Winding up from the picturesque village of Conques in the south of France is the Le Puy route of the iconic Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail. The Peregrinos (pilgrims) who have chosen this part of the route face one of the steepest climbs on the five-hundred-mile trail. The trail at this point is a narrow gulley surrounded by forest, and it winds upward through a series of switchbacks. The peak can’t be seen, so it creates uncertainty about whether you have enough reserves to make it to the top. There are loose rocks underfoot; it’s easy to misstep, especially after fatigue has set in. It’s only natural to lower your head and watch your step to avoid a fall.
Rounding one of the switchbacks, you emerge from the dense tree coverage and suddenly realize you have made it. You’ve arrived at the peak.
There, in the clearing, you see a surprising object: an oval-shaped wooden outhouse. Scrawled across the door by a grateful Peregrino are words you will remember for the rest of your life: “Lift up your head, the hard part is over.” You have arrived at the peak and have earned the right to lift your head and enjoy what you have accomplished.
Many of the stories in this book are about people who can lift up their head. They have completed a lot in their life; a big part of their climb has been accomplished They have earned the right to lift up their head for this next stage of their life. They are deciding what is important to them and making choices. Some of those choices are challenging and aggressive, but they are being done as a matter of choice. The retirees have earned the freedom to make choices about what they really want to do next. They tell us their stories in Shifting Gears: 50 Baby Boomers Share Their Meaningful Journeys in Retirement.
Shifting Gears tells about the individual shifts made by the retirees as they transitioned into this stage of their life. A downshift for some, an upshift for others, steady cruising for a few. The book is focused on retirees who share stories about their meaningful journeys in retirement.
The stories are a sampling of the broader shift of a whole generation that is reshaping retirement. The boomer generation is taking different approaches to their retirement years; it is nothing less than a generational culture shift. They have more time, more money, and more freedom to do things that the previous generation could not even consider. Their stories demonstrate an attitude, a culture, and a willingness to make new lifestyle choices.
It’s not your parents’ retirement. We baby boomers are different. We grew up in remarkably different times, and those cultural influences have led to a refreshed attitude toward how we want to spend the rest of our life.
Our parents’ generation—what Tom Brokaw so famously called the Greatest Generation—were a group of folks born between 1901 and 1927. They grew up in the Great Depression and fought in World War II. The new technologies of radio and telephone had a major impact on their lives. There was a shift from rural America to urban and suburban living. The times they lived in shaped their character and values. They were known for their persistence and taking personal responsibility. They had a strong work ethic and sense of loyalty.
In 1950, a sixty-five-year-old man had an average retirement of eight years, 45 percent of these men continued to work, and the average social security benefit was $280 per month.1 The retirement decision was driven by going away from work, rather than going toward some new activity. The retiree had a simple life and lived modestly, usually in the community where he or she had worked. Those of the Greatest Generation are often the parents of the baby boomers.
Our baby boomer generation was born between 1946 and 1964. We grew up in a strong postwar economy and were the first generation to grow up with TV. It was a politically active generation, making important progress in advancing civil rights and feminism. It is a generation that is self-assured and decisive, while at the same time resourceful, competitive, and focused.
According to US Census Bureau data, the average length of retirement is now eighteen years, 20 percent of retirees are continuing to work, and average monthly social security payments are $1,503. In addition, retirees now have Medicare coverage for a large part of their medical expenses. More money, more time, and a generation known for its activism are a powerful combination of drivers for a reinvented retirement.
With those stark differences between the two generations, it’s not surprising that our generation is reinventing retirement. Those in our boomer generation are being activists and pushing our limits. We want more—more activity, more passion, more experimentation. No longer is retirement simply ceasing work and adding a leisure activity or two. It’s so much more. Giving voice to these changes by sharing the personal stories of this new generation of retirees shows just how far we’ve come. We’re having an impact on those around us.
Examples show that the stakes are higher. Many of the people who were interviewed for this book have called retirement the best time of their life. It’s time for baby boomers to see more examples of what their peers are doing. It’s time for other generations to take note of the full social potential of a reinvented and energized generation.
Conversations with fellow retirees first awakened me to the need for giving voice to these changes. Peter left his cushy corporate job in his early fifties to devote himself to climate change. Dave competed in the Senior Olympics in his seventies. Linda retired solo in the foothills in Colorado with her nearest neighbors being four-legged. Rick took a contemplative walk on the Camino de Santiago and reset his priorities. Milt went to Panama and installed artificial hands on amputees. Chuck dealt with the adversity of having his dream house destroyed by a fire. As I had more and more conversations with boomer retirees, my antennae went up. I sought out more stories of what they were doing with this stage of their life. Over time, I recognized a generational trend that couldn’t be ignored, and the examples hadn’t yet been fully articulated. Embracing a whole new lifestyle by taking on a vibrant range of active, challenging, fun, meaningful, and socially engaged activities in their “golden years” isn’t the retirement experience of a select few, but a driving force for this generation.
I became determined to share their stories and awaken us all to the shift toward a more expansive way of retiring that is happening right now. The idea for a book of first-person stories was born. It tapped into my own desire for a challenging and meaningful activity after I stopped working. It stirred my long-dormant desire to be an author.
As a seven-year-old kid, I was certain I wanted to be an author. No doubt about it. Fireman? Test pilot? Those careers had moments of interest, but never rose to more than second choice. My parents got me a writing pad, some #2 pencils, and a much-needed big eraser. I was off and running toward being an author.
