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Is Retirement All That?

How Generation Unretired—"Gen U"—is finding true happiness.

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It used to be that fulfillment in later years meant finally checking out of the workforce and leaping into leisure bliss—retirement. But as you contemplate or experience retirement, are you not quite ready for this? Does the reduced mental stimulation make you antsy? Does unretiring sounding appealing? If so, welcome to “Gen U” or “Generation Unretired.”

Many are finding retirement anticlimactic and the infamous “gold watch” a false panacea—wanting a renewed sense of purpose. This is at the core of the unretirement trend. You may be redefining your happiness by wanting to return to work and engage with colleagues again. If so, you’re not alone.

A growing segment of the 75 million Baby Boomers is blazing the trail of what I call “Gen U,” for generations to come. Many are staying put in their jobs longer, too. And for good reason. Yes, life expectancy and the average retirement age has risen. But there is much more. Baby Boomers are finding more fulfillment in their daily lives by continuing to work at some level.

Is this you?

A Meaningful Journey

While some Gen U-ers choose to work for monetary reasons, many are driven by deeper reasons, namely improved social well-being. According to a RAND study and the Rand Review, meaningful work is a core reason why older adults are putting off retirement. In the company’s American Working Conditions Survey, more than half of retirees said they would work in the future for the right opportunity.

If you’re feeling the desire to keep your mind active, mentor others, stay relevant, continue to make contributions to society, or enjoy the camaraderie of working with others—get ready, as you might have just entered an exciting new chapter in your life.

Pop quiz: How many people have you asked about their retirement who quickly described it as “too boring?" There is inherent wisdom in their response, as the risk of depression during retirement is real. Studies like those conducted by the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs and other groups point to the critical value of staying mentally and physically active in later years.

An Empowering Direction

Baby Boomers didn’t get to where they are by following the lead of others. It’s no wonder that if you fall into this demographic, you might already be blazing the trails of the newly empowered Gen U. You’re taking your destiny into your own hands. If you're sitting on the sidelines, feeling any regrets, perhaps it's time to experiment. There's no harm in trying.

It's okay to challenge former cultural norms that are unhealthy. Why not pursue activities and passions that make you feel vibrant and alive? Gen U is about taking control over one’s life, a key factor in creating happiness.

A new career

If retirement left you feeling disconnected or lacking purpose, working again can reignite that sense of engagement. RAND reports that two-thirds of older workers said they were doing useful work and felt satisfaction over a job well done.

This can also be a great time to find contentment in a new career path. In a survey by Home Instead, Inc., the majority of both those approaching retirement and those who have returned to work said they will change or have changed industries.

Learning: a lifelong journey

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” —Henry Ford

For many, intellectual curiosity is a never-ending pursuit—and that can grow with age. For example, the demographics at college campuses has shifted. You may want to pursue a certification or a certain skill set for greater marketability. Online classes make it easy for busy Gen U-ers to pursue higher learning. Adding educational credentials can feel like a breath of fresh air at this phase of life.

Changing perceptions

Worried your peers will think you’ve fallen on hard times by returning to work? If so, consider that the shift to Gen U has already taken place:

  • Adults 65 and up are better educated and more financially stable than in the past. AARP says the average income of retirement-age workers jumped by 63 percent after adjusting for inflation, from $48k to $78k, from 1985 to 2019. Work is often a personal choice, their report says.
  • A RAND survey found that 71 percent of Americans ages 66-69 have adequate resources to retire.

Most of all, remember, this is about you, not them!

Working on your terms

Flexible work arrangements have made it easier for you to keep working while finding life balance. There are part-time, consulting, and temporary opportunities to consider. And many staffing firms that value your experience can market you. Running your own business may be an option, too, especially with the abundance of digital tools available.

Finally, companies faced with worker shortages need experienced talent with strong communication skills and emotional intelligence, often key strengths of Baby Boomers. It’s not uncommon for employers to try and recruit their retirees to their team!

When I first wrote about Generation Unretired 10 years ago, the trend was just beginning. The stereotypical “grandmother” wearing a bun in a rocking chair is long gone. The only thing she may rock today is a great blazer and jeans, while she leads a team meeting. The trend is not stopping anytime soon.

Is it time for you to redefine your own happiness as you un-retire?

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