Last year, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Cher, and Susan Sarandon turned 65, along with 7,000 people a day—the first members of the Baby Boom generation to hit the traditional “retirement age.” Will Boomers celebrate this milestone with the customary gold watch and office party, then move to Florida and play golf? Perhaps not. As more Americans live longer and work later into life, many reject the idea of a predetermined retirement age. Some consider this a sign that older people are resigned to the drudgery of work because they can’t afford the luxury of quitting. Others see it as evidence that a new generation is reinventing the meaning of retirement.
According to a recent study published by the U.K.’s The Guardian, every country in the world is graying. That reality raises questions: How do nations sustain an aging population financially in the midst of declining fertility rates and slow economic growth? Have seniors earned a life of leisure beginning at age 65, and at what cost to the rest of society? Is it time for sacrifice in order to protect future economic potential? In the midst of these pressing questions, can Christians engage the culture’s imagination with a biblical vision for life in the “golden years”?
An Unstable Bridge
Although first introduced in Germany in the late 1800s, retirement emerged as a cultural force in the early 20th century, when urbanization and industrialization gave governments and employers incentives to push older workers out of factories in favor of younger, faster, healthier laborers. Increased wealth and leisure options gave workers better exit options than injury or death.
When the U.S. Social Security system was established in 1935 with a retirement age of 65, the average lifespan was 65.2 years. The bridge needed to carry people from the end of work to the end of life was short. In contrast, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an adult born around 1950 can expect to live a full 79 years.
Even compared to 1980, the financial implications of retirement in 2011 are as different as the hairstyles and music tastes of 30 years ago. According to the AARP, in 1980, 84 percent of Americans claimed a defined benefit pension, compared to only 33 percent in 2009. In 1980, 19.5 million retirees received an average of $905 a month (adjusted for inflation) from the Social Security Administration. Today, 34.6 million retirees receive an average of $1,175 a month.
Not only has the bridge lengthened, it’s gotten wider as more and more people cross it simultaneously. As a result, the social bridge for the elderly is no longer secure; it’s wobbly and threatening to squash the economic future of younger generations. However, any suggestion of altering the structure of the entitlement “bridge” ignites heated resistance. This was perhaps most vividly illustrated in France in the summer of 2010, when strikes and street protests erupted over the government’s plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62—still one of the youngest thresholds in the world.
Entitled to What?
Americans may not take to the streets, but they voice similar opposition to any proposed increase in the retirement age, despite the looming insolvency of Social Security. Anticipating a retirement financed by employer pensions and government programs supplemented by investments in a soaring stock market, Boomers dreamed of a carefree retirement. Rick Hampson writes in USA Today: “Raised in affluent times and imbued with high expectations, the first Boomers now face the ironic prospect of longer yet crimpled lives.” Steve Gillon, a historian at the University of Oklahoma, says that Boomers’ upbringing in the post-WWII era, “created a sense of entitlement that had not existed before.” Therefore, it is acutely disheartening, he says, that, “this generation will drive the final nail in the coffin of ‘40 years and the gold watch.’”
Charles Donovan of the Heritage Foundation argues that Boomers inflicted the debt crisis on themselves: “The people of the Greatest Generation viewed their kids as their crowning achievement. But too many of us did not inherit their greatest virtue: an ability to sacrifice. Instead we embraced instant gratification and self-infatuation. We mistook wants for needs, borrowed too much, saved too little.” But Donovan prods Boomers to finish strong: “We enter our last laps with difficult decisions before us. We can demand flush retirements and lavish health care, board gaudy cruise ships, and foist today’s deficits on the next generation. Or we can relearn the meaning of sacrifice and the virtues that gave us birth. Though the hour is late, the choice is ours to make.”
While political questions remain unresolved, there is one clear answer for followers of Christ: sacrifice is the way of our Savior.
Finding a Moral Course
A group of evangelical Christians is challenging Boomers—and all Americans—to closer scrutiny of the American debt crisis and the sacrifice necessary in response. With “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” both Evangelicals for Social Action and the Center for Public Justice warn that current debt levels threaten present and future generations. The manifesto proposes that all citizens play a role in reversing this trend: “In our democratic republic citizens must tell elected officials that we recognize our duty to temper our wants and even sacrifice with regard to some of our legitimate desires: for the sake of frugal stewardship and long-term sustainability of our economy, for the sake of continuing governmental care for the poor and weak, and for the sake of doing justice to our children and our children’s children.”
