring great meaning.
“These pillars in our society are like the Missouri Columns. They’re a little cracked and we worry about them and we try to prop them up the best we can, and we hope they last forever.”
A glimpse at the lives of three Columbia “retirees” shows how a generation is redefining life in the fourth stage.