Photo by camilo jimenez / Unsplash

"I can't wait for retirement" could be a death sentence. One writer did the research and it's worth sharing

Fans of National Public Radio's Fresh Air might have caught this piece yesterday. I happened to be on the road, which is when I listen. Terry Gross' topics nearly always capture me; this was no fluke. For I write about Aging Vibrantly, for which this particular interview was perfect.

I strongly suggest that you either listen to or read the interview, and then consider buying the book: "Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement From Some Who've Done It And Some Who Never Will," by Steve Lopez.

In this article I'm going to highlight those parts which leapt out at me, as I am turning 70 next January. I have no plans to ever retire, which is driven in part by the fact that I love to write, and also because financially, it's not yet an option unless I can sell my home and move to a cheaper country.

Even then, I am not in the business of whiling away my hours. I love being busy and active and engaged. I would just like to do it while not being terrified that my favorite coffee creamer went up two dollars in a few months, along with everything else.

Even so, and here's the point: the idea that the moment you lay down the axe and stop chopping wood and carrying water either for yourself or a boss and you can hie off to some Paradise to drink Mai Tais for the rest of your life is, frankly idiocy. For far too many it is indeed a death sentence, if for no other reason that you and I need a purpose which makes life worth living. Having another drink and another day watching the waves wash in isn't for most of us.

That's why so many folks either run from retirement living and back to some kind of work, or they expire in short order.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

Here are the essential highlights (in bold) which I gleaned from the Fresh Air story and wanted to pass along with some of my own commentary for context:

  1. Ten thousand Boomers hit 65 every day.Whether or not you genuinely believe that sixty is the new thirty, the truth is that for the majority of us, we are facing an uncertain future in a world battered by inflation and home scarcity as well as job scarcity past a certain age. Corporations are dumping people right and left and forcing folks out barely past fifty. I have a good friend who is 53 and driving for Lyft and Uber because he can't find a coding job. He loves the coding work, is good at it, but the industry has arbitrarily decided that he's too old. So what makes us too old is now being determined by forces many of us can't control.
  2. The importance of structure. If you work week hours, for example, and find yourself lost on weekends, it may be that you hunger for more structure. When folks retire and find the endless hours of the days and years ahead terrifying, that may well be what's missing. More on this in a sec, but here's an article about structuring that might provide some inspiration.
  3. "Jesuits retire in the graveyard." This quote is from Father Greg, founder of Homeboy Industries. This quote got me where I live. For those of us driven by a singular vision or purpose, there is no such thing as retirement. That of course isn't for all of us, but for my part the larger message is that you and I have the ability to be very relevant to something/someone, whether that's a local homeless shelter, a dog rescue organization, or to people in our own families. The lack of a purpose to inspire us to locate our socks in the morning is part of what winds people down swiftly after a retirement party.  Said party, the BIG DAY, is treated like a wedding.  We focus far too much on the event and nowhere near enough on what comes afterwards.
  4. "Work is oxygen." While this isn't true for many, good work, work that we love, work that adds value, work that feeds the soul is indeed oxygen. That's why people suffocate swiftly after retirement. We need to feel necessary to something, someone. It behooves us to set that up before we shut the door on work.
  5. What works for X won't necessarily work for you. Lopez interviewed a retired couple living on a boat. They exhorted him to hurry up and do it whatever "it" was, in other words, be like us and be happy. That doesn't mean that life on a boat is right for Lopez (it isn't). Or you or me. When we buy into the photos of Portugal or some gorgeous beach in Malaysia, we are buying an idea, a sales pitch. The real-life aspect of retirement overseas, for example, or the costs to us emotionally of moving far from family and friends, aren't included in those curated photos.
  6. Train for your retirement. While Lopez doesn't say it quite this way, I will. One of his interviewees took an early retirement bonus, then all too quickly got ill. Now he's working as a cashier at a big box store near Disney in his seventies. This hits very close to home for me, as I hit 70 next January. In this regard, I mean training as in eating well, exercising much, and taking care of the brain and body so that as we age into our very late years, we don't find ourselves so burdened by medical bills that we end up flipping hamburgers. No insult to McDonald's, but that's not a retirement plan. This one is the big one- retirement is useless if you get ill, especially from poor lifestyle choices, and you can't take a day off because the bills are too high.
  7. "Think of ways in which you still matter." Lopez spoke to Nancy Schlossberg, now in her 90s, who reseached retirement because she herself hadn't done a good job of it. She's published multiple books on the topic and isn't slowing down. She looked at her own situation, realized that there were many in similar situations, and she had the skills to add value. Then she launched into mattering for those who are facing retirement. Life after sixty or seventy is, in every single way, a time when you and I can be of far greater value to others simply because we've lived life and have something to give back. What that looks like for you is unique to your skills and interests. But not mattering matters. It can, in fact, be deadly.
  8. "Sample the dream." This is superb advice at any age for any activity. I have this idea of moving to Colombia. I've been there once and will be returning multiple times, including several months at a time to get the feel of it. To live there means I MUST master Spanish, as English speakers are hard to find. Not only that, I have to learn to navigate a whole new culture. However, this is just as true for those dreams we have to learn to play the piano, taking up a brand new sport. All that can sound lovely before we retire- or at any point in our journeys, frankly. Until we are retired and now we're on that pricey boat and bored out of our brains. Taste-test what you think you're going to love. Otherwise retiring with a Grand Idea is like accepting an arranged marriage: you don't know what you're in for until the veil is lifted, and now you're committed.
  9. MAKE FRIENDS. The absence of a social circle when we retire- if we retire- means that our lives will indeed collapse in a heap shortly after leaving work. If all our friends are at work, or they are only attached to us via work, then by design we are no longer valuable to those people once we leave work. Without friends, as Lopez' daughter pointed out, he and his working wife, who is also a writer, would "kill each other." One or the other of you end up being under foot, in the way and demanding attention because your social needs didn't disappear the same day the work schedule did. That's a fine way to end up with a grey divorce. Start now: invest in people. For example, I met a retired American couple in Colombia close to my age and educational background. I've been in touch with them since, and have worked on that connection so that I have friends there when I return, and with any luck, the beginning of a new social circle if and when I move there. Starting investing outside your work circle right now.
  10. Finally, and this is from me, not the article, Be prepared to be treated differently when you are old. While this is obvious, what that translates to may not be obvious until you're there. No matter what your professional credentials, no matter who you were before you got older, your age and the widespread, sick ageism in our society will touch you if not trample you entirely. This article speaks to that unspeakable behavior, which is likely to affect us all. Start dealing with and planning for this now, not after you're already grey and being disregarded entirely.

Before you and I do the happy dance on retirement day, let's make sure we're creating the next life before we are shoved, utterly uprepared, into a world which neither recognizes us nor do we recognize it. How you do that is up to you, if in fact retirement is even an option. If it is, this is an article/book worth reviewing.

Retirement to a chair by the ocean is wholly unnecessary, in that way we understand it. However, moving into the next chapters, and there are plenty of them, is necessary. Whether you retool how you work, or do a complete retool of your entire life, this part of your existence deserves even more care and thought than planning for a marriage and kids or whatever an early dream might have been.

It is, after all, possibly the most powerful time of your entire life, when you can add ever so much more value because you have the most to give.

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