Retirement as a mixture of work and play

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. - To anyone whose daily schedule is long on work and short on relaxation, "leisure" ranks as one of the most appealing words anywhere.

It also remains one of the most elusive dreams. Until retirement. Then time deficits disappear, and leisure becomes a full-time way of life - sometimes too much of a good thing, in fact. After a long career, the question becomes: Week after week, year after year, how do you fill the day when no alarm clock rings and no bosses beckon?

That question takes on new meaning in the context of a report by the New York-based International Longevity Center-USA. Thanks to early retirement and greater longevity, the study says, an increasing number of retirees will spend a full quarter of their lives in retirement.

Here in Florida, where 19 percent of residents are over 65 (the national average is 13 percent), some retired people are already proving the truth of those findings.

For more than 25 years, my family and I have made periodic visits to relatives who own a condominium in a retirement community on Florida's west coast. Built in the early 1970s, the complex is still home to a handful of original residents who retired from jobs in the North and moved here to begin a new chapter in their lives. Now their retirement has stretched for a quarter of a century - longer than many of them ever imagined, and longer than many of us have worked.

Robert Butler, a co-editor of the report, "Longevity and Quality of Life: Opportunities and Challenges," urges older people to "stay in the game a few more years instead of sitting on the bench for the last quarter of their lives." Inactivity, Dr. Butler warns, threatens well-being.

Yet older workers who want to "stay in the game" face sometimes daunting challenges. Everything from subtle age discrimination to enticing early-retirement packages can serve as disincentives to remaining on the job.

One positive policy change came last April, when Congress eliminated penalties on Social Security earnings for workers between 65 and 70.

In other good news, demographers predict a coming boom in older workers. By 2015, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, two-thirds of workers between 55 and 64 will be working, up from 59 percent in 1998. Among those 65 and older, 14 percent will be working then, up from 12 percent in 1998.

As life expectancy approaches 80 throughout the industrialized world, the over-65 population will more than double in the next 50 years.

Already I notice a shift among owners in the Florida retirement community. Original residents who bought condos in the 1970s were almost always retirees who lived here full time. In recent years, as condos have changed hands, new owners are more likely to be part-time residents who may still work elsewhere, even if on reduced schedules. They fly in and out.

Part-time work, part-time play - is this the best of both worlds?

If so, the world of work must undergo a dramatic restructuring. Flexibility will be paramount. Already contract workers are creating new patterns: work awhile, take a break, work again, take another break.

That arrangement is too tenuous, financially and otherwise, to suit most of us. But it does show that not every job must be an all-or-nothing position.

The corporate world could also take a cue from academia by allowing sabbaticals. What worker couldn't benefit from time off to try something new - time to read, travel, volunteer, then go back refreshed and renewed?

One late-life trailblazer is 102-year-old Robert Eisenberg of West Hollywood, Calif., who still works as a consultant in the zipper industry. After retiring at 70, Mr. Eisenberg grew bored with just "sitting on the bench." At 80 he returned to his previous company. This month he was honored as America's oldest worker by Green Thumb, a nonprofit group that trains and employs older workers.

Most people will have little desire to follow his lead. Still, as unretired workers like Eisenberg show, leisure is often sweeter when it comes mixed with useful activity - not to mention a paycheck now and then, too.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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