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Guest Column: Boomers Continue to Trail-Blaze

 

Susan and Richard Schmaltz with children of Camino Seguro in Guatemala

Sandra Konrad is the author of Boomers at Work: Re/Working Retirement.

The number of adults aged 65 and older nearly doubled in Canada's work force between 1995 and 2015, according to Statistics Canada. Most work part of the year or part time, but 30 per cent work full-time.

So why are Canadians discarding old work patterns?

Drawing on interviews with first wave baby boomers (born 1946 to 1954), Sandra Konrad sheds light on older Canadians' relationship with work in her fascinating new book Boomers at Work: Re/Working Retirement:

Eight years ago, when I began writing Boomers at Work, I didn't expect to find the commitment to paid work that I did among the 40 Canadian baby boomers I interviewed.

Their stories about career trajectories and their reasons for working beyond 65 revealed work contributes to, or is, "the good life," for many.

This contradicts earlier beliefs about what constitutes fulfillment in our "golden" years.

Until recently, retirement, an invention of the early 20th century, has been the defining action of our 60s, synonymous with the good life and aging gracefully. Not any more. Fewer pensions, increased life expectancy and more personal debt are pushing baby boomers, like me, to examine how suitable retirement is for my generation.

So what do we mean by the good life? Let's look at one definition. According to Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, there are three aspects to the good life: the life of pleasure, the life of engagement and the life of meaning. The good life requires a mix of all three.

The life of pleasure is about taking time to "smell the roses." This might mean traveling, spending more time in nature or enjoying the arts. Of course, we can experience pleasure at work, and many people do, but what work does well is help us afford pleasurable experiences beyond work. However, some find their retirement income only covers the basics. Some boomers are turning to work to fund simple pleasures.

The life of engagement is another aspect of the good life. We all know the feeling: we become absorbed in an activity, maybe gardening, counseling or designing bridges. Later, we wonder: where did the time go? At this level, the good life demands knowing our strengths and then using them. If we are unable to use our unique abilities in the workplace, we may feel depleted at the end of the day, and count down the days to retirement. But for many, retirement means fewer opportunities to hone their strengths. Faced with this situation, some of my interviewees chose to remain on the job; others found ways outside of work to enjoy and employ their strengths.

The life of meaning is the third aspect of the good life. Being part of something greater than ourselves, say establishing a family legacy, investing in a profession or a cause, either through work or as a volunteer, lifts us up, boosting our sense of well-being. Unsurprisingly, boomers, who find meaning primarily through work are reluctant to leave the workforce.

Add to that, the loss of social status and camaraderie that may result from retirement. Not to mention, the sense of security afforded by a regular paycheck. For many boomers, these are important elements of the good life.

And, baby boomers have a new mantra: active aging. In addition to being physically active, they want to live lives of active engagement. Today, more and more boomers are working longer to stay active and engaged.

Meanwhile, first wave baby boomers are in the midst of what some experts call "the third age," an emerging life stage made possible by our longer life expectancy. This period starts typically on retirement and runs roughly to 79, giving us unprecedented opportunities to pursue our dreams, or revisit activities neglected earlier in life.

It is true that for some a lengthy retirement filled with leisure is the ultimate goal. But for others, a retirement of 20 or more years is unrealistic.

Forty years after we started our careers, the work landscape has changed, opening up more options. To start, we can gradually scale back our workload, increasing our free time. We can delay retirement to age 70 and beyond. We can retire and then return to work for a second or encore career. We can opt to create our own business. Or, we can banish the thought of retirement and keep working.

Pioneers in a new land

Having grown up in a time of rapid change, first wave boomers want to continue to learn and grow and be challenged. The standard life course (schooling, work, retirement and with it old age) is outdated. Yet the workplace hasn't begun to catch up. Boomers are blazing a trail in their post-retirement years, choosing to work longer, while pursuing lives of engagement, meaning and pleasure.