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Blog // Creativity
February 15, 2024

Is There More To Growing Old Than Downsizing?

An Instagram ad got me thinking about what it means to grow old with style.

Instagram surprised me recently, with an ad for what looked like a new luxury apartment complex called St Clare. The look was clean and contemporary, with interiors full of minimalist design and mid-century modern furniture.

I’m looking for a new home. So getting this ad wasn’t the surprise. I currently follow a few real estate agents on Instagram and even a company that photographs homes.

I click the link. The apartments aren’t cheap. The smallest ones start at $1.3M; the three- bedroom penthouse suites with a butler’s pantry and TV room are priced from $4.6M. The Australian property market being what it is, you can assume the prices will rise quite a bit from there for the best apartments with the nicest views.

However, the surprise isn’t the price.

St Clare isn’t simply a luxury apartment complex. It’s a retirement village, one that clearly aims to cater for people with a lot of money and an interest in “luxury finishes” which are “designed with both beauty and practicality in mind”.

Even more surprising is St Clare’s description of retirement living. Sure it’s expensive. And it looks like it’s been cut and pasted out of a magazine like Dwell or Monocle. But there’s something fascinating about the way retirement is described.

“St Clare offers discerning downsizers a wonderful lifestyle.”

This euphemism, where retirement is called downsizing, is repeated over and over.

“Downsize without compromise.”

Since moving back to Australia, I’ve been shocked by how often people here speak in euphemisms. It’s as if the abstract and impersonal nature of business speak has leaked into everyday discourse.

I’ve heard this way of talking, describing retirement as downsizing. The tone implies a reluctant acceptance. It’s kind of strange, because for a long time I heard those older than me, the boomer generation, talk longingly about retiring, or even the ultimate prize of retiring early. That’s why I wrote about retirement before, in 2005, and again in 2012.

But now I wonder if the boomer generation have reached retirement and found it isn’t everything they imagined it would be.

The Problem with Talking About Retirement

St Clare alludes to proprietary research into recent trends in aging, though they don’t specify what that research is.

“Our research shows that people aged over 60 are not ‘retiring’ in the traditional sense. They are entering a thrilling new phase in life where they have more time to focus on themselves – they’re more active, more engaged and even more indulgent than generations before.”

Interpreting marketing copy is sometimes like trying to making sense of dreams; you feel like this means that, but you’re never really sure.

That said, the idea of retirement as some kind of sedentary and selfish existence is out of date. A lot of people are delaying retirement, either because they feel healthy and able to keep working or because they can’t afford to stop. Others might work less, but still work. Or perhaps combine paid work with more volunteer work, community involvement, mentoring, or further education.

The Future Of Retirement

The New York Times has run a steady stream of articles about the emerging trend of luxury retirement complexes. Articles like Boomers Create a Surge in Luxury Care Communities (2018), Growing Old in High Style (2021), and The Next Retirement Communities Won’t Be Just for Seniors (2023) highlight the changing face of living options for the elderly.

Disney has even entered this market, with a series of developments under the brand Storyliving. They are “envisioned as enriching enclaves conceived with the simple notion of bringing people together.” While the Storyliving developments are not exclusively for seniors, they have residential zones and amenities that will be exclusively for those over 55.

This answers one of the criticisms of the old model of retirement villages – that they sequestered older people away from the rest of society. The model provided little opportunity for intergenerational mixing outside of family visits.

While living in cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo, I would often see older folk out and about. In Tokyo, particularly, I’d regularly see seniors riding bicycles, volunteering for local cleanup activities, doing exercise in the park, painting or taking photos, or carrying groceries home from the shops.

What Does A Good Old Age Look Like?

Rather than an idyllic or natural way to spend our later years, retirement is conceived of as problematic and potentially unhealthy.

Retirement can have a negative effect on health, especially if people become less physically active or don’t have as many opportunities to interact with other people.

In fact, retirement can be lonely and isolating. It can undermine a sense of personal identity and reason for living. We associate old age with cognitive decline, but this reduced sharpness can be fueled by lack of activity, stimulation, and opportunities to learn.

Retirement was an urgent social problem in the industrial age when people’s bodies could no longer cope with the stress of hard physical labour. Retirement was the equivalent of putting old work animals out to pasture.

