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Book Review

What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age

Authors: Ken Dychtwald, PhD, and Robert Morison
Reviewed by William J. Brisk, CELA, Fellow
Published October 2021

BookReviewBrisk If elder law attorneys had a poet laureate, it might be Ken Dychtwald. His career and NAELA’s development are intertwined. A book Dychtwald co-wrote with Joe Flower, Age Wave: The Challenges and Opportunities of an Aging America,1 published in 1989, predicted that the baby boom (the unprecedented number of Americans born from 1946 until 1964) would reshape American society. At that time, NAELA had only 40 members. Seven years later, NAELA had attracted 5,000 members2 who, regardless of whether they had read Age Wave, created a new area in the law, one dedicated initially to helping baby boomers’ parents attend to their increasing care needs and now concerned with the well-being of the aging boomers themselves.

All elder law attorneys will benefit from reading Dychtwald’s latest book, What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age, which he co-wrote with Robert Morison.3 The book masterfully captures why baby boomers need to plan carefully for retirement — a life stage once defined as the “golden years” — which Dychtwald and Morison more realistically define as boomers’ “third age.”

In the first age, from birth to approximately 30 years of age, the primary tasks of life center around biological development, learning, and survival.… In the second age, from about 30 to 60, the concerns of adult life focus on issues pertaining to the formation of family, parenting, and productive work.… However, with the rise in longevity and the coming of the age wave, a new era of human evolution is unfolding, the third age.… [W]ith the children grown and many of life’s basic adult tasks either well under way or already accomplished, this less pressured, more reflective period allows the further development of the interior life of the intellect, memory, and imagination, of emotional maturity, and of one’s own personal sense of spiritual identity.4

Dychtwald and Morison’s observations are based on demographic analysis of the unprecedented number of births after U.S. troops returned from World War II, the record number of marriages (many of which were postponed during the war), and the historically high fertility rates of the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. The authors state that the unprecedented number of “births within the [1950s] propelled the extraordinary growth of suburbs surrounding nearly every large city in the U.S.” These factors, plus liberal migration policies, led to a doubling of the U.S. birthrate.

In the short term, the United States experienced an unprecedented rise in the fertility rate (i.e., the number of children born to each woman during her lifetime). The fertility rate rebounded from the historically low rate during the Great Depression of the 1930s — when the number of children born to each woman dropped below the “replacement rate” of two children — to nearly 3.5 by the 1950s. In the long term, life expectancy increased dramatically, thus creating the age wave.

The average life expectancy at the time of Christ has been estimated to be in the low 40s. Even in 1899, nearly 2 millennia later, Americans, on average, did not survive much longer, only to 46 or 47. Since then, in just 122 years, the life span of Americans has reached almost 80 years, an increase of approximately 86 percent.5 The doubling of the human life span since the mid-19th century is indeed a “modern miracle.”6 An additional factor contributing to U.S. population expansion are the relatively liberal immigration policies in force from the end of World War II until after the inauguration of President Donald Trump in 2017.

Dychtwald and others conclude that the U.S. population, along with that of other developed countries, is aging more quickly than at any time in recorded history and that baby boomers will remain socially and politically significant for many years to come.

What Retirees Want draws on the age wave in telling the history of how we got to where we are due to primarily details the consequences of an aging population using a “holistic approach.”7 Indeed, Dychtwald and Morison keep that ambitious promise by studying the curious phenomenon of retirement in depth, suggesting that the concept of retirement is dated. Indeed, they call for “retiring retirement.”

Dychtwald is more than a scholar. Following the success of Age Wave, he created a company bearing the same name to advise companies that sell goods and services to older Americans by carefully analyzing the needs and preferences of these Americans. The company helps prominent financial institutions develop and market products and services for older adults, helps clients develop products appropriate for these adults,8 and advises travel agencies and cruise operators on itineraries and services for persons well into their third age.

