Old Flames


One of the nice things about my job is that I will occasionally get a letter from an old friend who is responding to something I wrote in an editorial. Lately I have received quite a few.

Something that most of the recent letters have in common is that they make some sort of reference to retirement. People are planning to retire soon, or wondering if they will be able to. In some cases, they have already retired, but are still reading industry publications to keep in touch.

No doubt this is partly due to my own age. I’m 65, and most of my old friends in business are around there or a little older, so it’s natural that many of us would be thinking of cashing out, but I get the sense that there is a little more to it.

Specialty retail, and the businesses that cater to it, have grown more and more difficult over the past decade or so. It’s still a big industry, and it’s still very possible to do well in it, but it requires a great deal of hard work, ingenuity and perseverance. I don’t think it’s hard to understand why a lot of older people, like myself, might decide that they no longer had the stomach for it.

I was born at the height of the baby boom, which ran from 1946 to 1964. We boomers are no longer the largest generation, but there are still a lot of us at around 60 million, or nearly 20 percent of the population. For the past seven years, approximately 10,000 of us have reached the age of 65 every day, and that will continue apace until 2030.

We don’t know how many people actually retire each day. There isn’t any national human resources department where we all have to report, toss our keys on the table and say, “That’s it. I’m out of here.”

Most of the articles I read about retirement make the assumption that the number of people retiring each day is the equivalent of the people who turn 65, but there are a couple of flaws to that reasoning. Back in the day, most Americans worked for large companies, which typically had a mandatory retirement age. They also had a defined benefit pension, so the same day you hit 65 you started to collect a fixed amount, based on years of service.

Mandatory retirement ages are mostly gone now, along with defined benefit pensions and the whole cradle-to-grave compact between employer and employee. In the 1970s, the average primary wage earner for a household spent 25 years at one company. Today the average is four years.

Over the same period life expectancy has increased by more than 10 percent, from about 71 to 79. That translates to a lot more retirees, but it also means that people are healthier longer, and could continue to work if they choose.

It’s also important to keep in mind that boomers began to reach retirement age in 2011, when the nation was still crippled from the effects of the Great Recession. IRAs and 401(k)s were slowly recovering from the staggering losses of 2008 and millions of home mortgages were still “under water.” Anyone who had a job tended to hold onto it.

My point, in case you’re beginning to wonder, is that I seriously doubt that my generation has retired at the same rate that it has reached the traditional retirement age of 65. Assuming that most people will still retire at some point, that means that there would logically be a surge in retirements over the next decade. It’s similar to a situation in the marketplace in which consumers have held off making a purchase, creating what economists refer to as “pent-up demand.”

I know it’s anecdotal evidence, but judging from my own circle of friends, that surge may already be underway. Since I am not far from joining it, I find myself keenly interested in what all these people are planning to do with the rest of their lives.

When we were younger, and the topic of retirement came up in conversation, we spoke of all the active things that we would have more time for. We expected to play a lot of golf and tennis, go biking and hiking, and travel to the exotic corners of the world.

The reality, I find, is somewhat more mundane. All that physical exertion is constrained by aging joints, and the train to Marrakech sounds more uncomfortable than it does romantic. Some of us may have grandchildren to play with, but these days kids have pretty tight schedules.

Clearly, we will need to find an activity that engages the mind, and study after study has shown that we would be well-advised to do so. It’s like a muscle, which remains strong only to the extent that it is used.

Now when my friends talk about retirement, they almost always include some sort of artistic or intellectual endeavor. As I have tried to find a creative activity to enrich my own later years, my biggest worry is just that. They will be “later” years, which sounds to me like “less creative” years.

That’s why I was so interested this fall to read about a study conducted by Dashun Wang, a professor at Northwestern University. I had long believed that creative people had “hot streaks,” or periods in their careers during which they produced their best work, but I had always assumed that those streaks usually happened during the vigor of youth.

Although I most often notice hot streaks among composers and authors, Wang and his team chose to study the work of 3,500 painters and sculptors, 6,000 film directors and more than 10,000 scientists. To measure success, they used data points such as the auction price of paintings and the IMDb ratings of movies.

The first thing they found came as no surprise to me. More than 90 percent of artists do indeed have a hot streak, generally lasting from two to six years, during which they produce the bulk of their best work.

In other words, if you read a book that you really love, and you want to find another one of similar quality, read the next thing written by the same writer. It’s almost as if artists find a vein of gold, and they can mine that vein until it’s gone.

The second thing they found did surprise me. Although younger artists are more prolific than older ones, and in that sense are increasing their odds of success, hot steaks can happen at any stage of a career. An artist’s best work is just as likely to come at the end of his or her career as it is at the beginning, or the middle.

I found this news to be greatly encouraging. The study did not address the idea of a late-life creative effort specifically, but if an artist can reach his creative peak at the end of his career, it stands to reason that there is hope for aging neophytes, like me.


You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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