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Life’s third act


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One year from today I will be eligible to collect Social Security benefits, although at a reduced amount.

While I’m not planning to collect anytime soon, just knowing that I’ll be eligible is a bit frightening. Like millions of other baby boomers in a similar situation, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. And I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions.

Am I really this old?

How did it happen so quickly?

Will I be able to retire at age 65? 70? Ever?

As a generation, we baby boomers have not saved money to the extent our parents did. Instead, we learned how to spend money early in life. And through the next 50 years, we darned near perfected the process.

Unlike our parents, we boomers didn’t live through the Great Depression. We didn’t see our parents lose their jobs and their homes. We didn’t watch our grandfathers stand in bread lines. As a general rule, most of us had it pretty good growing up.

Since rainy days were few and far between, why bother to save for one? Let’s buy that big house and the two new cars. It’ll be tight, but we can afford it. Besides, we’re only 30. We have plenty of time to save for retirement.

But time flies when you’re having fun, and guess what, boomers? Time’s up.

To their credit, many boomers did not follow the path that I and millions of my cohorts did. Indeed many of my generation are quite well prepared for retirement at 65 or even 55.

I could have done that, too. But I was weak. For me, putting money back for retirement wasn’t nearly as much fun as buying records and CDs, books, guitars, drums, vacations, etc. At the time I thought enjoying today was more important that worrying about tomorrow. Now I’m not so sure.

While I’m certainly glad I didn’t squirrel away every cent and deprive myself and my family of enjoying some of the things money can buy, perhaps I should have given tomorrow just a little more thought … and a little more of my income.

I don’t want to give the impression I’m destitute. I’m not. Thanks to my employer I have a retirement plan. But due to some unforeseen life events, stock market swings and my own shortsightedness, there’s nowhere near enough money in my retirement account to support me for the rest of my life, unless the rest of my life turns out to be a whole lot shorter than I hope it is.

The fact is, for me and millions of my contemporaries, the notion of receiving a gold watch at 65 and leaving the workforce behind for 20 years of leisure is no longer realistic. Many of us will have to keep working well past 65.

For some, that’s a depressing thought. However, many baby boomers don’t want to ride off into the sunset at 65, never to be heard from again. A lot of us — including many of us with more than enough money in our retirement accounts — want to keep working or volunteering.

We want to keep contributing. We want to make a difference.

As a result, many boomers are thinking about their “third act.”

For our parents’ generation, that third act was ideally what we traditionally think of as retirement — mostly unemployed, enjoying our well-earned golden years. But as we’ve learned from our parents, often the golden years turn out to be less than shiny.

Increasingly, that traditional third act is becoming life’s fourth act. Many boomers are creating a new third act — a phase between their original career and full retirement. For example, some older Americans who still need a regular income are finding new careers in the not-for-profit sector, hoping to use their third act to make a difference in the world.

An increasing number of books and articles are being written on this idea of a third act or a transition career. If you’d like a good introduction to the topic, I can recommend “Your Life Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life,” by Indianapolis native and former “Today” host Jane Pauley.

What will your third act look like?

Who knows, maybe the fact that we baby boomers haven’t been as thrifty as we should could actually turn out to be good for us and for society.

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