What does the future of retirement hold for GenX?

As the oldest of GenX* turns 58 years next year, this question may not be as crazy as it seems! For those of us who were born into GenX in developed countries, our mid to later life is looking very different to the generation or two proceeding us (as will it for generations coming after us). As a GenX woman born at the start of the 1970s, I’ve been exploring this issue for a while largely through the research for our book From work life to new life – rewriting the rules of retirement for smart professionals and in my coaching work with professionals in mid-life.

As a generation, we are smaller in numbers than the one – baby boomers – that proceed us and – GenY or millennials – that follow us. We aren’t referred to much in popular culture and the media as a generation. However, we are the generation that has continued to fight many of the battles previous generations started especially those around diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. When we are referenced, we are often called the sandwich generation. This means that in midlife, due to starting families much later (often not out of choice if at all**), rather than moving into empty nesting providing a break from caring responsibilities, we find our caring responsibilities increasing as we are called on to look after aging family and friends whilst likely still looking after young offspring. We also find ourselves carrying considerable levels of debt (and will likely do so well into our later life) much of it due to housing costs and higher education fees. And as a generation, we have also had to make the switch away from final salary pensions as employers closed off the schemes just as we entered the job market and instead, we are supposed to have taken up the private pensions, largely unsuccessfully, which means we have in general poor pension provision. We are also the generation at least in the UK to have our state pension age pushed back by up to 10 years (to 66-70) over our working lives meaning we will be expected to work much longer.

And yet, as a generation, we have greatly benefitted from many advances including in the fields of medical science and technology and increasing levels of wealth more broadly across society. We as a generation are likely to live to our mid 90s with the potential to enjoy healthy longevity. However, this does not mean that our retirement will be like the retirement many of our professional colleagues from earlier generations have and are experiencing. But this is not necessarily a bad thing!

What we found through our book research and work is that retirement as it’s structured currently in much of the developed world is not really fit for purpose. What do we mean by this? The idea that you stop professional work activities and dedicate yourself to a life of largely leisure where you may pursue a few interests and passions (if you are fortunate enough) and/or where you are likely to be called to take on increasing levels of caring responsibilities is not necessarily the basis for healthy longevity. Indeed, it’s likely to lead to an unfulfilling and unhealthy mid to later life as the days and years stretch out before you.

When we explored what really is important for a ‘successful/fulfilling’ mid to later life (or as we refer to it – ‘encore’), we found that it needs to be underpinned by a clarity of purpose. An over-emphasis of focus on leisure and financial security as has been the practice for previous generations and around which the current approach of retirement is built does not deliver on this need.

So, what do we mean by purpose? Having work (whether it is remunerated or un-remunerated) that gives us meaning and translates into a compelling and motivating reason to get out of bed on a daily basis (at its most basic). Often purpose is focused around impact and legacy as we enter our encore stage (think less CV and more eulogy).

So where does this leave us as a generation as we look to our later life and our encores? As there are ever higher numbers of experienced GenX professionals leaving organisations and full-time employment from their late 40s onwards (through choice or not), we are already living this shift. As part of this shift, we need to revisit the structure and approach to retirement urgently. As controversial and uncomfortable as this may feel and sound, we need to explore and plan what we want so our encores are not simply predicated on how much money we will have/not have and what leisure activities we might therefore pursue (the legacy approach). Rather start with – how do we create the conditions for healthy longevity in order to enjoy our encore? By getting curious, exploring and challenging our thinking and our assumptions, we can get greater clarity on what will give us purpose – recognising that this may change further over time. Finally, we may never stop “working” but we may well change how we define and choose to do our work (from how we may have done it to date) and live our purpose through our encore! Personally, I am very excited by this as are some of my fellow GenX to whom we spoke. There is a sense of liberation knowing that we have the opportunity and privilege to design a completely different encore stage to our lives whilst staying relevant and connected to the world around us.

To learn more about my work with organisations and individuals, you can email me at rebecca@wisesherpa.co.uk. Alternatively, fill in the form on the Wise Sherpa Contact page

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*GenX – Researchers and popular media use the mid-to-late 1960s as starting birth years and the late 1970s to early 1980s as ending birth years, with the generation being generally defined as people born from 1965 to 1980.
**It is estimated that around 40% of GenX professional women in the UK (and similarly across other developed economies) do not and will not have children.

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