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The most important thing about an improved old age will be the simple fact that it will be good to be old. Given life, liberty, and a variety of clear paths to happiness, late life will be fuller than ever before.

—Dr. Joe Coughlin

A hat—it was an indispensable part of wardrobes for centuries. Even if you didn’t want to wear one, you did. Then in the early 1960s, seeing one became a rarity. The hat went away. This disappearance represented more than a simple change in fashion. The story we told ourselves—how someone garbs and presents themselves in a public setting—changed almost overnight. Society chose to stop agreeing on one version of how things worked. Instead, it accepted that there could be multiple variations of what could happen atop a head. All of a sudden, there was a choice.

Similarly, you have a choice about how you’ll age. You’ve been told a certain story of what aging should look like. And for a long time, we've bought into an “old age” story filled with leisure and relaxation. But what if our thoughts about aging changed, like what happened with hats? What if one day, we woke up and realized things could change if we wanted them to? We didn’t have to live a vision of old age that was created years ago. Our later years could actually be anything that we want. 


First, Where “Old Age” Came From

Society paints the story of aging adults with a single wide brush stroke—old. But aging unfolds differently for everyone, and old isn’t really anyone’s defining attribute, is it? That’s because those considered older are people of every conceivable variety: ethnicity, religion, sexuality, medical status, interests, political persuasion—and anything else you could name under the sun. Their identity is more than simply the number of years they’ve lived.


Who Came Up With the Concept of “Old Age” Anyway?

Our very notion of “old age” is made up. It’s a socially constructed, historically contingent, and deeply flawed idea. This narrowly focused narrative no longer applies to a majority of us—yet, we tell it every day. We still agree to live it.


The most important thing about an improved old age will be the simple fact that it will be good to be old. Given life, liberty, and a variety of clear paths to happiness, late life will be fuller than ever before.

—Dr. Joe Coughlin

A Time When You Didn’t Retire

% working after age 641

% working age 65–742

In Dr. Joseph Coughlin’s book, “The Longevity Economy,” he states that 75% of workers 65 and older were employed in 1880. By 2019, only 26% of people ages 65-74 worked. Why such a shift? Prior to pensions and Social Security, aging workers knew that if they stopped working, they’d have to rely on family for support. Or worse, they might have to move into an almshouse, where they could have possibly found themselves bunking next to some unsavory characters.

The Origins of Retirement

It wasn’t so long ago when a completely different idea of aging was taken for granted in the United States. Our current story of “old age” began in the second half of the 19th century. Though it was first told in a much different world than we live in today, it’s still the measuring stick we use.

The Union Army Pension, instituted in 1890, provided payments to American Civil War veterans and their wives when a recipient hit his 60s. Prior to its existence, retirement was not something aging workers looked forward to very much. It meant you weren’t too far away from death.

This pension provided the first indication that this norm might change and a subset of the population would voluntarily stop working before they were physically unable to continue.


A Problem to Solve

Society’s collective decision was to create a narrative in which there was a natural time for you to essentially get off the grid. For the younger people who were jockeying for your job, the notion was that only young, able bodies were needed to have a productive factory. Society was run the way you’d operate a mill.

Business, industry, and the government wanted to justify moving people out of the workforce to make space for younger workers, so they started to create things, such as an official retirement age. This is when there began to be a scaling back of work, typically in a person’s early to mid-60s. This worker mindset continues today for all occupations.


Second, How We See “Old Age” Today

By the dawn of the 20th century, once you’d become visibly older, no matter your apparent health, no matter how sharp your mind seemed, all you could hope to do was withdraw and rest, saving your vitality for as long as you could. Crucially, you could no longer work; “old age” now changed you from an economic producer into a consumer.

This since-debunked idea soon wormed its way into every aging-related institution we now take for granted: the first government pensions, corporate retirement policies, and dedicated old-age homes.


Living Someone Else’s Story

As we started living longer, there were suddenly a lot more aging adults living on past their prime working days. The idea that this group is supposed to be consumers of ideas, work, products, and culture, but never producers of them has survived well into the 21st century. They’re always takers, never givers according to this story.

Aging adults now included people with time and money, so marketers created a desirable vision of leisure, travel, and retirement communities. And today, we still want that, because there is no equally compelling alternative. Despite the fact that we’re living longer and in more functional health than ever before, we’ve kept this story of “old age” going.


Retiring the 20th Century Vision

Because many of us can plan on two-plus decades of healthy life after we turn 60, full retirement is likely not going to arrive for a long time. Living 20 or 30 years after we totally stop working demands more than an occasional cruise or family visit.

Those who report positive well-being in retirement do far more than window-shop and sip coffee. They often work part-time, volunteer, or serve as mentors. Making such a world possible for more aging adults will demand a great deal.

We have to start thinking of aging differently, more expansively. Unfortunately, it’ll be a tough road ahead. Aging adults are a coveted target for marketers who want to sell their cure for “old age” over and over again.


Third, How You Can Create Your New Story

Good stories are constructed with five basic elements. These fundamental building blocks are necessary in creating a compelling narrative. The one you write about the rest of your life will be no different.


The protagonist of this particular story is you, of course. So, how will this main character act? How you see yourself down the road shouldn’t be shaded by how someone a certain age acts or your perception of what a retirement person should do. You, and perhaps that significant other who may co-star in your upcoming story, can be whoever you want. The other people you know will play a continuing role in your life as your supporting cast. And you might meet new characters, too.


Where will it all take place? Is it simply a continuation of where your current one is set? Or do you make a break and set it somewhere else? You may want to move to that location you’ve always wanted to live. Perhaps, you’d rather stay in the same house and spot your tale currently takes place in. There is no right or wrong answer for this one. The only answer is the one that works best for you.


This may be the most difficult component because it could be completely different than the familiar one that we’ve been told. Maybe your life changes. Maybe it doesn’t. You can go on working as long as you want or need to these days. But when you begin to take more time for yourself, do you know what you’ll want to focus on? It’s easy to follow what’s been laid out—but when there is unlimited choice, how do we choose what to do?


Every story has an obstacle the hero must overcome. Understanding the potential conflicts in your own story will help you know what you must prepare for in the days ahead. Is it making sure you have sufficient retirement income to last the remainder of your life? Will it be health issues that you have to tackle? Whatever those main struggles will be, identify them to help move your narrative forward.


When this next chapter nears its conclusion, what will you have wanted to achieve? Are there places in the world you have yet to see? What else is on the bucket list that you’ll want to make happen? Knowing your desired ending can help you work backward to piece together the path to get there. Understanding how far many of us are from that point in our story is key to creating a compelling narrative moving forward.

Is There Anything Wrong With A Life-of-Leisure Retirement Story?

It’s a perfectly fine story for some. But it could be a problem if it’s the default story you're imagining about your future. Some retirees try a life-of-leisure retirement and experience a spike of happiness. Then they get bored and are ready for something new. Realize that you don’t have to live that the traditional “old age” story you've been told. You can create a new story for your future. 


Remember These Things When Creating Your Retirement Story

First, remember where the story of “old age” came from. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s aging people worked ‘til they dropped. Second, the story of a leisure-filled retirement was created in the 1960. It’s been embraced ever since. Third, think through the elements of your new story for aging: characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. Then create your new story.


Author Headshot

Director, MIT AgeLab

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1The Longevity Economy, Joseph F. Coughlin, 2017. Most recent data available

2Civilian labor force participation rate by age, sex, race, and ethnicity, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9/8/22

The MIT AgeLab is not an affiliate or subsidiary of Hartford Funds.


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