When I was around 10 years old, my vision of retirement was to work until 65 and then “fish my life away.” Role models included my maternal grandfather, who retired from the Ford plant (I guess he was 65), and other men of that cohort who seemed to be enjoying life after work.

By the time I was in high school, fishing as a retirement option was less compelling. By my 20s, I’d given up the whole idea of traditional retirement. My so-called career path was anything but traditional and, in any case, doing something I really liked until giving up the ghost sounded like the best thing. Today, assuming good health, anything that even resembles retirement is out of the question. I’m pretty much on the “feet first” retirement plan. Researchers address the very issues that baby boomers like me face as we approach the traditional retirement age.

Not your father’s retirement

Retirement means different things to different groups, or cohorts, of workers. In Clocking Out: Temporal Patterning Of Retirement (1999), Shin-Kap Han and Phyllis Moen write that in the mid-20th century, the idea of retiring at 65 was the norm.

This resulted less from employer egalitarianism than from a perfect storm of employer-provided pensions, the number of people reaching retirement age within a certain span of time, approximately the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, and the implied social contract that offered workers career-long (i.e., lifelong), employment.

Jungmeen Kim and Phyllis Moen, in Retirement Transitions, Gender, and Psychological Well-Being: A Life-Course, Ecological Model (2002), find an increase in men’s morale as they look forward to doing things in retirement they hadn’t had time for while working.

Women, however, approach retirement with “higher . . . depressive symptoms but lower levels of morale.” The authors speculate that fewer financial, personal and social-relational resources account for women’s psychological status. It may also be related to the prospect of returning to full-time housework, from which there is no retirement.

Older and out

In “At This Point Now”: Older Workers’ Reflections on Their Current Employment Experiences (2005), Anne Noonan finds that workers nearing or past 65 are in a very different situation. Where Han and Moen described “the recent spell of massive and widespread downsizing,” Noonan’s subjects were caught in the downward spiral that was not just a spell but a long-term trend begun in the mid-1980s!

“Nobody wants you when you’re older.” “Where I am today, I got all these fantastic skills and I’m frustrated because I’m discriminated against.” “They’d rather have two 25-year-old people.” “It’s really very crazy out there right now.” “I’d love to retire now, but there’s no way. I have no money to retire.”

These are typical responses from Noonan’s subjects. Although some are more sanguine about their prospects, overall the group is gloomy. Age is the deciding factor. Skill levels and experience seem to count for little.

Although the articles don’t discuss the glamorized view of retirement in America, it’s all over TV and in print. Retirement years are framed as the golden years, when older people can finally relax, as long as they’ve made the right investments. That doesn’t guarantee any security, either. As seen in the Enron crash, people who have been with a company for years can have all their retirement savings wiped out in one fell swoop. The golden years were actually a short-lived blip that has long since passed.

Baby boomers approach traditional retirement age

Noonan surveyed workers 55 and older in her study. This means the youngest were born in 1946, the first year of the baby boom. Han and Moen studied three age cohorts – those born before 1929, those born in or before 1934, and those born in or before 1943, who would have been about 56 at the time of the study.

Those in the 1943 cohort experienced some of the same difficulties facing boomers. These pre-boomers were caught in the beginnings of corporate downsizings, outsourcings and offshorings that continue almost to this day. They also were among the first to be offered early retirement incentives in lieu of future layoffs. (Han and Moen call them ERIs; I call them ROBLOs: Retire or be laid off.)

Han and Moen find “later cohorts are significantly more likely to have taken an ERI.” What the authors didn’t explore or didn’t understand is what these younger groups understood very well: ERIs were the best deal they could get. Those who stuck it out, especially older workers nearing retirement, likely would have been laid off later with nothing to show for it.

Many of the people in Noonan’s study found themselves out of work and had to take lesser-paying jobs or had trouble finding any job because of their age. Even a few years seems to make a big difference. According to one man, “Sending out a resume at age 54 versus 58. 54 you get more responses. 58 you get very few.”

Golden years – not

What strikes me about all the studies is that they all look at employment through the lens of the old social contract where people could work their entire careers in one company. Not everyone is a homesteader who stays with one job (Noonan by way of Bronte) or has an orderly career and climbs the ladder (Han and Moen). Those days may be gone.

It’s not that the researchers ignored trends. Things have moved so quickly, especially since 2001, it’s hard to keep up. We seem to be moving toward the edge of chaos. Whether we go over the edge or achieve a steady state remains to be seen.

Boomers and later generations understand that they’re on their own. The company probably won’t be there for them when they reach retirement age. And when they reach retirement age they almost certainly won’t be at the same company they started in, unless they happened to start working there in their mid- or late 50s, and even that’s up for grabs.

Retirement and younger workers

None of the articles directly address younger vs. older workers. Han and Moen point out that the predictor of actual retirement is related to when workers begin to anticipate retirement. In other words, a 40-year-old planning retirement will likely retire earlier than a 50-year-old planning retirement. The authors also show that younger workers (relative to older workers in their study, i.e., those born before 1943) were more likely to take early retirement incentives when offered.

To me, this just seems practical. The workers can see the handwriting on the wall: leave the company now with a chunk of change or leave later with your coat and hat.

People in the early stages of their working lives aren’t sitting idly by while older workers get the ax. Younger workers understand that the social contract is defunct and company loyalty is a sham, and they return the favor. Their working strategy is job hopping within their area of expertise every two or three years, or as needed. This mobility was partly aided by the booming economy where jobs were plentiful, roughly from 1995 to 2008, when the Great Recession began, and the dot-com era. Portable retirement accounts also helped workers jump from job to job. The danger of 401k accounts is that a company you don’t work for can go bust and wipe out your retirement nest egg. (Enron again.)

The crippled economy affects younger and older workers alike. Jobs within any given field aren’t as plentiful as they were just a few years ago. People who are not satisfied with their jobs often feel stuck. Older workers are wary of layoffs that will leave them stranded without enough money to retire and too young to take Social Security.

Younger workers realize that retirement may be just a pipe dream. Worse, many are having trouble finding work and resent older workers holding down jobs that they, the younger workers, feel are rightfully theirs. They wish the older workers would just go out on the ice floes and make room for them. Global warming makes ice floes harder to come by even for Eskimos.

Meanwhile, corporate profits, according to some, are outpacing worker salaries while younger and older workers wrestle over the shrinking job pie. My guess is that many people are too worried about working today to think about retirement tomorrow.

Why you and I might not retire