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96-year-old Iris Apfel: 'Retirement is a fate worse than death'

CNBC logo CNBC 4/27/2018 Kathleen Elkins
Iris Apfel © Provided by CNBC Iris Apfel

Iris Apfel is more than three decades past the average retirement age in the U.S. But the 96-year-old fashion icon who has built a personal brand with a cult-like following isn't planning on slowing down anytime soon.

"For me, retirement is a fate worse than death," she tells Money. "I've seen so many people, especially in a place like Palm Beach, who worked so hard in their lives, and they come down here cold turkey, and then one day wake up and they realize how vacuous their lives are now. I mean it isn't funny, I've seen it with my own eyes!"

Apfel, who started her career in the 1940s as a "copy girl" before launching a luxury fabric and design business with her husband Carl, saw much of her fame and success in her golden years.

"My first big job in beauty and fashion came when I was at the tender age of ninety," she writes in her 2018 book, "Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon." "I'm the oldest living broad that ever graced a major cosmetics campaign," continues Apfel, who developed a limited edition collection of make-up for MAC cosmetics for the winter of 2011.

When her husband died in 2015, her work took on a new significance, she tells Money: "He really pushed me into this. So I decided I wouldn't just stay at home and cry all day. I'm working harder than I ever did in my life."

Today, she juggles book signings and press calls with work on her line of apparel, jewelry and shoes for the Home Shopping Network.

The 96-year-old never thinks about her age, she writes in her book, and "maybe that's the ticket. I never think about it — it's a passing thought. It's just a number. … I've found that work is very healthy for me. I love what I do and I put my heart and soul into it."

It's true that "gettin' old ain't for sissies," Apfel admits. But so what? "You start falling apart, but you just have to buck up and paste yourself together. You may not like getting older, but what's the alternative? You're here. Embrace it."

While working into your late 90s isn't feasible for most people, there's something to say for working past the average retirement age of 63.

As personal finance maven Suze Orman points out on Money, Americans are living longer, meaning your retirement savings need to last longer: "You likely have plenty saved up to breeze through 15 years or so of retirement. But, people, if you stop working in your 60s, your retirement stash might need to support you for 30 years, not 15."

Ultimately, if you want a secure retirement, start thinking about how you can prepare now to work longer later, says Orman, who suggests that "70 is the new retirement age."

As for how to maintain energy as you continue to age and work, "if you want to stay young, you have to think young," writes Apfel. "Having a sense of wonder, a sense of humor, and a sense of curiosity — these are my tonic. ... I hold the self-proclaimed record for being the World's Oldest Living Teenager and I intend to keep it that way."

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