Ads for retirement communities portray a carefree world. Youthful-looking couples, along with a few singles, smile broadly as they play golf and tennis, stroll along wooded paths, and relax by the pool. "Ah," they appear to be saying, "this is the life."
For some future retirees, this Eden may continue to represent the ideal life. But for millions of others, the phrase will more likely be rendered in the past tense: "That was the life." Increasingly, a retirement of total leisure is beginning to look like a quaint artifact of the 20th century - a blip on the cultural screen, a chapter in future history books. As longevity increases and once-certain financial cushions - Social Security and pensions - become less secure, the script for the later years is under revision. For better or worse, it's not your father's - or mother's - retirement anymore.
Once viewed as a reward for a lifetime of obedience to alarm clocks and bosses, retirement is now alternately portrayed as something to be desired and something to be avoided. "Move to the Sun Belt and relax," glossy ads tease. "Don't Retire - Rewire!" counter the authors of a new book by that title.
What's fascinating is that this seismic shift represents not just an American trend, but a global phenomenon. In a new survey of more than 11,000 adults in 10 parts of the world, more than three- quarters say they should be allowed to work as long as they want. So much for the proverbial gold watch at 65.
The survey, "The Future of Retirement Around the World," is billed as the largest global study on attitudes about retirement. Conducted by HSBC Bank in Britain, it looks at attitudes in Brazil, Canada, mainland China, Hong Kong, France, India, Japan, Mexico, Britain, and the United States. In six of those 10 societies, the majority would like to alternate work and leisure.
No wonder the group ThirdAge says that the definition of "retired" is evolving to include "working in some capacity."
This spring, surveys on retirement are popping up like daffodils. Pollsters agree that "aging midlifers" will "redefine" retirement. But wanting to work in the later years for self-fulfillment and being forced to work indefinitely to pay the bills are two different things.
For women in particular, leisure is a goal many must postpone indefinitely. More than half of American women think they'll have to work past retirement age, according to a new survey by the Heinz Family Philanthropies and the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement. Almost half are concerned that they might live their final years at or near the poverty level. They say they simply can't save enough for retirement. Only a third of men face that dilemma.
Calling retirement "an inaccessible dream" for many women, the report notes that because women's careers are typically interrupted by child-rearing and caregiving, they receive smaller Social Security checks and have less access to pensions. Where, women ask, is the gold in their golden years?
As countries everywhere work out the complexities and rewarding possibilities of these changes, the new retirement could mark the beginning of dramatic cultural shifts. These could reshape everything from family life to housing, the workplace, and relationships between young and old.
This retirement revolution will require reeducation on at least three fronts: Employers will need to understand the advantages of keeping - and hiring - older workers. Young adults will need encouragement to take retirement seriously from the start of their careers and begin putting money aside. And parents will need to instill habits of thrift and saving beginning when children are young.
It's all part of the task for a new century: finding ways to ensure that all retirees, whatever their dreams for their later years - leisure, part-time jobs, or full-time work - will be able to say with satisfaction, "Ah, this is the life."