Chris Farrell wants baby boomers to unretire

Chris Farrell

The plan used to go like this: “Graduate high school, maybe go to college, get a job, hit 60, retire, and then do all the things you’ve always wanted to do. Well, no. It’s not like that anymore,” says Chris Farrell. And good thing it isn’t, he says, because in reality, most people aren’t happy in a play-all-day-till-the-end lifestyle. Instead, working a few years longer, or working elsewhere, or working less but staying fully engaged with society may be the key to a happier retirement.

As the baby boomers exit the work world — or don’t — it’s time for society to change the way it defines retirement, says the longtime commentator on personal finance issues. Farrell has spent much of his career talking with people about ways to fund their retirement. He hosted TPT’s “Right on the Money” program, he’s written about finance and economics for numerous newspapers and magazines, and he’s the senior economics contributor at American Public Media’s Marketplace. So he’s been exposed to plenty of what he calls “fearmongering” — stories about how Social Security is going to dry up and people will have to work at terrible jobs until they die.

“So much it is overly alarmist and just stokes this clash of generations as younger workers are being warned that the ‘gray tsunami’ of retiring baby boomers is going to ruin everything for them,” says Farrell. “I got very frustrated with that outlook, because I don’t think it’s true.”

Instead, he suggests, baby boomers might actually fix retirement for younger generations, by redefining what retirement looks like, how it’s funded, and what work could look like in our 70s, 80s and possibly beyond. His new book, “Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life,” (Bloomsbury Press) chronicles the evolution of retirement in the U.S., from the almshouse to the 401(k). He dispels myths about older workers, suggests ways in which older workers facing reduced means or job opportunities can regroup, and promotes the idea of phased retirement, in which workers gradually reduce the number of hours they spend working.

Biggest beneficiaries: young people

“The biggest beneficiaries of this process will be the younger generations. By the time my 22-year-old is 50 or 60, the path will be clear. But right now, we’re in a period of experimentation and exploration. We’re at the grassroots level of this experience. We know our aging and retirement will be different than previous generations, but we are still trying to figure out what that will look like  — we’re still even trying to decide what to call this. In Britain, they are calling it the Third Age, I’ve also heard Next Chapter. There are numerous entities involved in this conversation, including some local ones, like Shift and Encore. But you can’t just Google ‘retirement’ and come up with an easy answer.”

In “Unretirement,” Farrell interviews numerous people who are retiring on their own terms. He talks with an engineer turned consultant and volunteer; a pastor turned van driver; people who have traded the corporate world for nonprofits or for businesses of their own invention. He looks at companies that have adapted workplaces to help older people be comfortable and productive. Many of these people were forced to change their work lives by layoffs, while others left their previous careers financially secure and used the next phase of their life to pursue work that had more meaning.

“20-somethings and 60-somethings are really alike. They want an income, but they are idealistic and want to make a difference,” says Farrell. “The only difference between them is that the older generation thinks time is short and the younger generation thinks time is infinite.”

Farrell acknowledges that while some workers plan a joyful “unretirement” full of meaningful work, mentoring, and volunteering, the widening economic gap in this country means that huge numbers of people will work into retirement because they have to, at jobs they consider their only option but may not love.

“It’s not all romantic, it’s not all wonderful. Bodies burn out, people run out of money, opportunities don’t come through for everyone. Ageism in the workplace is real. There’s a huge group — warehouse workers, clerical, food service, checkout workers — who never had an employer health plan, never made a lot of money, couldn’t amass a lot of savings. Their pension plan is Social Security. My argument is that we shouldn’t be talking about cutting the Social Security benefit, as so many people are; we should improve it,” he says. “In the vanguard, we will see college-educated, white-collar, career oriented people helping to define aging and retirement. But that will bring about larger societal changes that will enable others to take part as well.”

Phased retirement

One example he hopes will catch on is phased retirement. Starting next year, federal government employees will be able to work half time while receiving a half pension.

“If this takes hold, it will have huge implications for the private sector, and for people wishing to remain in the work force while taking a step back,” he says. “A Rand Corporation study found that within two years of retirement, 25 percent of people go back to work. And you might think they did that because they needed the money, but that wasn’t it — it turned out they wanted to be engaged in work and society, and they missed that at home. What they really wanted was a long vacation. A break. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to work. They just needed time off.”

Farrell would like to see sabbaticals, gap years, and phased retirement become norms for more people entering the “next phase” of their work lives. But first, he says, we need to change the way we think about older workers. Instead of pushing them out, find new ways to keep them in. For older workers, instead of seeing younger workers as being “after my job,” experienced workers can embrace and extend their mentoring capabilities. “There is a notion that once you reach a certain age, you are no longer creative, no longer relevant, and have nothing to offer. But when we see ourselves as vital, then we remain vital,” he says. And simply staying in the work force helps keep people vital.