Discussing the Call for Intergenerational Justice in the Dallas Morning News, political science professor Matthew Wilson remarks, “The only moral course is for both parties to stand up to their core constituencies and talk realistically about shared sacrifice for the good of the nation.” Yet, he questions: “Are Americans mature, responsible, and decent enough to hear that and do what is required, without searching for a ‘magic bullet’ or trying to push all of the sacrifices off onto others? I hope so, but I have my doubts.”
Current budget turmoil on Capitol Hill demonstrates the difficulty of reaching consensus on how to address the debt crisis; even among evangelical Christians, fervent debate is more abundant than harmonious compromise.
Thinking Christianly About Retirement
While political questions remain unresolved, there is one clear answer for followers of Christ: sacrifice is the way of our Savior. George Fuller, a long-time PCA pastor and former president of Westminster Theological Seminary, says, “There are some things that don’t change throughout our Christian lives, one of them is the role of servant. To move into a time of leisure and assume that suddenly I’m not a servant anymore is just wrong. Moving from ‘serving’ through ‘retirement’ to ‘being served’ is not on any map in the Bible.”
Similarly, John Piper, in his booklet Rethinking Retirement, says it’s nothing less than tragic that Christians should expect to live the last 20 years of their life in leisure. He writes, “How many Christians set their sights on a ‘Sabbath evening’ of life—resting, playing, traveling, etc.—the world’s substitute for heaven since the world does not believe that there will be a heaven beyond the grave. The mindset of our peers is that we must reward ourselves now in this life for the long years of our labor… . But what a strange reward for a Christian to set his sights on!”
A biblical perspective re-focuses the concerns of retirement from personal fulfillment to stewardship and servanthood. “Biblical imperatives call us to the ministry of meeting the needs of seniors. But most seniors do not have the pressing issues and disabilities that require mercy ministry; few are in nursing homes, or severely disabled,” says Fuller. “All of them, except perhaps those with advanced dementia, are capable of serving Jesus. What a great challenge and opportunity!”
George Fuller retired from his last full-time position in 1999, but still works as an assistant pastor, consults on ministry to seniors, and serves as director of development for a pregnancy center. He endeavors to do what he says is the calling of every Christian, young or old: to love because God first loved us (1 John 4:10-11). This call extends until the end of life, says Fuller, citing verses such as Psalm 92:12-14, “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree … . They will bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.” And Psalm 71:18, “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come.” He contends that no special spiritual transformation takes place at retirement; rather, the patterns set throughout life determine what unfolds in retirement.
“If you have spent your life creatively looking for ways to serve people, you will continue to do so,” says Fuller. “Maybe the chief factor for many people who retire is an increased flexibility to be who they have been the rest of their lives.”
Another way the biblical concept of calling might be reflected is in a recent trend toward second careers. Laura Vanderkam writes in USA Today, “The true sweet spot is when we ask, ‘What do I love to do so much I’d do it for free?’, and then figure out a way to get paid for it.” She points to Civic Ventures, an organization that encourages older Americans to pursue “encore careers”—work that is meaningful, flexible, serves the greater good and, in many cases, their finances as well.
Civic Ventures awards an annual Purpose Prize, worth $100,000, created to promote and encourage civic engagement among Baby Boomers. The 2010 winners include a longtime arbitrator for an international law firm who’s working with Afghans to rebuild orchards and vineyards; a former housekeeper who became an activist fighting industrial pollution in her low-income neighborhood; and a former owner of a tool-and-die shop who returned to his native West Virginia for a peaceful retirement, only to find himself fighting a coal industry engaged in mountain top removal.
Finding Freedom in Retirement
For some seniors, framing retirement this way brings great freedom and hope, while to others it seems daunting, even discouraging. The difference may hinge on an understanding of vocation, or call, as Fuller suggests, and as Os Guinness articulates further in his book, The Call. Guinness writes: “As followers of Christ we are called to be before we are called to do and our calling both to be and do is fulfilled only in being called to Him. So calling should not only precede career but outlast it too.” We are first called to be a follower of the Way—our calling is by Christ, to Christ, and for Christ. “Our secondary calling,” Guinness writes, “is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for Him.”
