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YOUR “NUMBER” PART TWO

In his new book, “The Number”, Larry Eisenberg focuses on three building blocks to a fulfilling retirement: money, health, and happiness.

In an earlier column, I summarized Eisenberg’s stern money message about The Number — the net worth you’ll need for a financially secure retirement. Your Number can finance good health care, and it also helps if you’re disciplined about diet and exercise, and inherited good genes. But can your Number buy retirement happiness?

Baby boomers have been tagged as the Me Generation. Boomers look forward to retirement as a second adolescence. After freedom from work, with one’s life dues paid and an adequate Number, I can be who I am, do what I really want to do. A second adolescence with liver spots instead of zits — is this the self-absorbed retirement happiness a boomer’s Number is supposed to buy?

Not necessarily, say the “life planners” — financial planners who would help boomers find meaning in their retirement years as well as financial security. Life planners ask wrenching money-and-meaning questions: Why does money make us knotty? Why do we impart evil to it? Why do we anoint it with magical feel-good properties? Why do we run from it? Why do we lose love and friendships over it? Why do we work so hard to get it? Why do we waste it once we have it? Why don’t we spend more of it on things that matter? Oh, and by the way, what does matter?

Guru life planner (and philosophy professor) Jacob Needleman raises the alarm. Money has the power of giving people the idea that they are powerful, happy and important. That’s where the danger lies, because it is a false sense of comfort. We’re living and growing old in an age where everything is monetized. Yet a financial plan is fundamentally hollow unless it’s wrapped around a life plan. Your Number needs to finance a lifestyle that has meaning. Oops, are life planners playing in the sandbox where psychotherapists keep their pails and shovels?

Granted, life planner seminars may resemble group therapy, but at least the life planners are trying to connect money with meaning. Enter the happiness researchers, who’ve already learned that the happiest lives are filled with meaning, lives lived for something outside and more important than ourselves. If a meaningful life is the highest form of happiness, is it crazy to speculate that the Me Generation, in their earnest search for happiness, might just morph into a retired Meaning Generation?

Eisenberg calls these meaning-seeking boomers the “New Seniors”. Readers, travelers, and curious learners, New Seniors will want to share experiences, to teach, mentor, tell stories. New Seniors will remain productive into their eighties and nineties, be compassionate about others, be concerned about the world around them, not just themselves. Beyond Me and into meaning.

Thomas Jefferson was sixty-six at the end of his second term as president. Tired and disillusioned, he fantasized about selling his Monticello estate above Charlottesville, Virginia, to live out a well-deserved second adolescence in Paris for the rest of his days. But Jefferson knew he couldn’t abide the fools who governed France, so he retired to Monticello — at least for a while.

Nine years into retirement, a now very elderly Thomas Jefferson continued to find meaning in public service. For him, public education was always a top priority. So at seventy-five, Jefferson founded America’s first public university. He surveyed the land, worked with the architects, developed the curriculum and personally interviewed most of the professors. In 1825 the University of Virginia, visible from Monticello, opened with 123 students.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826. Carved on his tombstone are the lifetime achievements he considered most meaningful: author of The Declaration of Independence, responsibility for the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, and founder of the University of Virginia.
Source: “The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life” by Larry Eisenberg (Free Press 2006).

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