“There’s a complex relation between the fact that we’re living longer so we’re working longer, and also because it working improves our health so we live longer. There’s all kind of research that shows that the kind of things we get from work are beneficial to our health — social engagement physical activity, mental acuity. They say to a new language to keep your mind sharp — well, learning new software every couple of years does that too,” he says, noting that an even greater benefit comes from simply working with others.

“Work is a social institution. Someone cares if you show up. Birthdays are celebrated, life events are recognized and we show concern for each other. We gossip. For many people, work is community. That is part of the lure, and attraction, of working beyond retirement. You remain part of the community.”

Looking ahead, enjoying the present

What about Farrell? He’s 60, in case you were wondering. And no, retirement isn’t something he’s thinking about right now.

“Of course working on a project like this got me thinking about my own life. But I’m not looking to make any changes right now. I love journalism. I love getting out there and thinking about things and testing out new ideas and talking with people. It’s true, journalism is a harsher world, and in some ways, it’s a younger person’s game. But I’m really enjoying it, and doing all different forms — radio, television, print and online. This topic in particular is really engaging. The next five years are going to bring about huge changes in how we deal with this in our society. I think my book will stay relevant, but I think there are going to be many conversations coming out as this generation works through the issue of retirement. I think I’ll have a lot of new things to say. So, I can already feel the lure of a next book.”

Events

Sept. 18, 4 p.m. University of Minnesota Bookstore

Oct. 14, 7:30 a.m. Insights morning program, Minneapolis Central Library

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/17/2014 - 08:40 am.

    Farrel Shmerrel

    Ferrel’s one reason I stopped listening to MPR… but that’s another story.

    Rather, let’s pay people high enough salaries and wages while they work so that they CAN retire. Let’s stabilize and extend Social Security, and let’s replace dodgy IRA’s with good old fashioned pensions that people can live on. Instead of working on a plan to keep people working til they die so they can keep pumping money into the financial sector let’s build an economy that lets people retire if they want to. We have the economy to do this, we have a $17 TRILLION economy, the problem isn’t capital, the problem is disparity. 10% of the population isn’t worrying about whether or not they can afford to retire while the number worrying about in the remaining 90% gets larger every year.

    Guys like Farrel assume everyone works in an office for 40 years. Try working construction, or mining, even health care for 20 or 40 years and then keep working for another 30. And by the way, have you seen the unemployment rate and job vacancy rates? Farrel’s scheme only works if there’s actually a labor shortage driving employer’s to hire young and old alike.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 09/17/2014 - 07:12 pm.

      Heresy!

      Increasing wages? Insuring a comfortable retirement? Requiring more of our wealthy betters? You sir will burn in hell for speaking this blasphemy!

      Seriously I would only quibble with one small thing, I don’t think its the top 10% anymore. I think the flow to the top has gotten so extreme that some of them are falling back as well. That majority of the wealth is now flowing to the top 1%.

      Really really good comment though.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/18/2014 - 08:04 am.

        Heresy…

        Henk,

        I was trying to broaden the appeal of my comment by limiting my extremism… ( ha! ) you are of course correct, we are talking about 1% more or less.

    • Submitted by TJ Martin on 11/22/2014 - 09:43 pm.

      Lost job later in life

      Paul, I appreciate what you said. We are a wealthy country, but I am separated from that wealth. Disparity indeed. I lost my job in banking at 59 when we were bought out by a bigger bank in 2009. NOBODY—nobody wants to hire you at that age. I applied for probably a hundred jobs, temp and perm. When my 99 weeks of unemployment ran out, I lived off school loans (as I was taking classes to get financial aid), cashed out my retirement plan just to pay the rent every month; and the kindness of others was abundant when it was needed. In a month or two I will be on social security, and will probably look for work again. At age 62. Living on a pittance, and dependent on any public benefits I can get, like TANF (food stamps). This is not how I saw myself in my 60s.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/17/2014 - 10:48 am.

    I Haven’t Stopped Listening to MPR

    The “Car Talk guys” still make me laugh (although they’d be even better if they gave a bit more actual advice). “Sound Money” (or whatever they’re calling it now) has gotten better, although I never need to hear another word out of Michelle Singeltary’s mouth,…

    but I’ll never forgive Chris Farrell for ignoring concerns that were being expressed about the Stock Market and investment in equities right up until the crash of 2008.

    He had every reason to have known better, but as what was clearly a massive equity bubble continued to inflate, Mr. Farrell just kept right on, and on, and on, telling MPR’s listeners that there was nothing to fear and the Stock Market was the only investment that made sense.