A biblical perspective re-focuses the concerns of retirement from personal fulfillment to stewardship and servanthood.
Maneuvering from health and youth to physical degeneration and old age is a difficult path. However, to the extent that seniors embrace their call as Christ followers, they will be able to continue to find meaning and fulfillment. In Rethinking Retirement, John Piper puts it this way: “So finishing life to the glory of Christ means using whatever strength and eyesight and hearing and mobility and resources we have left to treasure Christ, and in that joy to serve people—this is, to seek to bring them into the everlasting enjoyment of Christ. Serving people, and not ourselves, as the overflow of treasuring Christ makes Christ look great.”
Guinness writes, “Calling is the spur that keeps us journeying purposefully—and thus growing and maturing—to the very end of our lives.” For some Christians, a unique symmetry between calling and occupation propels them to continue working in their chosen field beyond typical retirement age. Baby Boomers in particular have “a desire to stay engaged and active in the workforce,” says Mark Miller, who runs the website Retirement Revised.com. But Guinness emphasizes that occupations and vocations are not the same thing. “We must be sure that our sense of calling is deeper, wider, higher, and longer than the best and highest of the tasks we undertake,” he writes. Only when God calls us home is our calling fulfilled.
Retirement with a Purpose
If the PCA had its own purpose prize, Ralph and Sylvia Hill would be among its first nominees. Members of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Hills began to sense the Lord calling them to cross-cultural ministry about three years before they retired. As Sylvia finished her job as Georgia’s chief probation officer and Ralph retired from his service as a superior court judge, they began exploring options through vision trips with Mission to the World (MTW).
After visiting a number of fields, the Hills determined that an English-speaking country would minimize preparation time, and they quickly accepted an invitation to serve with a church plant in London. “Our pre-field training in Brussels was quite an experience,” remembers Sylvia. “Our Sunday school class back home got a real laugh out of picturing us in bunk beds for a month.”
Shortly thereafter, they were ready to join the team in London. “Both of us retired with a pension, so we only needed to raise a small amount, enabling us to get to the field faster,” explains Ralph. “It was really a contrast with young families who had to raise a tremendous amount of money. That’s where we feel like the Lord could really use people in the 55-75 age range.”
“Congregations are struggling in Europe. They’re small. Old people are dying out, but the young people have a hunger,” Ralph says. “Our church planter in London said he needed some mature people because the church plant is so young. Then he corrected himself, saying he meant mature Christians. Sylvia said, ‘No, you mean old people.’” Chuckling, the Hills are proud to be the oldest members of their church plant, confident that their ministry experience is essential. In the short time they’ve served in London, the church has doubled in size, bringing diverse young people with a real hunger for meaning. “The training gets you to a certain point,” says Ralph. “But, then it just comes down to going and watching the Lord work.”
Pursuing this second career overseas comes with sacrifices. With five grandchildren at home, Sylvia says through tears that missing milestones in their lives is one of the biggest struggles. Yet, two of the older grandchildren visited London and one day accompanied Ralph to hand out Bibles. “That day, I had the privilege of sharing the gospel with a homeless Frenchman in the park. My grandsons were with me when this young man prayed the sinner’s prayer.” That’s an experience, Ralph admitted, that was unlikely to happen back home on Lookout Mountain. “I pray the Lord is going to raise these boys up to be men of the Lord, and this may be a catalyst in their life.”
Currently in their 60s, the Hills don’t know what the future holds or how long they’ll serve in London. They say they’ll be there until the Lord calls them somewhere else or sends them home. In the meantime, Ralph points other seniors to the challenge he heard from John Piper: “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat.” Ralph says, “People get to this time in life and they lose their purpose. Seniors can really be seeking the Lord for His purpose.” We’re healthy, Hill says, and the Lord’s added years to our life. “He wants us to use them for His glory.”
Susan Fikse is a freelance writer who lives in Atlanta, Ga., with her husband and three children.