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Rethinking Retirement

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When someone retires, three substantial changes take place, said Ken Dychtwald, psychologist, gerontologist and founder and chief executive of Age Wave, a consulting and research company.

“They struggle with their identity, relationships and activity,” he said. “Some people feel unsettled, anxious or even bored, but eventually they realize that relationships, wellness and purpose really matter — perhaps more than ever.”

In his new book, his 17th, “What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age,” Dr. Dychtwald and his co-author, Robert Morison, parse how boomers are redefining retirement.

For this book, the authors surveyed more than 100,000 boomers, exploring facets of retirement — family, financial security, health, housing, leisure, philanthropy, work and happiness.

I spoke with Dr. Dychtwald about the book, the authors’ conclusions and also about his personal views of retirement. The highlights of our conversation are below and have been edited and condensed.

How have your views about retirement changed because of coronavirus and turning 70 this year?

I’ve been talking about retirement for 45 years, and my views are transforming. That’s partly sparked by Covid-19 and partly by turning 70, and also by having studied so many successful and unsuccessful retirees over the past half century.

Now let me unpack that. When I was getting started in this field, in the 1970s, we were inclined to think of retirement as kind of a short wind-down period, following a life of hard work. Back then, when people managed to get to the end of their work life, it was kind of a triumph. There was generally the view that retirement was a mark of success, and the earlier one did it, the more successful they must be.

It used to be that in retirement people sought to do things that they always liked, but didn’t have time for during their working years, like taking an extended vacation, playing more golf, socializing with friends, or reading some good books. That is how I thought about it, too.

That changed for me when I realized that retirement was getting longer — and longer. In addition, our studies were showing that many retirees were feeling bored and irrelevant, for decades. And I also began to notice that what was emerging was that some of the most successful role models for me weren’t winding it up when they turned 65. In fact, they were reinventing themselves and starting charities or organizations, or staying longer with their companies — with many even doing their best work.

I decided in my later years it was not going to be turn out the lights and devote myself to playing 24/7. I’ve come to see this evolving stage of life like a portfolio, and I now have the freedom and self-awareness to change and reprioritize my mix of activities. I view it as having a better balance between quality time with my family, work, play, continued learning and volunteering.

The pandemic this year has given many of us an enormous appreciation for the preciousness of life. I’ve come to realize that I’d like to be useful more than youthful.

However, I have been very troubled by the lack of usefulness among so many of my cohort. I’ve observed far too many boomers and older adults make themselves irrelevant. I was really troubled when I read that last year the average American retiree watched more than 48 hours of television per week. I don’t believe that’s the best we can do, or that’s the best we can be as elder men and women.

I realize that it takes a lot of effort to remain current, and it takes a lot of work to understand new technology and a lot of work to understand modern culture and understand why folks like Childish Gambino or Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas are so interesting and to understand the appeal of TikTok. Stepping outside your time and your era and being a part of the present requires a willingness to continually learn and grow.

ImageMr. Dychtwald encourages retirees to keep up with current cultural figures like Billie Eilish.
Credit…Democratic National Convention, via Associated Press

I challenge pre-retirees and retirees to ask: How do I try and see and feel the world from the perspective of those far younger than me? That is an important activity in our new longevity. That we spend time and energy not to just try to hoard our life and our memories, but that we also actively try to be empathetic to different people, younger people.

In your book, you write about Life’s Third Age. Can you describe that?

For our first 30 years of life, our focus is on biological development, making friends, identity formation and seeking a partner. Then, from 30 to 60, it’s a period occupied with building a family and a productive career. However, because of medical breakthroughs during the 20th century, what is now emerging is a whole new stage of life between 60 to 90. And that is uncharted territory, but we know for sure that it offers far more than the limited retirement arrangements that our parents and grandparents pursued.

This new Third Age is about reinvention of oneself. It’s no longer, only wow, you have time and are free to do your thing. It’s about continuing to grow, learn, meet new people, try new things and even discover new purpose. I also believe that there are important roles and accountabilities that need to be filled by today’s elders.

As boomers pave this new territory, younger generations will take notice and they will embrace the fact that life has got some hairpin turns and twists over the course of a 100-year life. They will have time to work and other time when they’ll play, and there’s a good chance that they will pursue multiple careers over the course of such a long life. In the future, it will be commonplace for there to be continued course-corrections and cyclical reinventions rather than this massive retirement.

How is retirement a sequence of shifts over time?

People have traditionally thought of retirement as an on-off switch. You’re working and then you’re retired. I see it as a series of stages. There’s the pre-retirement “anticipation” period when folks are imagining what they’ll do and who they’ll be when they no longer work. Then the immediate period of retirement is like a liberation, a honeymoon period where people are usually exhilarated.

That only lasts a year or so, and then there is another shift toward reorientation where people explore those big questions of what am I going to do all day long and what will matter to me? Then, further downstream there is another shift toward reconciliation, when folks piece together what their life was — to make sense of it and turn it into wisdom and get set to leave their legacy.

Credit…Getty Images

Going forward, I think that there will be even more shifts for retirees — or should I say “Third Agers” as people are forced to re-craft their plans, or they initiate the shifts themselves. Some people will become either bored or curious and will consider going back to school, or starting a nonprofit, or learning a foreign language or writing a memoir or training for a marathon. And, of course, there are unexpected subplots. Someone you love gets sick and you have to spend your time caregiving, or your adult kids move back home. Bingo — all your plans change.

What has emerged from your research that retirees should think about?

The importance of interdependence alongside independence — we all would do better in our later years if we’re connected and not isolated. And how do I maximize my health span, not just my life span?

And there’s the serious issue of funding our longer lives. A third of the boomers have close to nothing saved for retirement and no pensions; that is a massive poverty phenomenon about to happen, unless millions of people work a bit longer, spend less, downsize or even share their homes with housemates or family.

What is the biggest mistake retirees make?

Far too many think far too small. I have asked thousands of people from all walks of life over the years who are nearing retirement what they hope to do in retirement. They tell me: ‘I want to get some rest, exercise some more, visit with my family, go on a great vacation, read some great books’ Then most stall. Few have taken the time or effort to study the countless possibilities that await them or imagine or explore all of the incredible ways they can spend the next period of their lives.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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