    As to UN-retirement, there are, indeed, a few folks with the luxury of pursuing avocational employment after they retire from their former careers (I’m one of them, to some extent),…

    but at a time when Wall Street is pushing companies to pursue it’s dream of the perfect high-profit Corporation –

    a small staff of outrageously highly-paid executives and zero employees,…

    and workers over 45 years old, who are just reaching their prime earning years and are likely to show some backbone when management comes up with it’s latest hare-brained scheme for how to increase profits by cheating workers out of just compensation, cheating suppliers out of timely payment, and cheating customers out of decent products and services, and are thus prime targets for layoffs or outright firing,…

    far too many of the workers Mr. Farrell thinks might make candidates for UN-retirement are still struggling to find jobs which will provide them sufficient income to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.

    I remember when he was advising older workers to take out student loans and retrain themselves for new careers which, as older workers, they had a devil of a time finding employment in,…

    many of those workers now being unable to pay off those loans and suffering the fate of having their Social Security garnished to make payments on loans for education which was completely worthless to them.

    In other words, Mr. Farrell’s new book says absolutely NOTHING of value to the age group he thinks he’s talking to (any more than he ever has),…

    and continues to do what MPR’s financial programs always used to do when he was one of their weekly features,…

    start where most people had never been and seek to take them somewhere they were never going to go,…

    while copiously congratulating those who were in a position to start saving for retirement early,…

    and ignoring how investment firms were likely to be ripping them off especially where their employers provided retirement savings plans from which they were forced to choose,…

    and also ignoring the ways the entire investment, mortgage and credit card industries were making $billions off people who had not realized that all the rules governing those industry had changed leaving them free to become wholesale flim-flam if not outright ripoff artists.

    (None of which changed in the least until all the biggest bankers realized that their fellow big bankers were lying to them just as much as they were lying to the people with whom they were doing business and as much as they were ALL lying to their customers). After stealing all their customer’s figurative skivies right off their bodies for a decade or more while Federal and State governments ignored what was happening and did nothing, suddenly the big bankers DEMANDED action to protect their cozy little “the house always wins” casino system when there were in danger of lowing their own figurative shorts),…

    to all of which, Mr. Farrell’s financial commentary was completely oblivious because he did not have the courage to say anything that might upset those in top management of that Wall Street casino system.

    Of course in this, he had a lot of company.

    Surely Mr. Farrell could do more worthwhile things with his talent and intelligence now than producing books which have zero meaning or relevance for the vast majority of the people in his intended audience,…

    and can be falsely and dishonestly used as a soft warm blanket for those outside that age group, allowing them to lull themselves into the false perspective that everything’s perfectly OK for those slightly older folk who have vanished from their workplaces, their social circles, and their neighborhoods (because they can’t afford to live there, anymore).

    Surely there are solutions that could be devised to give older workers in this country a place at the table and a productive place in the economy (or at least allow them to survive into their 70s without working themselves to death at multiple, minimum-wage jobs).

    “Unretirement” is clearly NOT one of those solutions.

    Does Mr. Farrell have the courage to research, devise and propose such solutions? I suspect not. The scions of the banking and financial services industries, to whom he has always deferred, would be opposed.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 09/17/2014 - 12:59 pm.

    Well he isn’t the only reason I quit listening to

    MPR, and I am lucky enough to be able to listen to WPR.

    I thought all politics all the time is a bit much (especially with their soft ball questions – except for Kathy Wurser) and I know a whole lot more about the middle east than I want to and really the BBC rather than Science Friday.

    Mr. Udstrand is right this is the white collar perspective. I would go further and say that this is the executive perspective. It is a lot easier to enjoy the job when you are the boss.

    If the work environment is not physical, you are self employed or an executive or you have a great boss and work team then you may want to work longer.

    If you are white or blue collar, way down on the corporate food chain, or have high stress responsibilities and paperwork like say an RN or work in an unpleasant work environment like a smoky casino etc. you may enjoy being retired in an environment that you have more control over.

    In other words people enjoy being the boss and retirement is one way to become the boss.

    Both my parents and my in-laws never rethought work they enjoyed their retirements.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/17/2014 - 01:33 pm.

    It reads like propaganda for the status quo:

    “You know how you couldn’t earn enough to save for retirement and how you have an unstable 401(k) instead of a real pension? You’ll be able to work until you drop! Isn’t that great?”

    I’m a free-lancer, and I mostly enjoy what I do, but even I plan to cut back after I qualify for full Social Security. Just try convincing a construction worker or hotel maid or anyone else whose job is physically demanding that having to work till age 70 is a good thing.

  5. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/17/2014 - 03:49 pm.

    If you made as much money as Chris Farrell,…

    …you’d see it his way.

  6. Submitted by jason myron on 09/17/2014 - 04:41 pm.

    If you enjoy your work

    great, stick with it as long as you can. If you don’t and you have an opportunity to get out and enjoy a lifestyle that suits you, go for it. Life is to be lived, not endured. “I wish I’d spent more time in the office” said no one on their death bed ever.

