Opinion | Discipleship

Why Your Deflated Retirement Dream Might Be God’s Open Door

After losing my safety net, I see retirement as meaningful vocation, not permanent vacation.
Why Your Deflated Retirement Dream Might Be God’s Open Door
Image: Sergei Gorin / Shutterstock

Some of my favorite Seinfeld episodes feature Jerry’s visits to see his parents in Del Boca Vista, a fictional south Florida retirement community. In one scene, Jerry reacts to the petty politics and middle-school social dynamics among residents by saying, “These people work and wait their whole lives to move down here, sit in the heat, pretend it's not hot, and enforce these rules."

Before they passed away, my parents lived in a retirement community near Ft. Lauderdale. My visits there convinced me that Seinfeld’s take is more documentary than sitcom. Like my parents, most middle- and upper-class members of the so-called “greatest generation” could reasonably expect the sunset years and everything that goes with them: retirement at 65, a modest-but-secure income comprised of Social Security and workplace pension, and the downshift from full-time employment to days filled with golf, card games, travel, and Del Boca Vista condo board meetings.

By contrast, boomers like my husband and I will have a vastly different experience of the retirement years. Boomers were never great savers, and the recent recession further impacted our ability to support ourselves through our retirement years. A Motley Fool summary captured some worrisome stats about this age group:

59 percent are relying on Social Security to be a primary source of retirement income. (Prognosticators have differing opinions about when the government program will no longer be solvent.) 45 percent have no retirement savings. 30 percent have postponed their retirement plans because they can’t afford to stop working. 44 percent are carrying significant amounts of consumer and mortgage debt.

Though my husband and I didn’t ever plan for a cushy retirement, nonetheless we did harbor the assumption that this life stage would include choice, flexibility, and financial stability. However the financial melt-down of 2008 hit us hard and all but destroyed our retirement plans. My husband is now 61, so the challenge is no longer a “someday” issue for us.

In the wake of these financial setbacks, our primary question has been, “How will we pay the bills when we can no longer work full time?” As we talk and pray about retirement, however, we’re discovering that financial stability shouldn’t be our only concern and that seeking God’s purposes for us in the coming years is more essential to our long-term wellbeing. In sum: The conversation about vocation shouldn’t end if and when our careers do.

Although the discussion around vocation is often targeted at young adults, the questions of vocation—who am I, and where do I fit in God’s kingdom?—apply to us at every stage of life. As boomers explore these questions of vocational identity, many are trying to re-script retirement. Time magazine writer Dan Kadlec notes that increased longevity and the ongoing quest for the “best life now” are driving new approaches to this life stage:

In this more customized retirement ideal, one thing is certain: Boomers (who are reaching age 65 at the pace of 10,000 a day) do not want to withdraw from society and lead a life filled with bingo and golf. That may have sounded inviting when you worked to 65 and died at 70. But boomers have watched their often-unprepared parents live far longer than anyone thought possible. Boomers are the first generation that could count on living to 82, 87, or maybe 120.

In response to this shift, AARP now offers coaching on how 60-somethings might reimagine those retirement years. Christian ministries like the Finishers Project attempt to match retirees with missions organizations looking for short- and long-term help. These projects recast retirement as an opportunity for personal growth and public service, and they also offer a gentle challenge to the deeply embedded cultural notion of retirement-as-entitlement. Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church tackles this problem head-on in an interview with Forbes magazine:

The word “retirement” is not even in the Bible…so it’s not a biblical concept. What is taught in Scripture is a transition. You may change jobs, you may change vocations, and you may volunteer for free, but there is nothing that says you work most of your life and then get to be selfish for the next 20 years. The Bible says that as long as your heart is beating God has a plan and purpose for your life…to grow personally, to get to know God, to serve others, and make the world a better place.

I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that permanent, vacation-style retirement has its appeal. But God did not create me to enjoy a decades-long vacation at the end of my life—rather he created me to love him, serve him, and live out a unique calling. What vocational vision, then, has God placed within my husband and me? Who are we to be at this life stage?

For my husband, being a part of the workforce is an expression of his God-given vocation. He works in the IT industry and hopes to use his gifts of problem-solving, analysis, and strategic thinking for another decade, at least. For me, vocational identity has been more layered and less linear—which is often the case with women who have children. I raised three kids and then cared for my ailing mother during the final weeks of her life. I used these same nurturing skills as a home health companion, a mentor to younger women, and now a regular caregiver for my grandchildren. I also express caregiving in my work as a writer and speaker, as I seek to cultivate spiritual growth in my readers and listeners.

Because age discrimination is an issue in my husband’s field (as it is in many other fields, as well), he faces the prospect of job instability as he ages, and as a freelancer, I am faced with a notoriously unstable source of income. Although these financial concerns might seem like an ice-cold, countervailing force, in fact they actually shape how we discover and express our particular vocational identities.

In Let Your Life Speak, Quaker author Parker Palmer notes that different crises—like losing a job, watching a nest egg vanish in a recession, or simply preparing to enter retirement—force us to ask deeper questions about our lives and values. “I go on full alert only when I am blocked or get derailed or flat-out fail,” writes Palmer. “Then, finally, I may be forced to face my nature and find out whether I can make something of both my gifts and my limitations.”

As believers, we’ve heard the words of Jesus telling us that we can trust our heavenly Father to provide precisely what we need. Embedded in that promise is an invitation to pursue his purposes for our lives: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). Although the prosperity gospel tempts us to believe Christian faithfulness will gain us a much-deserved golf club membership and a Del Boca Vista condo, in fact Jesus simply invites us to pursue his reign in our lives—even in the midst of uncertainty. That is the space in which vocation flowers.

The psalmist writes, “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come” (Ps. 71:18). It is a prayer we need to pray in the church as we expand the conversation on vocation and aging. It is a prayer that shapes the way my husband and I are learning to walk into the next stage of our lives. And it is a prayer that invites all of us—at every age—to the lifelong task of discipleship.

Michelle Van Loon is the author of four books, including Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith (NavPress, 2016).

December
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