Moving to a retirement village often means relocating away from a familiar neighborhood. It can mean reduced privacy and independence. Retirement villages can promote ageism and even an unhealthy concept of what growing old should be like.

There is also the broader economic reality that many countries simply will not be able to afford to fund retirement as they have done up to now. A combination of extended longevity and the size of the boomer generation means people are retiring in record numbers, and the cost of paying out pensions is becoming an increasing strain on many societies.

Especially if we start siphoning people into retirement living at 55 when they still have another 40 more years of life left. Or, to put it another way, the season of life being retired and withdrawn from productively contributing to society will be longer than the amount of adulthood spent working.

When I first wrote about retirement, back in 2005, I said “… full-time retirement at the age of 60 or 65 will be the exception, rather than the rule.” Since then the retirement age in Australia has been raised to 67. By the time I get to 67 the retirement age will have already shifted to 70. Who know how far the retirement age will move between now and then.

A Healthy Old Age

What does it mean to live a healthy life as we get older? Two concepts can help guide our thinking: mastery and generativity.

When you set out to master something, you are orienting your life towards understanding yourself and the world better. It’s a lifelong journey if you want it to be. Mastery isn’t just about becoming good at something. It’s about learning to enfold the mistakes you will inevitably make into a healthy life. Mastery is also essentially social and ecological because we don’t learn alone, and we always grow in the context of an environment around us and things that come from and shape that environment.

This is because we’re attuned to our own mistakes, willing to help others since we master nothing alone, and accepting of how we will age and the limits of our ability.

And if we’re aging well, our focus isn’t just on our own mastery but also the mastery of those who are younger, along with their ability to craft meaningful lives and build healthy societies. This generative focus can flourish only if we cultivate vibrant and fertile cross-generational relationships.

Luxury developments like the ones mentioned above, for all their luxury features, aren’t designed primarily to facilitate generativity and mastery.

Mastery and generativity not only help us think more constructively about old age; they give us a clear sense of what seniors can contribute to society. This can also help us overcome ageism.

Is Retirement An Outdated Concept

Does the concept of retirement even make sense if our lives are oriented towards creativity and making art? The older we get the more it feels ridiculous to say 65 is too old to make music or art, or compose poetry or write books. We might look physically less powerful. But the strength of our ideas isn’t diminished.

Even as our hearing starts to wear, we can hear music more clearly. Our eyes might not be what they once were, and yet colour and contrast seem more sharp. Our stamina and memory might be reduced, and yet the words flow more freely and we feel braver wielding them.

In 2020, Willie Nelson, then aged 86, got four Grammy nominations and came home with two awards. This past year, Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann, both aged 81, directed box office hits. Roy Hodgson is still coaching Premier League football with Crystal Palace at the age of 76.

Angela Álvarez’s story is one of the most remarkable examples of the enduring power of creativity. In 2022, she became the oldest person to win a Latin Grammy. And in the Best New Artist category. She had been writing music and singing for years but never put her work out until her grandson produced and recorded an album of her music.


The popular idea of retirement implies not having to work anymore so you can “enjoy life” instead. But what if the work you do is fulfilling and fun? What if working gives you purpose, meaning, and structure in your life?

The challenge of retirement is that you have to stop working because you are no longer allowed to. But what if your ideas are still powerful? What if you are still growing and improving? What if you still have something to contribute to those around you?

Too much of the focus on growing older is centered on what gets diminished. In a culture that worships youthfulness and physical perfection, that’s not surprising. And add to that the way that so much work culture is obsessed with relentlessly grinding and hustling.

But we miss paying attention to what doesn’t diminish. Or what even gets enhanced as we age. Clarity, insight, and wisdom, in particular. As we get older, we can become better at seeing what matters most in life, picking the infinite games from the finite ones.


A natural amount of right-sizing comes with getting older. A big home suited to raising a family might not be suited to the needs of an older person or could become too much of a burden to maintain. The many belongings we can collect over a lifetime might no longer be useful or interesting to keep.

However, this task isn’t the complete template for growing old.

As we get older, our lives should also become bigger in some ways. Mastery and generativity remind us of that. We can chase bigger ideas. Remind those around us that craft and context and history matter. We are naturally more attuned to the things that matter most.

Rather than retreating, we can echo through eternity via the lives we touch.

Don’t downsize. Embrace eternity.

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