"What will I do with the rest of my life?"
That question can both intrigue and intimidate new and prospective retirees as they look ahead to years of unstructured time. After decades filled with dreams that begin, "When I retire I'll...," some quickly discover that travel and leisure pursuits aren't always enough for a satisfying life.
These days, the "What will I do?" question carries an equal urgency and uncertainty for experts on retirement. In particular, they wonder: When millions of baby boomers retire, how will they fill their days? Will they be as likely to serve their communities as their parents were?
Early evidence suggests that many won't. By every measure of civic involvement - including voting rates and membership in community groups - boomers fall short of the generation before them. That's according to a new report, "Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement," issued last week by the Harvard School of Public Health and the MetLife Foundation.
Although nearly a third of boomers say they expect to take part in community service after they stop working, intentions and actions don't always match. Boomers, the report notes, might need a push.
Because baby boomers' massive numbers make them a "social resource of unprecedented proportions," the study emphasizes the need for public conversations about the meaning and purpose of the later years. Such discussions, authors say, would include studying media images of aging and volunteering.
Not so many years ago, stereotypes of older people focused on the "frail elderly" - people too fragile and "too behind the times to be involved in anything," as anthropologist Maria Vesperi, an author of the study, describes them. Now a new generation of healthy, active older people is appearing in ads and movies. Some wags call them Woofies, short for Well-Off Older Folks.
In some ways, Dr. Vesperi says, "the active senior playing sports and spending money, being more youthful than stereotypes of the past, raises the bar for older people." But such activities don't emphasize the community or the importance of giving back.
As one solution, authors of the report propose a national campaign to mobilize baby boomers and encourage intergenerational connections. Efforts would include working with writers and directors in Hollywood to include community involvement in scripts. Think of the quiet message a TV or movie storyline - or a commercial, for that matter - could send by showing an actor of a certain age heading off to teach remedial reading to third-graders.
Advocates know such an effort can work. In the late 1980s, a similar national campaign promoted the importance of designated drivers for groups of people who drink. Although that concept initially drew ridicule, public opinion gradually shifted. In a three-year period beginning in 1988, more than 160 episodes on TV sitcoms featured designated drivers. Now it is an accepted practice.
In a finding that runs contrary to conventional wisdom, more people volunteer in midlife than in retirement. Even the word "volunteer" is something of a misnomer. Most of those giving unpaid time to community activities had to be asked. They didn't just raise their hands.
Moral of the story: Get people involved early, and don't be shy about recruiting.
In an age when a former senator, Bob Dole, promotes Viagra and a former president, George Bush, celebrates his 80th birthday by skydiving, there is no shortage of youthful images coming from determined octogenarians. But perhaps the most powerful image is of another former president, Jimmy Carter, volunteering to build houses for the poor.
Psychologist Erik Erikson once warned against "an initial retirement holiday followed by a dangling and unproductive aging of many years' duration." To help retirees avoid, or at least postpone, that "dangling and unproductive" period, civic groups could learn from wartime recruiting posters that read, "Uncle Sam wants you."
Today an updated poster could meet a different need: recruiting silver-haired troops - boomers and Woofies - to volunteer for rewarding civic duty. Its message could read, "Your community wants you." The line, as they say, forms to the right.