How retirement is being reinvented worldwide
People are working longer – out of necessity and choice – as the world undergoes one of the biggest demographic shifts in history.
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The reasons include positive ones like a quest for personal fulfillment. As longevity increases, people increasingly view work as one important way to keep their lives active and meaningful. "The very notion of 'retirement' – in that sense of uninterrupted leisure – is not nearly as popular among boomers" as among prior generations, says Neil Howe, a historian who tracks generational traits at LifeCourse Associates, a consulting firm in Great Falls, Va. "The idea of remaining contributors, and not wanting to simply be dependent consumers, is ... very important." In fact, some boomers may find that their most fulfilling career comes "post-retirement," as added wisdom blends with job descriptions that are higher on creativity or lower on stress.Skip to next paragraph
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The most obvious reason behind the world's graying workforce, though, has to do with pocketbook imperatives. Put simply, if people live longer, someone has to support them. Part of the answer, experts say, is that people of advancing years will play a bigger role in supporting themselves.
Governments are already feeling pressure to boost official ages of retirement, if they don't want to sink their economies under the weight of public debt. Riots in France before a parliamentary vote on the retirement age last fall may offer a foretaste of policy battles to come in the US and elsewhere. The world in general is on course for demographic aging on an unprecedented scale. Ultimately, the way it plays out is likely to have major implications for everything from living standards to the global balance of power among nations.
AS THE WORLD TURNS SILVER
Yang Jinrong symbolizes how this "new retirement" is already taking root worldwide. She works as a bookkeeper in the bustling coastal city of Tianjin, China. Now in her 50s, Ms. Yang expects to help support herself and her family by crunching numbers for a local medical equipment company into her 60s or even 70s.
She works because she likes to, but also because of a financial squeeze in China called the "4-2-1 problem." That's the notion that, thanks to China's one-child policy, each young worker may need to help take care of two parents and four grandparents.
"This problem has no solution," says Yang's son, 26-year-old Sun Quanxin. "It is beyond my financial ability." So for this family, part of the answer is for Yang to keep working.
In many ways, Asia represents the epicenter of global aging. Arguably no continent faces greater challenges in adjusting to fast-changing demographics.
The region also reflects another essential fact about global graying: It's not just a rich-country phenomenon. The prevailing theory has always been that societies age only once they've achieved widespread prosperity. Yet the catchphrase about China is that it's "growing old before it grows rich." And the same thing is happening even in developing nations where governments haven't shown a China-style zeal for population control.
Longer life spans are one factor, but experts say the biggest reason is a fall in fertility rates. As the number of young people declines, older people become a larger share of the overall population. This has big financial and political implications. It means older people, whose health care costs more, have fewer young people to help support them.
The trend varies widely – with some nations aging rapidly while others remain demographically "young." In a report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Mr. Howe and coauthor Richard Jackson have warned that this demographic divergence could be a source of geopolitical instability during the 2020s. (Countries with looming "youth bulges" and high potential for civil unrest include Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.)