In 2006 the first 2.8 million of 78 million baby boomers turned 60, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.1 Besides being the largest population of Americans ever to reach this milestone, baby boomers are also the healthiest and best educated. Consider these statistics2:
- Although there are now 60 million Americans ages 55 and older, there will be 107.6 million in 2030, when the last of the baby boomers retires.
- A 65-year-old American can expect to live an average additional 17.9 years.
- By 2015, half of U.S. adults between the ages of 70 and 74 will have completed some college education, compared with less than one third in 2005.
Perhaps the most profound statistic has to do with the different expectations held by this generation. Four out of five people over age 50 indicate that “they will work in retirement, whether full-time or part-time, whether for money or enjoyment.”3 In a June 2005 survey conducted by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, half of adults ages 50 to 70 said they're “interested in taking jobs now or in the future to help improve the quality of life in their communities.”4
Regarding nurses in particular, Buerhaus and colleagues estimated that by 2010, more than 40% of the RN workforce will be over age 50. This raises concern that the nurse workforce “will continue to age, and eventually shrink,” while the demand for expert nursing care for our aging population mushrooms.5
Statistics like these prompt health care organizations and policymakers to dwell on the costs associated with the “graying” of America, but many other groups see baby boomers not as a problem but as a resource to be tapped. Many boomers want to spend their retirement pursuing jobs that “give them a sense of purpose,” “improve quality of life in their communities,” and “help those in need.”4 This may be good news for nursing if older adults who wish to pursue a new career can be attracted to the profession and if organizations that employ nurses can find ways to harness the knowledge, experience, and wisdom of this generation.
EXPLORING WORK AND LIFE TRANSITION ISSUES
Many baby boomers are asking, “What does it mean to live a ‘good life,’ and what's next?” The most fundamental questions during this stage of life concern the purpose of life and its meaning. One of us (RJL) and Shapiro wrote Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life, which suggests that as people mature, the fear of having lived a meaningless life becomes greater than the fear of being alone, being lost, or dying.6
Questions that predictably arise during this stage of life involve identity, community, passion, and purpose. The core question involving identity is “Who am I?” It's common to struggle with questions such as “Why do I get up in the morning?” and “When should I leave the workforce?” For people whose identities are inextricably linked with their work, retirement can be a terrifying proposition: “Who am I if I'm not the nurse manager of the ICU?”
As we mature, the community we're most connected to also changes. Interests change, jobs change, and, with geographic moves, neighborhoods and social networks change. If people have had children, they are likely linked to a community of their children's schools, friends, and activities. What happens when there is no more soccer practice? This transition period is a natural time to reevaluate all relationships.
It's not uncommon for people to end up in positions or roles that are very different from those they had at the start of their careers. Reconnecting with one's life passion requires asking questions such as “What do I care about?” and “What truly engages me?”
Older adults in transition must then consider questions of purpose. As one of us (RJL) notes in his book The Power of Purpose: Creating Meaning in Your Life and Work, “Purpose is that deepest dimension within us—our central core or essence—where we have a profound sense of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Purpose is the quality we choose to shape our lives around … a source of energy and direction.”7 By examining our true gifts, passions, and values, we can reclaim and focus on our life's purpose and calling.
REEVALUATING ‘THE GOOD LIFE’
Throughout the ages, many definitions of “the good life” have emerged. Clearly, what a good life comprises varies enormously from individual to individual and among cultures and generations. More than a state that “we achieve once and hold onto forever,” as one of us (RJL) and Shapiro note, a good life is a journey.6 As such, it changes throughout our lives. The authors also define the good life as “living in the place you belong, with the people you love, doing the right work, on purpose.”6
In the young adult years, pursuing a good life often means acquiring the perfect education, job, car, house, boat, and overall lifestyle. In midlife, the good life is often perceived as something internal. Leider and Shapiro note in Claiming Your Place at the Fire: Living the Second Half of Your Life on Purpose that this group is inclined to give up previous acquisitions in exchange for integrity and wholeness.8 They may pursue work that enables them not only to make a living, but also to create meaningful, sustainable lives.
EXPLORING UNPACKING AND REPACKING
Throughout life, it's all too easy to accumulate “stuff” without reflecting on where you are headed and why. Unpacking and repacking is a process of looking at your life and asking big questions about purpose and meaning. Unpacking requires carefully examining your items and roles and why you chose them.6 It is an opportune time to evaluate your possessions, relationships, and work, and to determine if they are aligned with your purpose and goals. Repacking entails rearranging priorities and making choices about them. As we unpack and repack, we “give up parts of ourselves … and discover new parts.”6
Older adults face myriad choices and decisions related to work, housing, and free time. Health, finances, interests, and opportunities will likely significantly influence their options. No one solution is right for everyone. Making informed choices requires careful deliberation and access to relevant information and resources.
The Good Life Inventory (Table 1 on page 26) is an exercise in self-reflection. Complete it when you have time to think honestly about your answers. Consider having a friend, partner, or colleague complete the survey to evaluate you. To deepen the dialogue, you can both complete it for yourselves and then evaluate each other.
What's good about your life? What's missing? What do you want? How will you know when you get it? How do you feel about where you live? How are your relationships? What is happening at work? How are you expressing your purpose? Are you living your own version of the good life, or someone else's?
Conceptions of retirement vary widely. Many nurses see it as a time to relax, travel, and have more freedom and fun, without the grueling demands of balancing family and work. Others feel that a disengaged life that focuses on the self can lead to problems, whereas an engaged, purpose-filled life can help prevent them. Myths about aging and retirement abound. Retirement solves some problems but raises others.
The word retirement is often defined as withdrawing, receding, or pulling back. Many of us have seen relatives retire not only from work, but also from life. This pattern was normal when people lived a relatively short time after retiring. The new “normal” retirement is becoming a second adulthood, lasting perhaps 30 years or more.
NURSES ON THE BRINK
Nurses may spend many years in retirement. This prompts the question, “What should I do next with my life?” Never have so many people entered this later stage of life so vital, so healthy, and so free. And never before has there been such a hunger for direction as to how to live the next phase of life. Many nurses question what's next, but don't have a clear sense of their options; they lack role models and access to or knowledge of resources that can support their planning for work and life transitions.
Nurses, like many other Americans, may have spent more than half their lives working, so it isn't surprising that their work is likely a source of meaning and identity. Identity often is closely aligned with what we have accumulated and the job titles we have held. The key to successful retirement and aging is to rediscover a sense of purpose and meaning in life beyond our work roles.
An unprecedented wave of nurses are approaching retirement age. We would be wise to consider new ways to remain engaged in the profession. For some whose passion is nursing, that may mean mentoring, telling their stories, or being a source of creative ideas for the next generation of nurses.