Dychtwald, who served vigorously as president of the American Society on Aging, has an engaging speaking style for both specific and general audiences. A brilliant feature of some of his lectures is to show Whistler’s portrait of his mother next to a photograph of Sophia Loren. The contrast is striking, especially after he discloses that the two women posed at precisely the same age, illustrating better perhaps than a dissertation a fundamental social change in less than a century and a half, as women moved from the home to the public stage, demonstrating the ability and desire to fend for themselves.

Dychtwald and Morison also note that, despite the increase in the older population in the United States, the number of nursing homes has declined over the past 2 decades. An increasing number of older adults prefer to receive care at home, where help is now more available, or in continuing care retirement communities.9 Following COVID-19, we can expect that nursing homes will attract even fewer patients.

While the authors of What Retirees Want share NAELA’s concern about long-term care, they note that until the 20th century, few people lived long enough and saved sufficiently during their working years to retire from work altogether. In the United States, corporate defined benefit pensions were available throughout most of the 20th century. In addition, Social Security (replicating Germany’s welfare system of the 1870s, which had earlier established the age of entitlement at 65) was enacted in the 1930s despite the significant increase in life expectancy in the United States at the time.

The 65-year benchmark for Social Security entitlement surprisingly remains the standard for retirement and most pensions even today, nearly 90 years following Social Security’s implementation in the United States and more than 150 years after implementation of Germany’s welfare system. But declines in the purchasing power of Social Security benefits, the market risks associated with privately invested retirement funds, and climbing life expectancies may force many to postpone their retirement for years or even decades.

A valuable feature of the book appears at the conclusion of each chapter, “Actions and Opportunities.” These actions and opportunities are directed, depending on the chapter, to retirees or to leisure-sector entrepreneurs, health care leaders and providers, housing professionals, professional investors, and nonprofits. Dychtwald and Morison’s actions and opportunities, approximately 10 in each chapter, provide an initial action list for individuals and organizations.

NAELA members and leaders should consider how elder law attorneys might broaden their firms’ competence to assist clients on the verge of retirement as well as those confronting long-term care issues. Some firms are already adding competences to their business plans regarding not only Social Security and retirement funding but also alliances with organizations that enhance retirees’ experience and strengthen the health of third-age persons.

Dychtwald and Morison define what prudent persons need to consider carefully during the five stages of most retirements. While only the imprudent rush into retirement without preparation, elder law attorneys reading What Retirees Want should consider the issues the book raises as an outline for helping clients prepare fully for their retirement.10

1. Imagination. Most careful planners begin to envision their retirement 2 decades or more before they plan to retire, particularly to calculate the money they will need to save to maintain or improve their standard of living.

2. Anticipation. As retirement becomes more certain, particular preparations must be made, including applying for Social Security and arranging distributions from IRAs and other tax favored investments.

3. Liberation. At this stage, one or both spouses actually stop working.

4. Reorientation. Within 2 years of retirement, Dychtwald and Morison recommend that people take the time to improve their retirement, sometimes by reassessing their housing preferences or even deciding whether to delay retirement or seek temporary part-time employment.

5. Reconciliation. Long after they retire, many people encounter health problems or other issues that substantially alter their plans, sometimes forcing them to seek family assistance or involvement.

Because of the need to test retirement before becoming wholly committed to it, Dychtwald and Morison consider retiring retirement (i.e., keeping options open by working part time or developing a small business). Retired people ages 65, 75, and even older may re-enter the job market either out of financial necessity or for other benefits they derive from working, including opportunities for socialization and purposeful living.

Dychtwald and Morison are at their best when comparing leisure with retirement. As they note, the 10,000 baby boomers retiring each day find themselves shifting from time constrained to time affluent for the first time in their adult lives.11 According to data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey and studies from Nielson ratings, persons 65 and older spend 7.4 hours per day on leisure activities.12 Those 51.8 hours per week exceed the number of hours per week a pre-retirement person, on average, devotes to work.

