I believe we’ve got retirement wrong. Hear me out. In the early 1990s, I attended my first business trip as a fresh-faced 23-year-old eager to make my mark in the world. I found myself at a workshop, listening to a speaker discuss the concept of retirement. At that age, retirement was a distant, almost foreign concept. Still, one statement from the speaker stuck in my mind: “People know to prepare financially for retirement but don’t know to prepare mentally.” He revealed a startling fact: mortality rates increase dramatically within the first three years of retirement. This revelation has stayed with me ever since.
Fast forward to the present day, and I understand the profound truth of his words even more. We often discuss health and exercise as the pillars of longevity, but we overlook the importance of maintaining a sense of purpose throughout our lives. It’s not just about having something to do; it’s about feeling needed and making a difference. It’s about contributing in ways that enrich our lives and the lives of others, making the world a little better with each passing day as long as we’re physically and mentally able.
As my husband and I find ourselves in our early fifties, with our three children either in college or beyond, we’re frequently asked about our retirement plans. The question always surprises me. Our children’s lives are just taking off, and they’re not quite “off the payroll,” so to speak. But more importantly, we both feel we have much more to give. These frequent conversations about retirement have made us realize that retirement for us means a slowing down but a continued commitment to contributing and challenging our brains.
Redefining Retirement: The Blue Zones
About five years ago, I stumbled upon the concept of the Blue Zones. These are regions in the world where people live the longest, boasting the highest number of centenarians who have evaded prescription medications and invasive medical procedures. The longevity and vitality of the people in the Blue Zones are not mere geographical anomalies but the result of a lifestyle built on nine healthy habits. These range from a mostly plant-based diet to regular physical activity, strong social networks and, crucially, maintaining a sense of purpose for as long as possible.
The inhabitants of these zones lead intentional, purposeful lives, feeling needed and making meaningful contributions. As a result, they outlive most of the world’s population. This sense of purpose challenges us to rethink our traditional views on retirement. Instead of viewing it as an end to our working lives, the Blue Zones inspire us to see it as a transition into a new phase of life. A phase not defined by the cessation of work but by continued contribution, learning, and growth. This shift in perspective is about longevity and leading a meaningful, fulfilling life connected to the world around us.
The Enduring Value of Work
Work, for me, provides that sense of purpose. It’s not about maintaining the 9-5 grind indefinitely but about utilizing the skills I’ve honed over the years. As a writer and editor, I possess a skill set that will always be in demand. But the benefits of my work extend beyond the tangible.
Work stimulates my mind, allowing me to think, dream, and create. It fosters collaboration and social interaction. It provides a sense of achievement and the opportunity to reward others. There’s a profound sense of purpose in that. Engaging my brain in this way is not just fulfilling; it’s also crucial for maintaining cognitive health. Case in point: a recent study found a 30% reduction in short-term memory in the first year of retirement. This underscores the importance of staying mentally active and challenged, which work provides in abundance.
However, there’s another side to this coin. As people transition into retirement, I’ve observed that they often become less engaged with the world around them. They lose touch with current events, pop culture, and the everyday conversations that fuel our social interactions. This detachment can make social situations more challenging and less fulfilling.
Moreover, they’re no longer challenged in the ways they once were. The importance of being continually pushed outside our comfort zones — being asked to think, feel, and perceive beyond our own thoughts and ideas — cannot be overstated. Without these challenges, we risk becoming too comfortable, too settled in our ways, and we miss out on the growth that comes from overcoming obstacles and learning new things.
This lack of engagement also distances them from younger generations, stifling the continuous learning and open-mindedness of intergenerational connections. Essentially, they risk becoming isolated, not just from the world around them, but from the evolving ideas and perspectives that keep our minds sharp and our lives vibrant.
Staying Engaged, Staying Alive
I had a boss who came out of retirement three times. She would say she got bored of traveling and needed to do something more. I understand her sentiment now more than ever. There’s wisdom in her words, a wisdom that speaks to the value of purpose and engagement over idle leisure.
Let me be clear: I’m not criticizing anyone who chooses to retire. Retirement is often viewed as a badge of honor, a well-deserved rest after a life of hard work. But I do believe we need to change how we think about retirement. Framing it as an end to meaningful contribution may be doing us a disservice. Instead, let’s view it as a transition to a new phase of life where we can continue contributing, learning, and growing.
As for me, I’ll never retire, not in the traditional sense. I may slow down and change my focus, but I will always seek purpose, engagement, and connection. Perhaps my contributions won’t always be in a for-profit setting. Maybe I’ll lend my skills to a non-profit organization or donate my time and expertise in a volunteer capacity…wherever I can add value. Because in the end, it’s not just about living longer; it’s about living a life that’s meaningful, fulfilling, and connected to the world around us. Like that speaker on my first business trip all those years ago, I aim to prepare financially and mentally for the years ahead. So, here’s to never truly retiring, never losing our sense of purpose, and living life to the fullest, no matter our age.
Kellie Walenciak is the head of Marketing for Televerde, a global revenue creation partner supporting marketing, sales, and customer success for B2B businesses worldwide. A purpose-built company, Televerde believes in second-chance employment and strives to help disempowered people find their voice and reach their human potential. Seven of Televerde’s ten engagement centers are staffed by incarcerated women, representing 70 percent of the company’s 600+ global workforce. www.televerde.com.