Touch of Grey

I would like to think of myself as rational and reasonably sophisticated, but if I’m going to be honest I have to admit that I am at least as superstitious as the average person and probably worse. Sometimes it even spills over into my column.

For example, I seem to believe that you can jinx things by talking about them. In the same way that baseball players don’t say a word when their pitcher has a no-hitter going into the sixth inning, I don’t mention it when the economy is on a roll. I especially avoid talking about run-ups in the stock market, in print or anywhere else.

So let’s just say that the economy, not only in the U.S. but throughout the industrialized world, has expanded more rapidly over the past year. I will stipulate that there are no guarantees going forward.

Believe it or not, even brick-and-mortar retail is growing, albeit very slowly, all the talk about a “retail apocalypse” notwithstanding. More stores have opened this year than closed, and nine of the top 10 retailers have reported an increase in sales. Walmart is up about 8 percent.

As business owners we tend to think of an improved economy in terms of our own sales, hoping that the rising tide will indeed lift all boats, but there are wider implications that can also have an effect on our businesses. There is one in particular that has been on my mind a lot lately.

The post-World War II “baby boom” ran from 1946 to 1964, which means that surviving boomers are somewhere between 53 and 71 years old. Each day in America, approximately 10,000 people turn 65, which is the traditional retirement age. The average retirement age is actually thought to be around 63.

Either way it’s a lot of people, but I suspect that the real number may be much higher than that over the next several years. In December we will mark the 10th anniversary of the “Great Recession,” which was punctuated by the financial crisis and stock market meltdown in the fall of 2008. At that point the 75 million boomers were just starting to reach retirement age.

The recession changed everything. Retirement savings accounts, like IRAs and 401ks, dropped precipitously, and the yield on money market accounts and other fixed-income securities dropped to near zero. The housing market collapsed, wiping out trillions of dollars in home equity and leaving millions of people “underwater” on their mortgages.

Finally things have started to turn around for many of those who got blindsided by the worst recession since the 1930s. Their nest egg has been restored, their house is a saleable asset, and their kids have careers. They are also 10 years older.

If I sound sympathetic to these people, I should because I’m one of them. Born near the height of the baby boom in 1953, I will turn 65 in a few months.

When you’re young, say in your 30s, and you start saving for retirement, you envision some sort of extended vacation in which you can indulge in all your favorite activities on a daily basis. You’ll play tennis or golf, bike or backpack, travel the world or dance the night away in exotic locales. You just have to invest wisely to make sure you’ll be able to afford it all.

I remember an episode of “The Twilight Zone” in which a ruthless old tycoon was offered one wish, and he wished that he could go back to the bottom of the heap and have the opportunity to climb his way to the top all over again. He neglected to ask for youth, so when he was transported back to his beginnings he was too weak and tired to rise up through the ranks of business.

So that’s the problem. I still play tennis and golf, but I couldn’t do those things every day if you paid me. As far as world travel goes, I have found that the everyday hassles of traveling get less tolerable as I get older. When I think back on my days on the road in sales it’s hard to believe I really lived like that. I must have had a strong stomach.

At any rate, it’s become increasingly clear to me that my retirement will not be the physically demanding marathon of activity that I had pictured. If I want to be happy and fulfilled in my later years, I will need to find something productive that I can do at home.

Most of my friends are aging baby boomers as well, and I have found myself watching them carefully as they’ve started to retire over the past few years. The first thing I noticed is that they had a hard time letting go of their professions, staying on part-time or consulting or whatever.

Once they finally give up the security blanket they seem to fall into one of two groups. In one group are the guys who have a lot of hobbies, and they just divvy up the extra time among things they have done all their lives. This group always tells me they’re doing great, and they look it.

The other group doesn’t have a clue at first, but eventually they figure something out. One good route is nonprofit organizations and charities, which will suck up your free time and make you feel as though you’re doing something worthwhile.

Maybe an all-of-the-above strategy is the best way to go, or as my father used to say, “Everything in moderation.” In order to do that, however, I will still need to develop a passion for an arthritis-friendly pastime.

Former President George W. Bush might be a good role model in that regard. Like me, he is very into playing sports, but in retirement he took up a hobby that nobody saw coming. He became a portrait painter.

For several years he practiced in secret, hiring a professional artist named Gail Norfleet to teach him to paint, and later using an instructional app on his phone. Since he went public in 2013, he has acknowledged that he was inspired by Winston Churchill, and that part of his motivation was to inspire other older people to try new things.

When my mother retired 30 years ago, she started taking college art classes and creating paintings as assignments. One thing I could tell the Bush family from experience is that someday the former president’s paintings will be far more valuable to them than a whole library full of memorabilia.

If I’m right about the pent-up demand for retirement activities, then your business in that demographic could be headed for an upswing. For everyone’s sake, I hope so.

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