NAELA attorneys by and large perform well when counseling older Americans on how to avoid disasters that accompany ill health. Unfortunately, the American health care system did not develop an affordable safety net for people who become dependent on others for their care. Despite the victories of American medicine over many diseases, which contribute greatly to extended life expectancies, one of the sad consequences of extended life is the toll it can take on bodies and/or minds. The search for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease continues. Finding humane and affordable solutions for long-term care have been the core concern of elder law attorneys, resulting in much of the growth of the field over the last 3 decades.

According to Dychtwald and Morison, 55 percent of persons over the age of 55 have a will, but only 18 percent have the trifecta: a will, durable power of attorney, and health care proxy.1313 The preparation needed for what will likely become long retirements, lasting 1 or 2 decades, possibly more, will not be simple and will probably require regular communication between lawyer and client.

We may be able to solve one difficult situation, but that does not guarantee success in overcoming other challenges likely to arise. Aging couples will increasingly need meticulous planning and regular reviews, to enjoy their retirements as well as to avoid long-term care tragedies. Just as the early founders of NAELA recognized, where there are challenges, there are also opportunities.

1 Ken Dychtwald & Joe Flower, Age Wave: The Challenges and Opportunities of an Aging America (J.P. Tarcher 1989).

2 Andrew H. Hook & Thomas D. Begley Jr., Lawyering for Older Clients: A New Paradigm, 1 NAELA J. 269–310, n. 2 (2005).

3 Robert Morison had already established a career as writer, speaker, and consultant on how business strategies are related to technology and management of people. He connected with Dychtwald, in 2000, co-authoring (with Tamara Erickson) a notable article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review entitled, It’s Time to Retire Retirement (March 2004) (accessed Oct. 1, 2021).That article spurred other projects on which he collaborated with Dychtwald on the realities of life in retirement. Morison is a senior advisor with Age Wave and lead faculty on the International Institute for Analytics.

4 Ken Dychtwald & and Bob Morison, Retiring Retirement: The Rise of Life’s Third Age (July 27, 2020), Forbes,
(accessed Aug. 31, 2021). In What Retirees Want, the authors cite Erik Erickson’s concept of the achievement of ego integrity and Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization as prior constructs for the third age.

5 See Paul Morland, The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World 283–285 (Public Affairs 2019). Initially, improvements in infant and child care brought much of the increase in life expectancy, but overall improvements in health care and medical science and attention to public health are having major effects today despite the fact that ­COVID-19 has, at least temporarily, lowered life expectancy in the United States.

6 See Steven Pinker’s review of Steven Johnson’s Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer (2021), on page 11 of the June 13, 2021, edition of The New York Times. Pinker attributes this remarkable feat to scientific debunking of useless “nostrums, snake oils and sometimes poisons that people were ingesting as supposed cures,” which were replaced, thankfully, by “widespread use of antibiotics” but more importantly, the Green Revolution, public health measures, epidemiology, penicillin, and simple cures such as dissolving small amounts of salt and sugar in clean water to stop fatal diarrhea, “which may have saved as many as 65 million lives.” Id.

7 Dychtwald and Morison use the term holistic (which has been popularized so much that it seems to be required for nearly all social research and is used often to connote the term complete); however, they use the term simply to mean “treatment of, or dissection into parts.” Merriam-Webster, holistic, (accessed Aug. 25, 2021).

8 They mention such products as Alexa, Apple Watch, CarePredict @Home (a wearable device that monitors a person’s daily activities), Farberware kitchen utensils designed for older users and those with arthritis, the Gillette TREO razor (designed for shaving someone else), PillPack, and True Food Kitchen (a restaurant chain that caters to people on anti-inflammatory diets).

9 Christopher Buckley’s satirical political novel, Boomsday, published in 2007, astutely as well as comically predicted intergenerational political conflict when the most senior baby boomers became eligible for Social Security in 2011, creating budgetary deficits that would ultimately become the financial burden of younger Americans.

10 Ken Dychtwald & Robert Morison, What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age 23–36 (Wiley 2020).

11 Id. at 87.

12 Id. at 87.

13 Id. at 224–225. 

About the Reviewer

William J. Brisk, CELA, of Newton Center, Massachusetts, is a NAELA Fellow and former NAELA Journal editor in chief.