By Jack Dickey
October 16, 2014

Despite the blessings of youth–I’m 24 years old, with limber joints and without mortgage payments–I am aware that we have something of a retirement crisis on our hands.

You can’t miss it if you watch sports on TV, where financial-services firms pitch themselves to worried middle-aged men. I can’t miss it either when I call home. My parents are in fine shape, thank goodness, but like any other self-respecting late-50-something professionals, they are gaming out survival plans for so many improbable scenarios. And it didn’t take a lot of days on the job for me to notice that my employer was lowering its match on employees’ 401(k)s, leading to grumbling among some of my older co-workers, who saw their defined-benefit pension plans end in 2010.

The boomers, we’re told, might be going bust. But what–if I may be so millennial–about me? Sixty percent of American millennials, the approximately 85 million of us born from 1980 to 1999, expect to retire at age 65 or earlier, according to a recent survey from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Yet we came of age in an economic climate worse than any since the Great Depression, impossibly far from the postwar prosperity that greased our grandparents into the workforce. That alone seems to limit the chances of retirement’s having a future at all like its present.

More than that, we fancy ourselves a new breed. We think freely. We never unplug. We invented Pinterest. So even if we did have the financial wherewithal to retire in 40 years, should we want to? Are decades spent away from the office good for our bodies and brains? Does it make us happier to officially transition to a new phase so late in life? Perhaps retirement, this august institution that came of age in the era of World War II, has reached its own retirement date. I decided to find out.

Preparing for Retirement

My first call goes to Alexa Von Tobel, the CEO of LearnVest, a firm that bills itself as a financial planner for average Americans. LearnVest aims to make wealth care, as von Tobel puts it, as accessible as health care, with financial-planning packages priced in the mid-hundreds. Though the business won’t disclose its client numbers, LearnVest has raised more than $70 million in venture funding. Von Tobel has been on the cover of Forbes and on the cover of her own book, Financially Fearless. The one caveat about her retirement expertise? She’s 31. But considering she was twice admitted to Harvard (she earned her B.A. in 2006 and left business school in 2008 to start LearnVest), while I was twice rejected from Harvard, I thought myself in no position to judge.

Von Tobel invited me this summer to LearnVest’s New York City offices, on two sunny floors a few blocks from Union Square. Even sunnier than the space is von Tobel herself, energetic and quick to launch into a speech confirming the nation’s collective retirement peril. “In my book, Financially Fearless,” she says, “I almost wrote a whole chapter on the history of why I believe we have a huge financial crisis looming.” She fears that the mixture of widespread access to credit and widespread financial illiteracy will doom the nation.

The numbers do cast a distinct pall. A 2010 study from the Center for Retirement Research says 53% of U.S. households are at risk of losing their standard of living when their earners retire; in 1989 only 30% of households faced such a predicament. And that number concerns only people over the age of 30. The long-term financial prospects for millennials are even gloomier: according to the Project on Student Debt, 7 in 10 college graduates from the class of 2012 carried debt, with an average per-debtor load of $29,400. They graduated into an economy seemingly hostile to young workers, with an unemployment rate for job seekers ages 20 to 24 that averaged 12.8% for the year 2013. The unemployment rate for those ages 25 to 54 was less than half that, at 6.3%. And young workers with jobs should not consider themselves especially lucky; studies show that recession-era graduates often deal with depressed wages for the first decade of their careers.

Though millennial workers began saving for retirement earlier–the Transamerica study says 22 is the median age at which my generation’s workers started saving, compared with 27 for Gen X and 35 for baby boomers–they’ve also been under more pressure. According to a recent Wells Fargo study, 47% of millennials spend more than half their monthly income paying off debt; 4 in 10 call themselves “overwhelmed” by debt. They’re saving to dispel future gloom, but they’re already in the thick of it.

