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Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.
Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.

Retirement: Good Bad Good Bad Good Bad?

We are not tools of the capitalist establishment, trying for exploitation.


My co-investigator and co-author Dr. Leslie Martin and I are often interviewed by the media about our work on The Longevity Project. For example, just this week, we appeared on the public radio WGBH/PRI show Innovation Hub, (To hear the interview go here ). We explained, as we often do, that there are various reasons why retirement may be bad for your health. This prompts two sorts of responses. Young people may think, "Well, why I am working for and saving for retirement?" And older people may loudly proclaim the various reasons why they wanted to, or needed to, or were forced to leave their work!

Sometimes, we are accused of being a tool of the capitalist establishment, trying to fool workers into slaving away while the top 1 per cent get richer from this extra labor. (We are not tools. We are scientists trying to report our findings and explain what they mean.)

The American idea of retirement, as we know it, began in the 1930’s with the establishment of the Social Security system and the setting of age 65 as the retirement age. There was nothing magical about age 65, and most adult Americans could expect to live well beyond 65 (see my column ). Age 65 just seemed about right, given existing policies and traditions in other areas of society, and the financial numbers seemed to work. Of course most farmers did not retire and neither did most craftsmen, housewives, musicians, politicians, doctors, performers, and more. But as the idea took hold, more and more companies expected their workers to leave at 65, and more and more workers thought WHY NOT? A perpetual vacation?

In The Longevity Project, we have studied over 1500 individuals since they were children in the 1920s. We have found again and again that people who relish life’s challenges with persistence, are well-integrated into their communities, and lead active daily lives (not sitting in a beach chair) often tend to thrive. These thrivers and survivors have social networks and lots of stuff to do every day. But many people who retire will lose their ties at work, may move away from their communities, and may sit in front of a screen all day. On average, retirees spend half their waking hours watching TV. Those are the problems.

If you plan to leave your previous work to do some valuable activity that keeps you involved and active, then retirement is not unhealthy. If you are volunteering significantly at a school or charity or community group, then that can be very healthy. If you start a second, more flexible (or lower-key) career, then that can be very healthy. But this is not really retirement in the traditional sense. Second careers, second acts, encore activities help keep most people healthier and happier. We should not have to call them semi-retirement or post-retirement. We just need to retire the traditional idea of retirement.

About the Author
Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.

Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

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