A father said his teenage son took an aptitude test and was found to be well suited to retirement. Teenagers may be behaving normally when they sleep till noon and spend the rest of the day recumbent in front of the TV surrounded by junk food. For adolescents such behaviour does little harm as long as there is a responsible adult throwing a tantrum in the background about doing something with their lives. The tantrum will be white noise to the teenager for a while, but eventually the threat of being thrown onto the street will have the desired effect and the teenager will begin to move. Leg by leg.
But when you are newly retired, who plays the role of the responsible adult? If you google “retirement”, chances are you will find lists of things retired people do : gardening, volunteering, clipping grocery coupons, shopping, travelling, DIY, babysitting. Boring things. Retirement now represents 25% of our life on average and possibly much, much more, and yet after fifty it looms as the next major life “goal”, a fact which is largely culturally imposed, since the State dictates that at 65 we stop working and start travelling and playing golf.
We need to ask ourselves whether retirement is going to live up to our expectations. Asked what he missed most about working, a newly retired man quipped, “My weekends”. It gets to you when every day is Saturday. Work provides social support that we rarely appreciate when juggling a family and earning a living, and also provides for our basic needs in a way a pension sometimes does not. When we work we get:
· Physiological perks – food, water, shelter. These benefits can be increased with promotion or more work.
· Security. Retirees sometimes lose employer health care benefits or other plans that can provide useful resources.
· Belonging. Social events, intelligent conversation and defending workers’ rights provide a ready-made community that makes us feel part of a family. This disappears when we leave work.
· Esteem. The sense of a job well done, rewards, recognition – there is far less scope for these in retirement.
· Self-actualisation. Work encourages us to go bigger and better. Learning new skills in retirement may leave us thinking, but really what’s the point?
In a world where it’s possible to live past 100 we have to prepare for a 40 year retirement, both mentally and financially. There is something outdated about a system that makes us time-poor money-rich when we’re working and then quite suddenly money-poor and time-rich when we hit retirement age. Tim Ferris in The 4-Hour Workweek advocates mini-retirements throughout life, relocating to different places for one to six months. He claims, “it is quite possible to have financial and time freedom but still be caught in the throes of the rat race”. The obvious two objections to this lifestyle are schooling for one’s children and the need to earn the money now while we still can, since many jobs are simply no longer available to people over retirement age, under law. But he is right that the division of one’s life into education – work – retirement lends it a bell shape that ends at zero on the x axis. Even if you could afford an exclusive nursing home, anticipating assisted living is setting ourselves up for infirmity. A social worker in the south of England once commented that as soon as the elderly move into a bungalow their health takes a turn for the worse. Healthy elderly people can be as happy and active as younger employed adults, and so continuing to do some kind of work into your 80s and beyond is the surest retirement strategy for health and fulfilment. At the same time it is not a good idea to hand responsibility for one’s pension entirely over to the state; canny investments and above all property can double the amount you can expect once you are no longer “allowed” to work.
There is a strong social taboo still about continuing to work and not “moving over” for the young. But there is no need to work flat out, or even to work for a huge salary. We need a new word for retirement – “freedom phase” might do it. The point is having a project.