Rather than an ending, retirement a new start

July 31, 2001|By Susan Reimer

RECENTLY, THE gentleman who watches over our savings - because if I did it, there would be no savings - had one of his young associates call to ask if our financial goals were still the same.

"The same as what?" I asked. "I have been watching my handful of little stocks free fall in value for six months. I am sure our financial goals were never to lose money."

"We are just checking," the young man continued in the face of my vocal irritability, "to see if you and your husband are still committed to long-term growth."

"What is your definition of long term?" I asked irritably. "I have one child leaving for college in a year. Another in three. My husband can retire in six years and my company seems to offer a new retirement deal every six months.

"What do you mean by long term?" I added. "Longer than I can hold my breath?"

"I think I will have my supervisor call you back," replied the young man on the phone.

"Yes," I said. "Do that."

Poor guy. He woke a grumpy baby boomer from her under-funded retirement daydream.

Retirement is in the news these days. Cal Ripken, though only 40, is actually doing it. So is Washington Redskins Deion Sanders, and he's only 33. Michael Jordan, president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards, and Charles Barkley have retired from professional basketball, but they seem to regret the decision and are now looking to get back to playing.

Certainly, the concept of "retirement" is much different for high-paid, high-performance athletes than for the rest of us working stiffs. But the news of their retirement can cause us to stop and ponder our own.

What would life be like without a schedule? Without Monday through Friday? Without a paycheck to earn? What would it be like to do what I want, not what other people expect me to do?

I am one of those "pre-retirees" economists are talking about these days: workers 50 to 61 years of age. The ones costing companies a fortune in payroll and pension contributions. The ones who are just starting to tax the company's health care benefits with complaints that will eventually kill them.

There was a time when companies tried to get rid of us pre-retirees, forcing us into early retirement to make room for the energetic, college-educated, cheap 20-somethings who were flooding the market.

But corporations have discovered they still need our expertise, so they are negotiating with us to take some version of partial-pension, semi-retirement while continuing to work part-time or as a consultant.

Since most "pre-retirees" have not saved nearly enough to turn down such an offer - the AARP says we have an average of $6,000 in savings - and since so many of us still have children to educate, we have little choice but to keep working under whatever financial arrangement we can negotiate.

In addition, companies are cutting back on health-care packages they give retirees, and many workers discover to their horror that their pension benefits, which the AARP reports haven't increased in 20 years, won't be enough to cover the higher premiums they will have to pay until Medicare kicks in at 65.

There are more than 76 million of us baby boomers, and we will begin to turn 55 this year. Though more than 80 percent of us, the AARP says, expect to keep working after retirement, we would like some say in what kind of work that is, and how much.

We are part of the best-educated generation in history, and thanks to medical science and attention to lifestyle choices, the healthiest. And we have another 20 or 30 productive years left - that's the equivalent of another career.

Another aspect of retirement changes with this generation. Retirement has long been considered a stage in a man's life. It was up to his wife to get used to having him under foot.

Increasingly, however, she has a job, too, and retirement from two careers takes some negotiation, especially if she is just hitting her stride after delaying her full-time return to work to raise children.

He might not like rattling around the house by himself all day. She might not be ready to hit the highway in a motor-home tour of America's golf resorts. If they compromise and each cuts back to part-time work, it will be an easier adjustment for her because likely she has worked part-time before.

We baby boomers may be daydreaming about retirement, but I don't think we really have a vision for it. We might be socking money away in a 401(k) or an IRA and paying more attention to the talk about changing Social Security, but we haven't given much thought to how we would like to structure our days during a retirement that won't begin to resemble our parents' retirement.

We probably have a spouse who is working, too, and who might have a different vision of retirement. It is possible we have changed jobs several times and are not fully vested in a pension, but have a handful of 401(k) or IRA accounts to sort out.

It is likely our kids are in enormous debt after college and might need our financial help for years. Or perhaps we would like to use whatever money we have accumulated to start a new business.

Perhaps our retirement daydreams should not be about the end of working every day. Perhaps they should be about starting over.

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