Von Tobel says a change in perspective helps. To our sit-down, she brought along Stephany Kirkpatrick, the firm’s resident retirement expert. Kirkpatrick considers saving a matter of behavioral psychology. No one wants to save for retirement, she says, when it looks like a mountain in need of scaling. But when clients see the merits of incremental savings modeled over 30 years, they perk up. Kirkpatrick and von Tobel tell me I ought to sock away a little bit more in a Roth IRA. It could do so much for me, and the numbers do look good.

But, I protest, I’m young and employed. I’m supposed to spend money on frivolous things! Besides, I say, what little employability I have comes from my brain. I’m not going to break down in my mid-60s. Why would I ever need to retire?

Von Tobel looks at me, and her tone turns serious again. “How do you know you’re not going to have a brain injury or something else happen? We just don’t know. We’re in this line of business, so we see all kinds of really great people that just didn’t know that something could happen.” Nice brain ya got there, I silently translate. It would be a real shame if something happened to it.

So I guess I have no choice but to save: Save by investing in the stock market, save by abstaining from indulgence, save by any means necessary. In preparing for retirement, there is no magic, only savings and more savings. I leave my LearnVest consultation planning to act on von Tobel’s simplest tips. I sign up for a high-yield online savings account and a Roth IRA (down a cool 1.85% at press time) and vow to limit my credit-card debt, buy more insurance and plan my monthly budgets. But I also get to asking myself many questions about the savings gospel. The biggest one: What’s in it for us?

The Early Retiree

One muggy Friday morning in houston, I meet a very happy retiree a little more than two years removed from the working world. His name is John Arnold. The father of three is all of 40 years old, and with his boyish, sheepish grin, he looks younger. Per Forbes, he possesses a modest nest egg of $2.9 billion, putting him among the 200 richest Americans.

In May 2012, Arnold did what so many workers dream of one day doing. He had gotten tired of running his hedge fund and he had made enough money at it, so he quit. But in place of a gold watch and a dinner at the Elks Lodge, he earned headlines in the New York Times and Houston Chronicle. In 17 years, Arnold had reached the top of his cutthroat profession, reportedly returning more than 300% on investments in 2006, closing his fund with billions under management after opening it with $8 million and with 60 employees after starting with three.

The first 14 years of work he loved. Arnold, an economics and math major at Vanderbilt, started at Enron in 1995, just a few days after graduation. He says the job–a junior-trader gig that paid $35,000 a year plus a 15K bonus–suited his skills perfectly. His boffo returns in the go-go late ’90s at Enron facilitated a steady rise, and even the company’s bankruptcy and criminal downfall (in which Arnold was not implicated) barely stalled him. Then came the big returns and the big days for Centaurus Advisors, the fund he launched in 2002. The job consumed him, but he liked it. He was working straight from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., waking many mornings having dreamed about what he traded–natural gas.

By 2009 he began to question his passion as natural gas prices slumped. In 2011 he knew he wanted out. He figured his moneymaking opportunities were gone, his best days behind him. So he closed the fund just shy of its 10th anniversary. He took a summer vacation in Colorado and then got into philanthropy, which is what he spends the bulk of his time on now.

For a self-made man with such a spectacular mike drop to his credit, Arnold has little to share in the way of business maxims. His advice is simple enough: Find a career that suits you well, and try to make a lot of money at it. Then have an exit strategy concerning a passion of yours. His was public policy. “The one thing that money does–it allows you to follow your heart rather than do a particular job,” he says.

And in his retirement, one of Arnold’s primary causes is the reform of defined-benefit public-employee pensions. He wants rules mandating timelier funding for them and thinks it might be wisest for the defined-benefit plan to disappear altogether. (This change has long since been under way in the private sector, where defined-benefit pensions covered 35% of the workforce in 1990 but only 18% of it by 2011.) Since the 2008 financial crisis, six states have introduced plans with a mandatory defined-contribution component.

The story that pension politics and the expected exhaustion of Social Security’s trust fund in 2033 tells is the same one von Tobel told me: we millennials will be on our own in retirement.

