The alarm goes off at 5:30. You blink your eyes open with a sense of ... call it joy. You get dressed in a hurry and join your boisterous and teasing friends at the golf course. After taking a sip of your latte and just as the sun breaks over the high desert, you address the ball, hitting a perfect drive. After golf, there will be an afternoon brunch for a friend's 80th birthday. Then in the evening, your beloved and you will have a sushi dinner and dance into late evening.
The alarm goes off at 5:30. You struggle to get out of bed, feeling your age, and wishing this were Wednesday, your free day. You get dressed and in the mirror you see someone out of character. The uniform fits ... but it doesn't. You hurry to get there on time. As the sun breaks through tinted glass windows, a rough-looking trucker sidles up to the counter. He growls, "Egg McMuffin ... medium coffee." Feeling demeaned, you lean over the counter and reply, "You can get two McMuffins for the price of one today, sir."
Two different views of retirement. Which works best for you? The first or the second scenario?
Most of us select the first: an idealized view of retirement as a weekend that never ends: golf, friends, plenty of resources for travel, sumptuous meals.
The future is not promising the first scenario for many Baby Boomers. From one-third to one-half will not be able to afford the luxuries implied in the first scenario. This group will barely have enough to pay basic costs of living; and many will need to work at least part time to supplement meager federal entitlements and skimpy savings.
America is facing a demographic juggernaut. An unprecedented number will soon be entering the retirement stage of life. One-third of the population will be over 50 by 2010. One in five will be over 65 by 2010.
Leisure entrepreneurs have instilled an idealized view of retirement: segregation, disengagement and fulltime leisure. The first scenario I described, while initially attractive to overworked men and women in middle age, is actually a twentieth century phenomenon ... and a disastrous view of the end of life.
Older Americans were once a central part of the social fabric, and old age was respected with reverence. Seniors played an economic, educational and social role that the young valued.
Today, the attitude is more often expressed this way: "We have met the enemy, and he is the elderly us." Today's elderly constitute a growing majority of people with unprecedented health, resources and time in a society that has no place for them: "Retirement is the absence of ideas about what to do with oneself."
Are you familiar with the Hegelian Dialectic? It's not a common construct, but it presents a comprehensible context for understanding social evolution.
The Dialectic suggests that, on the one hand, we have a thesis: in this case retirement as leisure and disengagement. On the other, we have an antithesis: retirement as nonexistent ... we work until we drop; we're too poor to stop working for the final third of life.
When these two forces collide - in politics, social policies, or whatever - eventually we achieve synthesis. This synthesis could be retirement as integration of leisure and work suited to the needs of an older person.
It's a view of traditional retirement as a time of vital engagement where our oldest citizens make their greatest contributions. It's the vision we have received from President Jimmy Carter who has achieved his finest hours since leaving the presidency. A goodwill ambassador to the world, he has devoted much of his post-retirement life to Habitat for Humanity, sweating as a hammer-wielding carpenter and a visionary of a greater social justice.
Fittingly, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for all his accomplishments since being our nation's chief executive.
That's a vision of the future we Boomers must embrace. We must change what it means to grow old in America: that the Third Age of life is the greatest time of relevancy, social value and contributions for our nation's long-term welfare.
So instead of the less fortunate ending up as greeters at Wal-Mart or asking you if they can "super size your fries," the future can bring us a mobilization of opportunities, where those who need an income, get one for meaningful work. For those who don't need paid work, they receive the valuable currency of service.
To realize this vision, we must change the way we think about old age. As importantly, society must learn to discard its prejudices: that the elderly are selfish, we can't afford them, and America is hurling toward inevitable generational warfare.
The Hegelian Dialectic delivers synthesis: a new stage of life where the successes of the middle years transform into the late-life significance of a mobilized, active, elderly generation. That is the only future worth pursuing.