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Leisure: A Reward Deferred Too Long?

AT 8:30 on weekday mornings, commuter traffic whizzes past the gates of a high-rise condominium not far from the Gulf of Mexico. But inside the stucco compound, carports remain full. Most residents are still at home, reading the morning paper or savoring a leisurely breakfast. Except for the presence of a few people out for an early walk, only the occasional squawk of sea gulls or the splash of fish jumping in the lagoon breaks the morning stillness. This is the tempo of Florida retirement - a relaxing pace all but unknown to anyone whose days begin with jarring alarm clocks and rush-hour commutes. It is an idealized way of life that for many workers has long represented the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow - the hard-earned reward for decades of responsibility on the job and at home.

Yet to a frequent visitor whose own retirement is still more than 15 years away, the contrast between the world of all-consuming work and this world of never-ending leisure can produce contradictions and confusion. It also raises questions about future patterns of retirement. I find myself wondering: When it is my generation's turn to collect social security and pensions, will we be able to afford this kind of full-time leisure, our own prolonged stay in the sun?

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Already the social security system has been changed so that retirees in the 21st century will have to wait until age 67, rather than 65, to qualify for full benefits. During the 1980s a small but growing number of companies also cashed in their pension funds, depriving employees of an essential form of retirement income.

In addition, labor analysts predict that contract employment - the use of temporary workers - will be one of the fastest-growing fields for the '90s. Although being a member of what is called the contingent work force offers employees the advantage of flexibility, it carries a dangerous tradeoff - the disadvantage of no benefits, no pension, no job security.

As employment patterns change, and as longevity increases, the current all-or-nothing approach to careers - 35 to 40 years of full-time work, followed by 20 or more years of full-time leisure - seems increasingly outmoded. We need a major restructuring of the workplace - one that will allow a better balance between the demands of work and the benefits of play. The rhythms of life need a more harmonic orchestration - a tempo between too-fast and too-slow.

``I don't know which is worse,'' one retired woman in Florida says softly, ``having too much to do or not enough.''

Ideally, American business would begin by adopting the European model of vacations, where five weeks is the legal minimum in many countries. Another alternative would be to follow the academic model by allowing unpaid sabbaticals, giving employees time off to study, travel, read, and relax, freed for a significant period from the shackles of a rigid 9-to-5 routine.

At a time when even short-term parental leave remains only a dream for many new mothers and fathers, the prospect of large-scale corporate changes like these is probably slim. But a balance begs to be struck.

Demographers point out that Florida, where 17 percent of the population is over 65, represents a microcosm of what the rest of the country will look like in 30 years. Yet it is hard to imagine an entire nation adopting slogans like the one devised for the retirement community of Sun City, Fla., which promoters have described as a town ``Where fun is a full-time job.''

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This division of life into sequences of hurry-up and slow-down makes a mockery of both work and leisure. The person who works and the person who plays long to sing a duet.

Bringing retired workers back into the work force on a part-time basis is already a growing practice. In addition to providing economic benefits, it recognizes that the desire to be needed and useful does not end with a gold watch and a pension check - or a move to the Sunbelt.

But what about the other end of the problem?

It's time to recognize that just as a city requires parks and other green oases, the soul of the worker requires breathing space too - here and now.

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