Reimagining Retirement

By Jeff Haanen

Anne Bell, a recently-retired researcher at the University of Northern Colorado, spent one of her first years after retirement volunteering with the 5280 Fellowship, a leadership program for young professionals in Denver. Bright and soft spoken, wearing dark-rimmed glasses that match her innate curiosity, she confessed one day to a group of early career professionals, “I’m really searching for what I’m called to,” she confessed, wiping a tear from her check. “I just want to know what’s next.” 

Decoding the Culture of Retirement: Three Postures 

The history of retirement began in America around the idea of a never-ending vacation. Using that theme, here are three postures toward retirement that dominate headlines today: 

  1. Let’s vacation. 

Today, the dominant paradigm of retirement is about vacation – how to afford it, and then how to spend it. A kitchen wall-hanging with the acronym for R.E.T.I.R.E says Relax, Entertain, Travel, Indulge, Read, Enjoy. 

  1. I can’t afford to vacation. 

If the dominant paradigm for retirement today is a never-ending vacation, the fastest growing group of retirees are those who know they can’t afford to vacation. If the great American dream is “financial freedom” in a blissful retirement, the great American frustration is that such a dream is out of reach for the majority. 

  1. Vacation isn’t as satisfying as world-changing. 

Quickly pushing out the Let’s Vacation paradigm is a widespread movement toward “encore careers.” 

But there are three weaknesses to this movement. First, it often overlooks the realities of aging. Backs ache. Bodies change. Funerals become a regularity. Time changes us all. 

Second, baby boomers are human (like all of us)—which means they are beautiful yet flawed. We’re deposed royalty, says Blaise Pascal, and when we’re honest, we’re drawn to greed as much as generosity, sloth as much as diligence, cowardice as much as courage. 

The third problem with movements that stress social change as a story for retirement has to do with the human longing for purpose. 

The motivation behind our service is critical. If it’s merely to solve social issues, we will always find more to issues to solve and that we have never done enough. Ironically, the same exhausting treadmill from our careers can follow us into “more meaningful” work. 

Retirement needs a new story. Or better yet, a very old story. 

Wisdom and Blessing 

Gary VanderArk is a not-so-retired physician living in south Denver. In his late 70s, he continues to teach five classes of medical students at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center, serve on nearly a dozen nonprofit boards, and bike almost 20 miles a day. Gary was also the founder of Doctors Care, a nonprofit that has helped thousands of Colorado’s medically underserved. 

If anybody has a “right” to hang up his cleats and slow down, it’s Dr. VanderArk. Yet when I interviewed him about what motivates him, he said with a broad grin, “Well, I believe it’s more blessed to give than to receive. I’m enjoying myself too much to stop.” 

White hair, bony fingers, and frail voice, to some Gary may seem “old.” But when you speak with him, he seems almost carefree, like a child on Christmas morning. He acknowledges human frailty and death yet keeps serving others as if death is of no concern to him. He keeps teaching and sitting on nonprofit boards not because of social duty, but instead out of sheer delight. He is quick to listen and slow to speak. His words hold genuine gravitas. He is like “the righteous [who] flourish like a palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon…They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green,” (Ps. 92:12-14). 

Gary, like many of God’s people through the ages, isn’t living in a story that culminates on the seventh day, the traditional Jewish day of rest. The story he lives in culminates on Sunday morning. It is the first day of the week. It’s the dawn of a new world. 

This article is an adapted excerpt from Jeff Haanen’s An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life. Jeff is the executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and lives with his wife and four daughters in Littleton, CO.

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