Ken Dychtwald and I were originally supposed to get together in late September in Atlanta, at Charles Schwab’s IMPACT 08 conference. Dychtwald was one of its stellar line-up of keynote speakers, which included author David McCullough and ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Unlike those celebrities, however, Dychtwald’s research on older Americans closely relates to the attendees’ day job. In fact, his consulting firm, Age Wave, teamed up with Schwab to prepare a major study on retirement. With financial markets in turmoil, Dychtwald’s teleconference on the study got so much interest nationwide that our meeting had to be cancelled.
Who: Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., President and CEO, Age WaveWhere: The Library, Regency Hotel, 540 Park Avenue, New York, October 2, 2008 On the Menu: Dannon yogurt, and facing the challenge of a long retirement.
When we caught up a week later in New York, selling pressures only grew worse, prompting Dychtwald to repeat something I heard from many financial planners in Atlanta:
“For those who are nearing retirement, it’s a tsunami,” he says shaking his head. “A financial Katrina.”
But Dychtwald also claims that the market collapse is not a thunderbolt coming from a blue sky. Rather, it merely makes an existing bad situation worse. His key point is that most Americans — specifically, a substantial number in the 75 million-strong baby boom generation — were unprepared for the challenges of their imminent retirement even before stock prices tumbled.
Radical Changes There is much talk about how technology and social attitudes have changed the way Americans grow up, learn and work. But in the three decades since Dychtwald began writing about aging, it is the way Americans retire that has changed most. He is convinced, moreover, that this is not the end, and that the Golden Years are about to be transformed even more dramatically.
“For hundreds, maybe thousands of years there never used to be any retirement,” he says. People worked until they died and, by today’s standards, they died pretty young. “When retirement was invented in the 1950s, it was supposed to last a few years and was meant to be a quiet time on a porch somewhere in Florida, drinking ice tea and playing shuffleboard.”
But retirees kept living longer and getting more active, traveling, playing sports and doing quite well financially on their accumulated savings and Social Security. All of a sudden, by the 1970s, retirement began to be presented as something desirable in and of itself, and early retirement became a sign of a successful life.
“If I met you at an airport and you told me that you’re 47 and already retired, I would congratulate you,” laughs Dychtwald.
The myth of a happy life of leisure, however, was not a reality for most people. Dychtwald, who started out as a clinical psychologist, says that most financial planners who were painting this rosy picture never asked retirees whether they enjoyed their life. It turns out that study after study showed that retirees are actually bored out of their mind. On the other hand, truly successful people typically continue working well into their eighties.
Nowadays, you don’t have to be a Rupert Murdoch or a Warren Buffett to want and to be able to work. The current generation of retirees is much healthier, more agile and engaged in life than their predecessors. They really want to work, asserts Dychtwald, either to keep doing what they did all their life or engaging in what is now called an encore career.
Their desire dovetails with processes underway in the workforce, says Dychtwald.