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Is retirement dead?

Mar 28, 2014 @ 8:30 am

By Mike West

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Enlightened thinkers about retirement seem to share two assumptions:

*Retirement is an invention with a limited history;

*The future of retirement is by no means sure, if it's not already dead."

As someone who works in the mutual fund industry, I confess a vested interest in the survival of the phenomenon. But reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Talk of the death of retirement too often dispatches with a note of good riddance, as if the whole project were nothing more than the self-serving fantasy of an aspiring middle class. This ignores the very real possibility that the desire to “retire” is a fundamental part of us — a bundle of honest emotions that pushes us to live responsibly when we're young and expect leisure as we age.

But maybe you think I'm just being poetic? Hinduism is often considered the oldest living religion. If we look at the philosophy of life that built that civilization, what do we see? Life stages. Student, householder, and retirement were the big three. Coming down to us from a very different time and place, this outlook strikes me as oddly familiar. As one scholar has framed it, the “retirement plan” went something like this:

Any time after the arrival of a first grandchild, the individual may take advantage of the license of age and withdraw from the social obligations that were thus far shouldered with a will. For 20 or 30 years society has exacted its dues; now relief is in order, lest life conclude before it has been understood. Thus far society has required the individual to specialize; there has been little time to read, to think, to ponder life's meaning without interruption. This is not resented; the game has carried its own satisfactions. But must the human spirit be indentured to society forever?

No, I don't think America invented retirement with the Social Security Act of 1935. The idea of life-after-work goes back a long way. But today my own dreams of cashing in on the “license of age” are interrupted by economic uncertainty. Indeed, the critics who write off retirement so easily might consider the plight of an aging workforce — many of whom are now scrambling to shore up their personal savings. It's one thing to dismiss retirement as a historical confection when you're 30 or 40, it's quite another when you're 70.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a bleeding careerist. I don't think of work as biding time between meals. Work, for me, is ennobling and exciting. But I can also look back and see that my work has evolved over time, and I suspect it will continue to do so. The kind of work that will call to me when I'm 70 has a different character than the work I'm doing now. Whatever it is, it will require a groundwork of assets.

I want to be ready for that. And maybe, if my latest stunt pans out, I'll be able to help others get ready for it, too.

Mike West is senior partner and chief executive of BPV Capital Management. His family office began in 2001, transitioned into an RIA firm in 2009, and then into mutual fund management in 2011. Mr. West has years of entrepreneurial and executive management experience with a background in financial management, strategic planning, mergers and acquisitions, and business development.

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