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NEXT: The Future of Retirement

David Staley David Staley NEXT: The Future of Retirement
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A useful way to track changes in society is to look at the history of words, and especially the history of the changing meaning of words. Take the words “liberal” and “conservative” for example, which in the 19th century had very different meanings from those today. In the 19th century, a “liberal” was someone who favored free trade and free markets, someone who looks more like a fiscal conservative today (and even the meaning of the word “conservative” has undergone a radical redefinition in the last five years). 

That words change meaning over time is nothing new. As a futurist, I wonder if I am able to anticipate what these changes in meaning could look like? Can we imagine what words will have different meanings from how they are used today? “Predictive semantics,” we might call it: anticipating or imagining what certain words might mean in the future, as a way of predicting what future society might look like.

Take the word “retirement.” Today, the word means “withdrawing,” as when we say a tennis player “retires” from a match because of an injury. We might also say that a jury “retires” from a courtroom in order to deliberate on a case. “Retirement” has connotations of seclusion, as when we say someone lives “in retirement,” meaning they have withdrawn from society to a private, inward-looking place. Perhaps most commonly though, we use “retire” and “retirement” to mean withdrawing from formal employment. In each case, “retirement” involves removing oneself from some activity.

In the future, “retirement” may very well have very different connotations than today.

In about 25 years, the leading edge of the Millennials will start to reach “retirement age,” or at least the age we have identified today as that moment when one is permitted (or expected?) to disengage from employment and to begin to live off pensions. Millennials correctly wonder if Social Security, for example, will be solvent such that they will be able to rely upon it; they wonder if a “retirement” is something they will be able to enjoy.

The FIRE (“Financial Independence Retire Early”) movement among Millennials might also point to how retirement in the future might come to mean something different than what it means today. FIRE adherents live hyper-frugal lives while they are working, save or invest rather than consume, and thus plan to have enough to live on such that they can retire well before the traditional age. If the FIRE mentality becomes common among all Millennials, then in the future perhaps their withdrawal from employment will have already happened, well before they reach the age of 65.  

One effect of the pandemic has been a re-evaluation of work and employment. The “lying flat” movement in China mirrors workers in the U.S. who have been reluctant to take menial/low-paying jobs. Young Chinese are pushing back against a society that insists that they over-work and endure high levels of stress, all in the name of “advancing China.” Someone posting on Baidu wrote “I can be like Diogenes, who sleeps in his own barrel taking in the sun.” A growing number of Chinese plan on being like Diogenes and simply “lie flat” rather than work. It seems that one effect of the pandemic has been a re-evaluation of the meaning of work in our lives; we all might come to view the leisure associated with traditional retirement as preferable to work. That is, we may begin to view leisure—rather than work—as our natural condition.  

Millennials seems especially driven by their passion projects; indeed, I find most Millennials I encounter at networking events often define themselves by their side hustles, not by the job that pays their bills. Millennials might long for the day when their side hustles become their hustles: retirement becomes the stage in life where one lives for their hustles.

It is also possible that well before they reach the age of 65 people will be withdrawn from employment. Automation might force such withdrawals, with wide swaths of the population subjected to “involuntary withdrawal.” If Universal Basic Income is put into practice, our relationship to work will have been sufficiently altered such that withdrawing from paid labor is a condition of everyone’s life, not only the elderly. In this case, “retirement” would no longer be age specific.

Perhaps in the future “retirement” will connote “meaningful activity,” that one leaves the realm of paid employment to engage instead in a life of service.  Medical advances have meant that we are living longer; thus the “retirement age” over the next 25 years might creep upward such that a Millennial seeking a traditional retirement (as their parents might have enjoyed) might only be able to disengage from employment at age 75 or 80. 65 was set as the retirement age—with Social Security benefits—at a time when the average American lifespan was 68 years of age. That is, the assumption was that these benefits would only be needed for five years or so of a person’s life. Given the extension of life expectancy, someone withdrawing from work at 65 might expect to live another 20 years, many of those years vibrant and productive.  

For a society that has for decades valued youth and beauty—and simultaneously practiced agism—it is possible that by 2045 those in their 60s will be valued for their wisdom and insights, their productivity measured by their service, their institutional memory, their ideas. Retirement becomes that phase in life where one “ascends to a higher calling,” rather than withdrawing into obsolescence. Imagine a future where someone announces their retirement, and this is met with awe and envy—not pity and remorse—as the person is about to embark on life’s next great adventure.

David Staley is an associate professor of history, design, and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcastCreativeMornings Columbus and is president of Columbus Futurists. 

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