Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are heading into retirement at an unprecedented rate. Data suggests that, on average, 10,000 baby boomers retire every day. Recent research also suggests that the typical baby boomer is expected to live at least until age 84.
Couple those two realities and what you have is a generation of people who are retiring and, on average, will live for nearly another 20 years. The implications of these truths are massive for churches and their ministries. When it comes to global missions, I’m convinced this generation of boomer retirees could become a powerful wave of new workers to the nations.
The norm in American culture is to spend your working life looking forward to retirement. The cultural narrative implicitly and explicitly communicates that if you work hard for 40 years, you’ll eventually attain perpetual seasons of rest, recreation, and leisure. The idea is once you turn 65, you can “clock out” and spend the rest of your days playing golf, traveling the world, and enjoying your grandkids. It sounds appealing.
Regretfully, as baby boomers are retiring at an unprecedented rate, many are finding retirement isn’t as satisfying or fulfilling as they once believed it to be. Forbes magazine reported that more than 40 percent of retirees suffer from clinical depression, while 6 in 10 report a decline in health. Why? After spending more than 40 years working hard and awaiting the benefits of retirement, why do many struggle with the transition to this next phase of life?
Many are finding retirement isn’t as satisfying or fulfilling as they once believed it to be.
Human beings were created to work, produce, and contribute. Work has always been a part of God’s creative purposes for humanity. Human labor isn’t the result of sin but of God’s good design. It’s meant to provide meaning and satisfaction. Which is why the modern American emphasis on an extended retirement devoid of work leads many to feel restless, empty, and unfulfilled. The late missiologist Ralph Winter lamented this reality when he wrote,
Most men don’t die of old age, they die of retirement. I read somewhere that half of the men retiring in the state of New York die within two years. Save your life and you’ll lose it. Just like other drugs, other psychological addictions, retirement is a virulent disease, not a blessing.
So, how are Christians and churches to think about this retirement letdown? Should we just resign and accept that retirement will never be more than a prolonged period of consumption without much meaningful production? Or is it possible to revive, reframe, and accentuate the God-honoring and kingdom-influencing opportunities that exist for retirees?
Rethinking Retirement Goals
Retiring from a more traditional form of work can present entirely new opportunities and possibilities. Retirees possess critical characteristics that few people in the workforce have: an abundance of experience, wisdom, flexibility, and, to varying degrees, financial stability. These qualities are valuable assets. They enable retirees to continue contributing to society and, more specifically, to the mission of God around the world.
Of course, some retirees may not be able to move oversees. Financial hardship, health challenges, or the loss of a spouse may make it impossible to go. The Lord knows these sufferings and cares for his aging saints. But for those who are able, a second career in missions should be a matter for prayer and wise counsel. They have the potential to leverage their later years for the sake of good.
Currently, there are opportunities globally that allow retirees to continue to engage in meaningful work long after their “career” is complete. In some cases, it may be that the work done after retirement is more fruitful and lasting than the work done prior to retirement, during the so-called prime of their career.
Many retirees who step out of the workforce today do so in great health and with a strong sense of vitality. They’re prepared for life’s next challenge. As John Piper writes,
Millions of Christian men and women are finishing their formal careers in their fifties and sixties, and for most of them there will be a good twenty years before their physical and mental powers fail. What will it mean to live those final years for the glory of Christ? How will we live them in such a way as to show that Christ is our highest treasure?
Piper poses a question that the boomer generation must wisely consider. He also highlights the unique opportunity they have. God isn’t honored when the most experienced, wise, and financially stable Christians sit on the sidelines. He desires to use them to accomplish his mission in the world.
Today, opportunities abound for retiring baby boomers to meaningfully engage in God’s mission. Contrary to popular belief in the West, the older generation often has much to offer in the missionary endeavor. I would argue that boomers—not millennials or Gen Z—are poised to make the greatest contribution for the Great Commission in the next decade. Around the world, there’s an urgent need for mature disciples of Christ to join missionary teams, injecting them with wisdom and experience and modeling a Christ-honoring life.
Today, opportunities abound for retiring baby boomers to meaningfully engage in God’s mission.
Uncle Sam, 401(k)s, and Roth IRAs can support a retired couple in Tanzania or Taiwan just as well as they can in Texas or Tennessee. And some missions sending organizations, such as the IMB and OM, have recently begun to highlight testimonials from retirees joining their teams around the world. Older saints, and those with significant life experience, tend to be valued in other cultures. Furthermore, mature believers can be significant assets in discipling missionary teams that are often populated by young families and singles.
The Great Commission doesn’t end when we turn 65. To borrow from a sports analogy, retirement doesn’t necessitate a move from the field to the sidelines, but instead it can open the possibility of a new role. In some cases, Christians who are retired or retiring have a unique opportunity to reengage God’s mission by being reassigned to a new position on the field. As they do, I believe baby boomers can step into a season of retirement that could provide them with the most meaningful, purposeful, and fruitful work of their lives.