August 21, 2006

August 21, 2006 | Commentary on

Maturity milestone

There it was at our staff meeting: the first birthday cake with the magic number 65 on top. They went with the big number candles, so they wouldn't have to bother lighting dozens of separate ones. Probably a smart move. 

Sixty-five. That was once time to retire. And indeed, when I was younger I expected that in my mid-60s, I would join the "over the hill gang." After all, when I consider the staff here at the Heritage Foundation, I note almost all 200 are younger than I. Even a couple members of our board are years my junior. Yet there's plenty of work to do, and I'm not ready to hang it all up. When I wrote about turning 50 --which I did just yesterday, it seems -- I noted, "Fifty really does have a different feel to it than 49." Tom Brokaw put it well when he turned 50: "At this age, mistakes, however daring, are not easily excused. Achievement is not a cause of praise; it is expected." 

Sixty-five is an age and, too often, an end. At 65. Jack Welch and so many others have followed company policy and hit the golf course -- permanently. 

If they tire of golf, like my Dad did, they take up something else. In Dad's case, oil painting. One time I called home, and my mother answered the phone. After chatting a bit, I asked where Dad was. She responded, "Oh, he's out on the porch painting." Me: "Is he getting any better?" Mom: "No, but he's getting faster." Now we have his masterpieces all over the grandkids' room at the beach house. They're too young to notice these aren't really world-class, priceless Impressionist originals. 

But turning 65 shouldn't be a time to lament. It's a time to reflect and to make a difference. I'm lucky to still be able to make an impact. 

It's also a good time to look at the balance sheet. 

On the asset side:

  • A great wife and companion for the last 37 years.
  • Two exasperating, challenging and loving children with great spouses and three wonderful grandchildren. All I can say about Betsy, William and Sara is the usual grandparent lament: "I wish we'd had them first."
  • Terrific friends from around the block, around the Beltway, around the country and even around the world.
  • Good health for us all. In fact, my best 65th birthday present was my buddy at Sloan-Kettering telling me: "The picture on the computer screen's clear, and I never want you to darken my door again."
  • The opportunity to work with a team of first-class people to conceive, build and make permanent an institution in Washington that's really making a difference for the policies we believe in for all our fellow citizens.
  • The chance to participate in the changes that have occurred throughout the world; the realization government is more often a part of the problem than a part of the solution; and to observe the fall of communism as an ideology and as a governing force.
  • A niche in the scheme of things that God has put in place.
On the liability side:
  • The missed opportunities for enough togetherness with family and friends because of job demands.
  • Loss of parents, a sister, a nephew and other loved ones, which seems so much harder to accept today with all the advances of modern medicine.
  • The constant fight with those extra 2 stone (that sounds better than 25-plus pounds) around my middle that I've battled all of my adult life.
  • The missed opportunities to perfect my German, learn fly fishing and take on new assignments.
  • The loss of some political battles. But then again, there's no such thing as a permanent political victory. 

All in all, it's pretty clear my assets far outweigh my liabilities. 

As I reach 65, at the front of the Baby Boomer generation, I think it's time to remove some of this magic number's stigma. "Retire at 65" was a policy made long ago, when life expectancy was 67 or 70. It's time to start pushing the retirement date back a year or two at a time. That would give talented people a chance to stay in the workplace and start addressing looming problems of Social Security. 

As for turning 65: No, I don't like it, but I guess I will put up with it. After all, I'm still "on the right side of the sod," and when -- or perhaps I should say if -- 75 rolls around, these will be "the good old days."

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute and co-author of the new book Getting America Right.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

First Appeared in the Washington Times