What is the ideal age to retire? Never, according to a neuroscientist

Feb 27, 2020 /

If you want to live a satisfying, long life, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has some advice for you: Stay busy.

What is the ideal age to retire?


Even if you’re physically impaired, it’s best to keep working, either in a job or as a volunteer. Lamont Dozier, the co-writer of such iconic songs as “Heat Wave,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” (and with fourteen number-one Billboard hits), is 78 and still writing.

“I get up every morning and write for an hour or two,” he says. “It’s why the good Lord put me here.”

Too much time spent with no purpose is associated with unhappiness. Stay busy! But not with busy­ work or trivial pursuits, but with meaningful activities. Economists have coined the term unretirement to describe the hordes of people who retire, find they don’t like it, and go back to work. Between 25 and 40 percent of people who retire reenter the workforce.

Harvard University economist Nicole Maestas says, “You hear certain themes: a sense of pur­pose. Using your brain. And another key component is social engagement.

Recall Sigmund Freud’s words that the two most important things in life are to have love and meaningful work. (He was wrong about a great number of things, but he seems to have gotten that quote right.)

I interviewed a number of people between the ages of seventy and one hundred in order to better understand what contributes to life satisfaction. Every single one of them has continued working. Some, like musicians Donald Fagen of Steely Dan (age seventy-one) and Judy Collins (age eighty), have increased their workload. Others, like George Shultz (age ninety-nine) and the Dalai Lama (age eighty-four), have modi­fied their work schedules to accommodate age-related slowing, but in the partial days they work, they accomplish more than most of their younger counterparts.

Staying busy with meaningful activities requires some strategies and reshifting priorities. Author Barbara Ehrenreich (age seventy-eight) rejects the many tests that her doctor orders because she doesn’t want to waste time in a doctor’s office for something that might only add three weeks to her life. Why?

“Because I have other things to do. Partly this seems to start for me with the kind of trade-off decision: Do I want to go sit in a windowless doctor’s office waiting room, or meet my deadline, or go for a walk? It always came down to the latter.”

Many employers will allow older adult workers to modify their schedules in order to continue working. In the US, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations, such as start and end times, break rooms, even a cot to lie down on for a nap, and age discrimination is illegal.

Age discrimination is similarly illegal in Canada, Mexico and Fin­land. The laws around the world vary. Generally, the European Union per­mits termination at the pension retirement age (in Germany, for example, that’s currently age sixty-five and is being extended to sixty-seven). In South Korea, the mandatory retirement age is sixty.

In other countries, such as Australia, the laws and interpretations of those laws are evolving. (Courts in Australia, for example, found in favor of Qantas Airways, which terminated a pilot at age sixty. Although this was in violation of the country’s Age Discrimination Act of 2004, the high court ruled that because it was a requirement of The Convention on International Civil Aviation that captains aged sixty or over be barred from flying over certain routes, termination of pilots over sixty was lawful.)

I think we need to work together to fight for changes in the way our societies see older adults, particularly how they see them in the workforce. Corporate culture in the US has tended toward ageism. It is difficult for older adults to get a job or get promoted. Two-­ thirds of American workers said they had witnessed or experienced age discrimination at work. Employers should recognize that offering oppor­tunities to older workers is smart business, and not just a feel-good, charitable act. Multigenerational teams with older members tend to be more produc­tive; older adults boost the productivity of those around them, and such teams outperform single-generational ones. Deutsche Bank has been at the forefront of this kind of approach, and they report fewer mistakes as well as increased positive feedback between young and old.

Many countries have passed laws prohibiting discrimination in em­ployment against people with disabilities, including Alzheimer’s disease (for example, in the US, there was the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and in the United Kingdom, the Equality Act of 2010).

The nonprofit BrightFocus Foun­dation lists accommodations that might be helpful for workers with Alzheimer’s:

• Incorporating reminders into their day — written or verbal

• Dividing large tasks into many smaller tasks

• Providing additional training when there are workplace changes

• Keeping the workspace clutter-free

• Reducing the number of hours worked per day or week

• Changing the time of day worked

In recognition of this, Heathrow Airport in London became the world’s first “dementia-friendly” airport, with one thousand employees dedicated to serving the special needs of those with cognitive impairment. Researchers at John Carroll University, a private Jesuit Catholic University in University Heights, Ohio, created an intergenerational choir, bringing together young people and older adults with dementia. It changed the attitudes of the students who participated, who talked about the closeness they felt in the choir and the development of intergenerational friendships. Through singing together, the adults with dementia felt included, welcomed, valued and respected.

The late Tennessee Women’s Basketball Coach Pat Summitt, who was also a silver medalist from the 1976 Summer Olympics, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in August 2011. She continued working, finishing out the ath­letic season through 2012. “There’s not going to be any pity party,” she said, “and I’ll make sure of that.”

If continuing to work in your job isn’t possible after a certain age, and if new employers aren’t willing to hire older workers, there are still ways to stay actively engaged in meaningful work. In the US, there’s the Head Start program, an organization that allowed my grandmother to come in and read to underprivileged children. The AARP Foundation has a program called Experience Corps, which matches older adults as tutors in public schools for economically disadvantaged children.

The program has had a positive impact on the children in the ways you’d imagine:­ improved literacy, increased test scores, and improved classroom and so­cial behavior. But it also has a positive impact on the volunteers. In one study, volunteers felt a greater sense of accomplishment than a group of control participants and showed increases in brain volume for the hippocampus and cortex, compared to the controls, who had brain volume reductions. This was particularly true of male volunteers, who showed a reversal of three years of aging over two years of volunteering. As Anais Nin observed, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” It’s true of brain vol­ume as well.

That courage, that expansion of life, can come about in a variety of ways for different people: taking classes online, such as from Coursera or Khan Academy (but be sure you can interact to discuss what you’ve learned; learning in isolation can only go so far in keeping your mind active); joining (or hosting) a book club or current events discussion group; volunteering in a hospital or church; asking your local YMCA or church what they need; working in a soup kitchen.

There is a transforma­tive effect in helping others. In his novel Disgrace, Nobel Prize-winning South African writer J. M. Coetzee wrote: “He continues to teach because … it teaches him humility, brings it home to him who he is in the world. The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn learn nothing.”

I have observed this firsthand in my own life, although I like to think that my students avoided learning nothing. And I am perhaps not so cynical as Coetzee (or at least his character in the novel). I think the right teacher, the right believer in a child or an older adult, can tip the balance for that person’s life and help them to overcome life’s obstacles, to get on a track toward happiness and success that will lead them into successful aging. My teachers did that for me.

Excerpted with permission from the new book Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of our Lives by Daniel J. Levitin. Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Levitin.

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