Ready-Made Suburbia

Retirement, as an institution, traces its founding to 1889, when Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, promised Germans over 70 that the state would provide them with income. It wasn’t until the 1935 signing of the Social Security Act, which endeavored to lift the elderly from poverty, that America’s retirement culture began to take shape. But it took postwar prosperity and the attendant improvement in seniors’ quality of life to vault retirement up to what it is now for the fortunate many, a round-the-clock actualization of a Jimmy Buffett song.

Retirement is, after all, sold to us from both sides: it’s not only the financial-services firms’ looming horror but also the real estate developers’ well-deserved, leisure-filled reward–the shimmering twilight years spent frivolously but guiltlessly before dotage arrives. Retirees defect, free of puritan compunction, from the Northern and Midwestern metropolises that gave them grueling if remunerative careers and head to warm climes with little industry to speak of other than condominium construction and physical therapy.

Maybe this lifestyle ought to come to an end. In search of answers, I give the Pulte Group a call. Pulte, one of America’s largest homebuilders, offers homes for prosperous active adults ages 55 and over, known as the Del Webb line. This is a name with some history. TIME put construction tycoon Del E. Webb on its cover in August 1962, heralding the rise of The retirement city: A new way of life for the old. Three years earlier, Webb had started selling houses at his Sun City development in Arizona, where in 1954 the first age-restricted residential community had cropped up. (Punning developers named it Youngtown.)

Today, even though Webb himself is 40 years deceased, about 50 still-selling 55-and-older communities bear his name. Securing my piece of these developments, or whatever their 2055 equivalent may be, is just what my new friends at LearnVest have me saving for. I had to explore. That’s how I find myself sitting shotgun in a double-length golf cart, touring Sun City Carolina Lakes, a newish development 30 minutes south of Charlotte, N.C. (Base prices start at more than $200,000, out of the range of many seniors and most assuredly out of mine.) Pam, a resident who gives tours, is behind the wheel, with Shannon, a sales VP, in back.

As we roll over the roads, statistics keep coming: 11 lakes on the property (two stocked for fishing–catch and release), eight softball teams (the primary source of business for local orthopedists, one resident jokes), four seasons (more than Florida has!), $50,000 (the state’s discount on the fair market value, for tax purposes, of homes with residents over 65). All of it, especially the last part, seems well suited for convincing stickler-y seniors.

But the social climate, more than the grounds, is what draws seniors to Sun City. In conversations with so many residents, the phrase like-minded people pops up. In exchange for surrendering lifelong friendships, the kind forged by happy accident in heterogeneous communities, seniors often seek out places where the residents act the same as them and do the same things they do. (Imagine picking a college, if college had no classes and lasted 20 years.) So the people here are mostly retired professionals, mostly friendly, mostly from the East Coast, mostly active, mostly with pensions and grandkids, mostly conservative, nearly all white.

At an afternoon cocktail hour at the home of Melissa and Rich, who came here from Columbus, Ohio, the talk is of richer lives and newfound passions. It’s important, Melissa tells me, to feel like you’re doing something meaningful after you’ve moved on from your old job and community and into a place full of people your own age. She used to be a teacher; now she works as a life coach and pursues creative arts. Barb and Joe, another couple, moved there from Erie, Pa. Joe left his government job early; Barb was reluctant to leave hers. But a friend gave her a copy of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, and she soon realized she had to leave town to grow. Joe says they know more people here than they did in Erie, where they lived for 60 years. Barb misses her friends. They keep in touch through Facebook.

The Sun City residents tell me that they cannot picture my generation wanting to retire there; apparently we don’t care for outdoor recreation. True enough. (Investment idea: Find a fixer-upper sanatorium next to an Apple Store.)

But it’s not just their immersion in screens that may scare millennials away from retirement communities. We’re also averse, I figure, to the homogeneous, ready-made suburbias the master builders have long sold. Instead, despite the prices, my generation has headed for cramped housing in diverse, historic cities. And we have done so largely in search of culture, which is hard to find at Sun City, even with Charlotte just a 30-minute drive away. Other communities have sprung up to corner the culture market–some universities have offered alumni the chance to retire on campus-adjacent developments–but that goes only so far. I can hardly fathom enjoying a life in which I interact only with people my own age, people largely just like me, with all the same cultural points of reference. Besides, I can get that free on Twitter.

