Baby-boomers will spend some twenty years in “retirement,” in predominantly in good health. But rather than spend time before that exploring how we may continue to have a productive, fulfilling life, we view the latter years like an extended vacation—and plan accordingly, without much introspection or research. This is a mistake, and one that the corporate world could help fix.
Etymologically, retirement means withdrawal. But thinking of later life this way is a loss to both older people and society. After newly retiring, most people go through a short honeymoon period in which they enjoy their newly conquered freedom. Then disenchantment sets in, sometimes followed by depression. Studies show that complete retirement leads to an increase in difficulties associated with mobility and daily activities, an increase in illness, and a decline in mental health.
A better way to think of later life is the encore years, an expression coined by Marc Freedman. It implies another performance to follow rather than the end of the show. And what we really need is to learn to plan our encore years as if they mattered for us and for society. And that’s where employers could help.
Just as high schools support planning for college years in advance and colleges promote career planning, corporations should help plan for what follows. I am thinking of a voluntary enrolment program, starting two years before employees’ plan to “retire,” with the goal of helping them make an informed decision on how to spend the next 20 years. The program would start from personal exploration, in search of what motivates, energizes, engages and provides sense of purpose. Then it would help identify the available options, from working more years in the same field, maybe with reduced hours and responsibilities, to taking a job or a volunteering opportunity with a nonprofit, to becoming a mentor of young start-uppers or under-privileged youth. Participants would evaluate the options in terms of benefits and requirements.
Corporations could also facilitate and support connections between encore planners and organizations interested in encore workers and volunteers. Imagine a Placement and Careers Office, like the one universities and colleges have, and a Senior Career Fair. Furthermore, corporations could give paid time (one or two days a month) in the last year of work to visit organizations where encore planners may want to work or volunteer and get to know them better. Finally, corporations could sustain alumni communities of former employees turned encore workers, celebrate their accomplishments, and promote mentoring of employees approaching encore years.
One main objection is that retirement was instituted to be a work-free period. It’s true that people deserve rest and relaxation, but the increase in life span complicates the timing. As Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity points out, “it’s not good for people to go on vacation for decades.” Studies like this one published in Psychological Science show that having a purpose in life widely buffers us against mortality risk across the adult years. Encore planning arguably falls under corporate social responsibility.
Of course, corporations have many other more direct social responsibilities. However, they can be quickly responsive when customers and potential customers demand support for causes. Companies have, for example, introduced changes in their use of energy and other resources to be more environmentally friendly (Google, Levis, and many others).
Corporations can also be keen to follow suggestions from their employees, particularly from millennials, who are particularly sensitive to social responsibility and choose and remain loyal to their employers based on this criterion. It is true that Gen-Z has so far privileged causes unrelated to aging, but it may soon come to realize that longevity is also their business, even in the short run, as their parents’ well-being as they age impacts their own lives.
Corporations are in a unique position to have a large, positive impact on society and their employees at a modest cost to them. While other benefits come with a hefty price tag, this one can be given practically for free.
Moreover, encore planning would benefit organizations. Firstly, employees in their pre-retirement years would be more engaged because they would be projecting a “longer-shadow,” which would positively impact their energy and engagement. Furthermore, colleagues would see encore-planners as ready to start a new exciting journey rather than at the end of their rope, which would reduce implicit ageism. Finally, promoting encore careers would create good will from the community, which would benefit from the skills and energies made available by them.
The quiet write off-of retirement years wastes energies that our society needs and determines worse physical and mental health outcomes for individuals. The corporate world did not invent longevity and is not responsible for the aging of population—but it can be the force that powers it for the better.