Retirement Reimagined: 4 Ways Adults are Reshaping their Golden Years

Retirement planning was once reasonably straightforward. We worked until a designated age and then moved to the country or embraced a quiet routine at home. These days, however, retirees are rewriting the script. No longer content to spend hours in the garden after settling into a small cottage, adults are shaking off old stereotypes and revisiting their later-in-life plans. Retirement writer and consultant Jan Cullinane, author of The Single Woman’s Guide to Retirement and The New Retirement: The Ultimate Guide to the Rest of Your Life, says a fixed approach to this stage no longer suits modern-day adults.

“Today, rather than considering retirement in terms of chronological age, it’s more about biological age,” says Cullinane. “How old do we really feel? Most people, when surveyed, say they feel about 10 years younger than their actual age.”

Especially when the Covid-19 pandemic has hastened plans to retire for some, making it happen earlier than expected.

Cullinane has examined Baby Boomer retirement abroad trends and discussed second-act dreams with Baby Boomers across the United States, and her discoveries, originally made in the pre-Covid era, still ring true today. She cites recent research from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, which looks at individuals’ long-term goals. Nowadays, Cullinane explains, women commonly list ongoing education, entrepreneurship, volunteering and developing deeper relationships among their top retirement priorities. Men typically discuss plans to be more active, learn new skills and connect with grandchildren.

“When you look at what both men and women want in their retirement years, however, the one thing that lands on both lists is travel,” says Cullinane. A 2017 Transamerica Retirement Survey uncovered similar results, she adds. “Seventy percent of American workers said travel was their greatest retirement dream. It’s a very powerful thing.”

As she travels the country to speak about alternative retirement planning, Cullinane often frames the broader themes in a “then and now” context. Here, she explores how today’s adults approach this stage of life. Retirement travel tops the to-do list for many, and options have never been more exciting. Adults are seeking out the under-the-radar and extraordinary, from visiting a Galapagos Islands tortoise reserve to off-roading along Iceland’s untamed glaciers, rivers and volcanoes. Exploring by ship is a particularly popular option for retirement travel.

“I’m a Baby Boomer, and cruises are extremely popular among the people I talk with,” says Cullinane. “Some of that is driven by interest in specific destinations, and some by the ships themselves.” The introduction of spacious and modern suites, large balconies, globally-minded dining venues and creative onboard amenities attract some guests. Others simply can’t pass up an opportunity to participate in excursions and activities that take you beyond the superficial and immerse you fully into a culture or place, such as spotting bears in Alaska, experiencing an exhilarating tuk-tuk ride in Sri Lanka or participating in a sacred Pachamama ceremony in Chile.

Retirement travel - bear in Alaska
A solitary bear picks up a scent in Geographic Harbor, Alaska/Lucia Griggi

The old way: Slow down and sit back.
Today: Pursue new passions.

“When we look at the concept of affordable retirement planning today, our thinking is much more fluid than in the past,” says Cullinane. “More people are looking into new careers or becoming entrepreneurs after leaving their primary work. Others approaching that age look not only at working for money but also working for fulfillment. Phased retirement, where you go in and out of jobs as you take the path toward full relaxation, is one option.”

For some, this might also be a time to volunteer, serve as a mentor or work part-time with a nonprofit organization. In other cases, career aspirations might be replaced with new interests experienced at the source, such as winery visits in France, market trips in Morocco, or cooking classes with local expert chefs while on a cruise in Bali.

Retirement travel - cooking lesson
Silversea guests enjoy culinary demonstrations aboard Silver Muse/Lucia Griggi

The old way: Buy a house near the beach.
Today: Experience the rich diversity of remote regions.

While retirees might consider relocating to somewhere warm, downsizing into an urban condominium or renting abroad in retirement, adults may also use travel to change the later-in-life narrative. “You can do this in so many ways. It’s almost like niche retirements for everybody’s lifestyle,” says Cullinane.

Spending time in unfamiliar and uncharted destinations—sampling regional foods in Patagonia, for example, or embarking on a long-term voyage to all seven continents—promises access to unparalleled experiences. “Visiting a place that’s very different from home, in terms of culture, language and getting around, can really take people out of their comfort zone,” Cullinane says. The best travel locations for retirees offer enriching experiences that incorporate all of these.

Retirement travel
Travelers enjoy a traditional dining experience in Singapore/Lucia Griggi

The old way: Spend your days golfing or gardening.
Today: Trade the golf clubs for a kayak paddle.

Staying active later in life means many different things. Still, whether it’s strolling a waterfront path in Vancouver or skiing on Norway’s massive Jostedal Glacier, active vacations for retirees exist for every interest and activity level.

“These days, the emphasis is on our ‘healthspan.’ I prefer that to the term ‘lifespan,’ and it simply refers to how long we’re able to do things,” Cullinane says. “Those with the means and the health are doing things to push themselves and see places they wouldn’t normally go.” That might mean trekking across Antarctic ice, canyoning through Caribbean waterfalls, snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef or viewing coastal Australia.

Retirement travel - Half Moon Island
Silversea guests take to the water in kayaks off Half Moon Island, Antarctica/Lucia Griggi

The old way: Accept that your most significant achievements are behind you.
Today: Embrace new places, cultures and adventures, whatever your situation.

The idea of pressing pause on a well-lived life once we retire does not apply in today’s landscape. Prosperity is about more than wealth, and the richest lifestyles incorporate culture, education, travel and wellness into a wider scope of aspirations. And, those dreams don’t stop as personal situations change.

“This is often seen as a couple’s world, but if you’re talking about Boomers, that’s not always the case. People are aging solo,” Cullinane says. Single adults make up a significant percentage of this generation, she explains, and those who chose not to have children might find additional flexibility at this stage of life.

Whether booking a solo cabin on a trip for singles or setting off on a round-the-world voyage with a significant other, personal accomplishments don’t just end at this stage of life. By setting goals and taking chances, we continue to learn and thrive throughout our retirement years.

Retirement travel - Kota Kinabalu
A vendor sells street food at a night market in Kota Kinabalu/Lucia Griggi