  7. Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/17/2014 - 08:54 pm.

    Well

    Given that I don’t think I’ll make fifty in my line of work, (suffice it to say we’re uninsurable work comp wise outside the high risk pool) I’d invite Mr. Farrell to stick it, in a rather dark, confined space. I have no retirement savings, qnd no real prospect for accumulating any for he forseeable future. I don’t make a bad living, mind you, nor am I irresponsible with money. Its just that the cost of living has outpaced my income and while it might be nice to get ANOTHER degree, I can’t really justify adding to my (thankfully small by todays standards) student loan bill. I already know I’ll be working until the end, to hear this smug …Well I think you get the gist.

  8. Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/18/2014 - 07:31 am.

    What is the purpose of the article?

    The thrust of this appears appears geared toward improving the lot
    for young workers.

    On one level, some of what Chris Farrell says its true.
    Can’t knock him for the initial idea. Its certainly worth thinking over and discussing.

    Ideas & new paradigms can be excellent. Important too, is the analysis of whether these ideas are worthy of further expansion and whether they are viable in the current environment.

    “Viable” means whether the idea fits today’s world, or a future world.
    If they don’t have a place, is there a mechanism, ability, need or will to change the current world to that new future paradigm?

    The article also assumes “Unretirement” is an option.
    Can you “Unretire” from the process without being one of the people who have the wherewithal to “retire on their own terms?”

    Simply wanting it may not be enough.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/18/2014 - 08:43 am.

    Well, it would be fair to blame Farrel entirely…

    My drift from MPR began with their cheer leading for the Iraq War. They weren’t the only news outlet to get it wrong, but they are the only news outlet that gets my tax dollars… and THAT brings me to their economic reporting.

    Here they are getting tax dollar subsidies and freaking out when congress talks about reducing those subsidies, and you tune only to hear some idiot financial adviser talking about how important it is avoid as many taxes as possible? You’re begging for my tax dollars while telling me that the key to my financial freedom is to avoid paying taxes? Seriously?

    The corporate perspective of MPR/NPR just gets to you after a while. And if the Warmongering weren’t bad enough the recession hits and they go into denial and WORSE. The response was a parade of financial “adviser’s” with oh so helpful hints about weathering the storm. Problem is MPR NEVER ONCE disclosed that the primary function of financial advisers in this universe if to sell financial products. They’re whole reason for being is to get your money into the financial sector and keep it there. It’s a flat out conflict of interest and no surprise when their wise advice was always to leave your money right where it is and do whatever your financial adviser recommends.

    Meanwhile you have Farrel dispensing silly explanations morning after morning for whatever is happening on the stock exchange. The only thing more ridiculous than his explanations are his predictions… “This report and that report are coming out today so we can expect…” whatever and then it doesn’t happen. And of course the only thing that matters in the universe is the stock exchange… a million people lost their jobs, a hurricane killed 300 people… BUT HOW DOES THAT EFFECT THE STOCK EXCHANGE! I’m convinced that even in the midst of a zombie apocalypse MPR/NPR would report the stock exchange every half hour until they got eaten or zombified. The dead are rising… HOW IS THAT EFFECTING THE STOCK EXCHANGE? MPR’s economic reporting has always assumed for some bizarre reason that it’s listeners are executives and investors.

    Then a few years back when Kling retired from MPR it turns out that Farrel is something like the second highest paid guy at MPR and that was the straw on the camel’s back for me. That’s sooooooo typical and soooooo ridiculous. I’m not trying to insult the guy and I wish him well but seriously? So after spending a career dispensing economic “wisdom” the guy writes a book… is the subtitle: “All That Information We Gave You Turned Out to be Crap so Now You Just Have to Keep Working Until You Die”?

  10. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 09/18/2014 - 09:12 am.

    The author…

    is obviously writing about those with guaranteed government or union pensions and benefits and not those of us working in the private sector whose retirement funds consist of a defined contribution plan.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 09/18/2014 - 01:12 pm.

      Perhaps

      you should have made better choices in life, Pavel. You know…all that “personal responsibility” that you people like to spew about?

      • Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 09/19/2014 - 05:50 pm.

        Actually..

        I have made good choices in my life. I have positioned myself financially where I won’t be dependent upon ant government program to survive.

        Now if Barack Hussein Obama and Mark Dayton would quit redefining “fairness” and get off the class warfare bandwagon I would be in better shape and so would you.

        Contrary to what you think, I would not trade places with any of those disgruntled government workers or teachers union members who can retire at a young age and collect a pension at the taxpayers expense.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/18/2014 - 09:49 am.

    Sheesh…

    Tough crowd.

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