The stories were all fiction, and never longer than one page. Pats on the head from parents and teachers gave me plenty of encouragement to continue writing.
Then, after about a year, the writing stopped as quickly as it had started. I was a kid. I changed my mind. There was no precipitating event; other fun kid activities just sort of eclipsed my writerly urges.
The passion to be an author ceased for sixty-five years. I got busy getting an education, having a family, and building a career. Nothing happened on the author front. Life experiences and maybe even a bit of wisdom accumulated. My listening skills evolved and sharpened. These new skills were used in my life, but not for writing.
Now, fast-forward more than six decades, and the idea of being an author hit me like a gust of fresh air. I was invigorated. I would be an author, this time with perhaps more sophisticated tools than the #2 pencils and notepad.
First, I went back to my friends who had originally shared their experiences with me. I recorded our conversations and started asking more questions to get the details and emotional backdrop necessary to show more clearly how they were defying the traditional limits for this stage of life.
After hearing from those closest to me, it was time to hear from people I had never met. The goal was not just to get more stories, but to get stories from a more diverse pool—I needed a range of people with disparate backgrounds and experiences. There are 47 million Americans over the age of sixty-five. Ten thousand more turn sixty-five each day. The average life span is now seventy-nine years. That means there are a lot of potential stories to listen to. I focused my search on people who showed passion and a determination to better themselves in this reinvention phase of life. Many pursued activities that made them feel good about themselves, whether it was a hobby, paid work, a volunteer opportunity, more family time, dealing with adversity, or a spiritual exploration.
At first, I leaned on friends for referrals to people who they thought might be willing to speak with me. Building trust with these strangers was critical. I knew that the way I conducted the interview was going to be key to having an open and trusting conversation. Great stories come from spontaneity, so the interview needed to be open and free-flowing, and built on trust.
Terry Gross, the iconic NPR personality was the masterful interviewer who served as a role model to help me refine my skills: Terry knows how to ask short, open questions and begin by encouraging the interviewee to talk about comfortable topics. Only after the interview has progressed and trust has been built does she ask questions like “Oh, really?” or “Why do you think that is?” or “How did you feel about that?” By the end of the interview, people are divulging much more than they would with a more rigid set of questions, and the audience benefits by getting a brighter and clearer portrait of this person in their own words. This was my model.
I began each interview with this open-ended question: “How would you describe this stage of your life?” and that got us off to a good start. Over time, as my interviewing skills evolved, my questions got shorter—and the responses grew more in-depth. I was surprised, and pleased, at how open and trusting these strangers were. I was appreciative of their willingness to share not only their experiences, but their most intimate fears, motivations, and hopes.
One of my first interviews with a stranger was with Donna. She’s undergone four leg surgeries and was on a cane for three years. Once healed, she decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. She tested her limits in an unforgettable and inspiring way.
Maurice is a four-time Emmy-award-winning documentarian, who has always worked for someone else. Now he has decided to step out from an employer’s shadow and shoot a documentary with his own total creative control. This time he’s doing a project the way he wants to do it. And he’ll do it in Gaza.
Michael has had to deal with breaking up with his partner of twenty-four years while simultaneously losing his vision.
Jane and her girlfriends decided that their seventies were the right time to learn to play the ukulele and share the joy of a new hobby together.
Bruce and Jill have always had a passion for helping people in tough circumstances. Now they both volunteer in a maximum-security prison, teaching anger management to prisoners using Buddhist meditation principles.
The stories just kept coming. This project continued to demonstrate the social trend of a generation setting higher limits for themselves.
The book is a collection of oral histories, using the words of the interviewee describing how they are shifting gears as they move forward in their meaningful retirement journey. Some are shifting smoothly, some grind the gears a bit, and some are still learning to shift. Their stories are a slice of their reality at the moment. Open questions remain in several stories. The reader will get a short but vivid portrait of each person and what they have done, but also a glimpse of the motivations and emotions that have accompanied their activities.
The content of the stories was the selection criteria, rather than the age of the person or what stage of retirement they’re in. Each story was selected because it uniquely adds to our understanding of how this generation is dealing with retirement. The reality of their situation is portrayed, with the full range of joy, sadness, inspiration and challenges that they expressed.
Each reader will take away something different from this book. Some of the stories will resonate; some may seem foreign and unfamiliar; others may have less of a connection to the reader’s own areas of interest or viewpoint. The goal is that all of you are entertained by these stories and that some of you may find ideas and inspiration to try something different in your own retirement.
You can take comfort in knowing you are not alone in seeking to tailor your life into what you want for these later years. There is a large community of your fellow explorers, several appearing in the following pages.
A Word about COVID-19
Note that all of the interviews were conducted prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clearly the pandemic has had a temporary stifling or delaying effect on many of the retirement activities described in these stories.
Elders have been the most vulnerable to the medical ravages of this disease, because of both our age and the frequency of preexisting conditions. We need to make adjustments to protect ourselves. But our generation has a second unique vulnerability that we often overlook. Our clock is ticking. We have a limited amount of time remaining to enjoy our retirement. And our knees will not be getting stronger, if we’ve planned to do physical activities.
There is a need to balance the two vulnerabilities and come up with a plan to reopen retirement. Reopening retirement will be a second reinvention for our generation. Some of our plans will need to be modified, and we may need to find new directions. We’re the generation of people who’ve reinvented themselves once before. Now we need to reinvent a second time, and adjust for this new situation.
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