Time to Save

I wanted, though, to square my assumptions with at least one senior. So I went to see the U.S.’s ranking consumer-advocate curmudgeon. “A healthy society,” Ralph Nader says, “provides opportunities across the board that send a message to the elderly: ‘We need you, we want you.’ ” Residential communities “put seniors out to pasture.”

Don’t even think about asking him about his own potential retirement date. Nader, 80, is no longer a frequent presidential candidate–his last campaign was in 2008, when he captured more than 700,000 votes–but he says he’s working harder than ever. He reads, writes, talks, advises, demonstrates, cajoles. Whatever it takes. He’s made just a few concessions to time, he says, cutting pastries out of his diet and surrendering his hopes for an uninterrupted night of sleep. Otherwise he’s the same Nader he was when he appeared on Time’s cover in 1969; he is still brimming with the blend of scorn and optimism that made him a civic leader. He still forgoes a computer in favor of his Underwood typewriter.

Nader laments the generational gap brought on by technology and, indeed, the whole retirement industry. “Take China. There’s no retirement. But older people, they’re revered for their wisdom and experience and willingness to help the young. Well, here, if you don’t know how to use an iPad,” he tells me, “you don’t have anything left for people your age.” Seniors feel lonely, burdensome, terrified of even the slightest hint of Alzheimer’s. And marketers, Nader says, prey on that anxiety. Seniors lose, and so does everyone else.

After my afternoon with Nader, I kick some of these matters to academic experts. Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, predicts that the weakened American family structure will take a particular toll on retirees in the next few decades. Adult children usually serve as seniors’ most important caregivers, but fathers who are absent during their children’s formative years will struggle to enlist them later. (More than 8 million of the 33.2 million U.S. households with children under 18 are headed by unmarried women.) Yet there is some small reason for hope, from an unlikely source. According to Cherlin, the Great Recession has brought some families together, with adult children living with their parents out of necessity. Perhaps this closeness will persist into boom times.

Ursula Staudinger, the director of the Butler Aging Center at Columbia University, says the healthiest seniors are the ones who keep working. While short-term breaks from the structure and demands of a job can improve the mind, medium- and long-term absences often lead to downturns in mental and physical health, research suggests.

The average 65-year-old, ready to collect his first Social Security check, has 20 years to live, most of them rather healthy. And scientists expect the proportion of healthy years to increase. Retirement as we have long known it wastes the healthy minds of good people. A solution, Staudinger says, might be for large American employers to allow their middle-aged workers to take sabbaticals and gradually reduce their hours as they age, as some European firms have done. But we need an attitude change first.

Retirement, I’ve learned, isn’t so much an essential social institution as it is a fun-house mirror for the old generation. In middle age, we’re all more or less the same. Everybody works, and everybody’s unhappy. But when age 65 rolls around, our differences get magnified.

In retirement, those who had good jobs can play tennis all day and work part-time: consulting, advising, expert-witnessing. But those who did manual labor without the protection of a pension plan will have sore backs and need full schedules, hoping for scraps of service labor to be thrown their way.

Trends be damned, millennials should expect fairer and better–not a blessing to drop out of society and ignore its problems. Maybe it would serve us well to give up on our mythologized retirements.

Sure, I’ll save a little more cash just in case, and I’ll tell my friends to do the same. But I’m dreaming of starting a movement. My brain feels better than ever. I can keep it that way into my 80s or 90s, I bet, if I play the right games on my iPhone. With fresh eyes and a sharp mind and a renewed sense of purpose, I look forward to spending 60-some more years as I spent this one, writing for weekly magazines.

Write to Jack Dickey at jack.dickey@time.com.

This appears in the October 27, 2014 issue of TIME.

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