Riding up the Santa Fe Trail to the north boundary of the Air Force Academy on a recent sunny weekday afternoon, I expected to have the trail to myself. It was late October in the middle of the workday, so most of my fellow cyclists would be stuck in their cubicles.
In fact, there were plenty of riders on the trail. They were fit, lycra-clad, fast-moving … geezers! Forget the weekend riders, the families, the pretty girls, the reckless young guys — it was time for the bald heads and white beards.
Clearly, most of these guys were retirees, the vanguard of the retiring baby boomers whose imminent departure from the work force, according to conventional wisdom, will place impossible burdens upon American society.
Trying to keep up with these bizarrely fit power-geezers, I wondered about the future. Would the trails be clogged with hundreds of oldsters enjoying their golden years, while their children and grandchildren struggled to pay sharply higher taxes? Won’t somebody have to pay the piper so that the boomers can draw Social Security checks and bill Medicare for their Viagra and knee replacements?
That same evening, I was hanging out at my favorite downtown watering hole watching the Rockies lose when I fell into conversation with a friend who’s about to retire, after 30 years as a teacher.
Thanks to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, she’ll have a generous retirement check coming in every month — as will her boyfriend Mike, also a retired teacher (and, I might add, one of those annoyingly fit bike geezers!).
So what is she going to do? Travel, work out, loaf and live off her retirement?
Not exactly. She plans to teach part time, and maybe find other work — something interesting, challenging and less stressful than teaching. Like so many retirees, she’s not ready to stop working, sit around, volunteer and wait for the grim reaper.
As a self-identified geezer, I know that she’s not atypical. Most of my aging pals are still working, whether from necessity or inclination. Far from being dead weight that society must carry, they’re active and productive. They might receive Social Security, but, as workers, they also pay into the system.
Thanks to healthier lifestyles, sophisticated medical technology and better workplace environments, today’s geezers can continue to work productively into their 60s, 70s and even 80s.
And most of them, I suspect, will do so.
My friend with her PERA retirement is far better situated than are most of her contemporaries. Most of us have relatively meager savings, apart from house equity, and no retirement check other than Social Security. At best, Social Security will give us a monthly check of $2,000 — and that’s not going to cut it.
Baby boomers aren’t like their parents, who, at retirement, might have had a personal nest egg, a pension, Social Security and a mortgage-free bungalow — and significantly modest needs and low expectations.
Boomers tend to have big houses, big mortgages and lots of stuff. Will they be willing to downsize not just their houses, but their lifestyles? Will they happily dispense with cable, with going out, with quick trips to Vegas, with new cars and with all the sweet junk that goes with the good life?
Or will they stay engaged and active, and get paid for it? Their’s has been a generation obsessed with youth, success and being cool. There’s nothing less cool, less youthful and less successful than being retired — unless you retire with tens of millions of greenbacks. And even then, a retired centimillionaire is just another cranky old rich guy — I mean, like, who cares what he thinks??!!
And, as my teacher friend has found, it’s easy to continue to work. There are widely trumpeted shortages, real and anticipated, of workers in dozens of different occupations. If you’re a nurse, or an accountant or a teacher, for example, you can almost dictate the terms of your employment. (“I will work only on Mondays, Tuesdays, alternate Thursdays and when the moon is three days from being full.”)
And let’s not forget a fundamental truth. Work can be mindless drudgery, but it also can be interesting, fulfilling and energizing. By keeping you engaged in the world, it might well keep you young as well. And it serves a higher purpose, one so memorably expressed by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “As life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time, at peril of being judged not to have lived.”
So, maybe our long-anticipated generational crisis won’t happen after all. Maybe America’s office buildings will be full of energetic, hard-working geezers being bossed around by managers younger than their children.
Well, maybe not that energetic — as I write this, it’s a beautiful Friday afternoon and I’d sure like to hit the Santa Fe Trail. I know, I’ll tell the boss (26 years my junior) that I have a doctor’s appointment. He’ll believe me — after all, I’m a geezer.
I might drop dead any minute … unless, as I’d like to believe, death and old age are just avoidable options.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.