With human longevity surpassing all previous predictions and with the largest generation in history on the brink of retirement, it is inevitable that the world is holding its breath as it watches the concept of retirement evolve into a whole new life stage. The first of the Baby Boomers is now entering retirement and it’s clear that this generation of highly ambitious, healthy, energetic, soon-to-be-retirees wants a different form of retirement than their parents had. In fact, it’s quite possible that many of them don’t want any retirement at all. If the adage ‘age is just a number’ has any truth in it, then our legislated retirement age of 65 remains just that – a number. Why? Because other than being the pre-determined age for an unremarkable tax event, there’s a whole lot of living that still needs to happen after 65 and the chances are there’s a plethora of latent talent just waiting to stretch its post-retirement wings.
As lifestyle financial planners, our job often includes counselling and guiding pre-retirees as we map their retirement years – financially, logistically and emotionally. From a financial perspective, the reality is that most people have a period of 40 years (age 25 – 65) to fund for a retirement that could now last another 30 years (age 65 – 95). It’s no small wonder therefore that financial planning has become so much more complicated as human longevity has increased. But, financial formulae aside, the real complexity of providing lifestyle financial planning advice involves working with the client to determine exactly what he intends to do with his remaining years. One successful mechanism that we use when counselling clients is to refrain from looking at retirement as ‘the remaining years’ – after all, his retirement could be just as long as his entire working career. That’s a lot of time (and human potential) to flippantly demarcate as just a few remaining years.
While the concept of redefining retirement is certainly an exciting one, we shouldn’t be at all surprised by the talent that lies amongst the not-so-young. Our history books are alive with men and women who made significant impacts on the world by achieving success, fame or fortune later on in life. There’s a special breed of wisdom, fortitude and experience that is owned by the aged, and the records of human history would be poorer if it weren’t for the courage of these people to stamp their mark on the world during what we far-too-easily brand ‘the remaining years’. In fact, the outcome of World War 2 may well have been different if it weren’t for the singular courage of Sir Winston Churchill who came in from the political wilderness to lead Britain as its war-time Prime Minister at the respectable of age 66. His steadfast refusal to consider defeat, surrender or a compromised peace may not have been achieved by a leader younger than him. And if we’re looking for courageous and mature leaders, we need look no further than our very own Nelson Mandela who became the first democratically elected President of South Africa at age 76.
Other fascinating examples of talent extending well into later life is that of George Bernard Shaw who wrote Farfetched Fables at the age of 94, and Pablo Picassa who worked his artistic magic well into his nineties. Famous writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, published her first novel – “Little house of the prairie” – when she was 65 years old and never looked back. Not to be out-done by the youthful mid-lifers, Grandma Moses only began painting at the healthy age of 80 with her most expensive work of art retailing at $1.2 million – and that was in between gracing the covers of both Time and Life magazine. Talk about life beginning at retirement.
One life story that I find particularly fascinating is that of American astronaut, John Glenn, who at the age of 77 became the oldest person ever to fly in space. He’s the only person ever to have flown both the Mercury and Space Shuttle programmes, the first American to orbit the earth and the third American to enter space. At an age when many retirees are commiserating their few remaining years, people like John Glenn were re-writing NASA’s history books. And if you’re beginning to think that it’s only the genetically predisposed elite who are able to achieve such greatness, consider the story of Harland Sanders. Financial difficulties forced him to close his restaurant in his early sixties, leaving him with nothing much in the form of retirement savings. After having his recipe for fried chicken rejected by over a thousand would-be investors, he eventually established Kentucky Fried Chicken at age 65. Or you may want to contemplate Ray Kroc, who at the (relatively young) age of 52 started the now famous (albeit not-so-healthy) chain of McDonalds restaurants. Or perhaps consider the incredible courage of Harriett Doerr who finished her degree at age 67 and went on to write the award-winning “Stories for Ibarra” at age 73.
As a generation, we’re going to witness the inevitable mutation of retirement into something far more riveting that anyone could ever have imagined or hoped for. Literally millions of healthy, wealthy, educated, experienced and energetic retirees are poised on the precipice of an entirely new and as-yet-undefined venture to reclaim and reinvent those ‘remaining years’. Naturally, this makes our work as lifestyle financial planners ever more exciting and rewarding as we consider the explosion of human potential that awaits. As pre-retirees consider and map their retirement futures, perhaps a question worth contemplating is the one so succinctly poised by Mary Oliver – “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”.