For those of you who have ever considered an encore career, did you ever think your next job would be in retirement research? That’s what happened to Paul Irving. After thirty years as a corporate attorney and CEO of a large law firm with roots in the financial services industry, he says, “I fell into a project having to do with aging and I just fell in love with the subject.” That project ignited a new passion and inspired him to launch his own encore career.
Today, Irving is the Chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the University Of Southern California Davis School Of Gerontology. He believes we need a new conversation about the benefits and costs of retirement for individuals, businesses and the broader society—and wonders if the word retirement makes sense in the 21st century. Here are a few of the topics we discussed.
The title of your book, The Upside of Aging, is more positive than we usually hear about the impact of longevity. Are perceptions shifting?
We’re at the early stages of building a movement and there’s increasing understanding about the upside of aging and the possibilities for older adults. But we have a long way to go. You still hear a lot of negative metaphors, such as “Silver Tsunami.” Populations are aging rapidly in the United States and elsewhere due to increasing longevity and lower birth rates. While aging brings the risks of financial insecurity and the challenges of disease, awareness of the opportunities associated with our longevity dividend is growing. We have a real chance to spread the conversation about a new way of thinking about aging. That’s very much what we’re involved in every day.
What’s wrong with the current conversation about retirement?
You still see it on television commercials, older couples who look like former models on some beautiful beach. That’s not a realistic expectation for most people and it’s not good for our society. So let’s just stop. It’s not an accurate picture today, and it likely never was. Let’s start a conversation about what people’s lives are really about. Research confirms that most people want to age in place and at home. They want the opportunity to continue to work and learn. They want meaning and purpose and joy in their lives. They have a desire for continued contribution, to stay connected and relevant, and to be respected.
What should be included in the new conversation about retirement?
I’m not sure that retirement is a notion that makes sense anymore. I don’t think most people will retire in the current sense of removal and disconnection from what they’ve been doing in their careers and communities. A better way to think about it is as a “shift”. It’s a shift, a change, a transition, a transformation.
Is that new conversation why the Milken Institute’s “Best Cities for Successful Aging” report is about successful aging rather than retirement?
That’s right. It’s not a retirement guide. It’s intended to recognize the reality that a majority of older adults expect and intend to age in place. Our focus is not how one lives in a beachside retirement community with a rec center or a nine-hole golf course and a cafeteria. It’s about remaining in community, with access to great healthcare and education, lifelong learning, the opportunity for continued work, ongoing connection with family and friends and faith and all the other things that enable the full kind of life that we now hear consistently is the kind of life the current generation of older adults seeks.