“Retirement” – the New Four Letter Word

My chair is waiting….

Retirement.  For those of us born between WW2 and the Vietnam war, the idea of retirement has been a much-anticipated rite of passage.  I’ve been thinking a lot about retirement lately, and realize that with the thinking comes a lot of four-letter words – plan, save, work, care, home, self, and a few that I can’t type here! It started me thinking about how many of us Gen-X’ers have spent our lives working toward a moving target.

We are allowed to drive a car at age 16, become legal adults at 18, drink alcohol at 21, and then voila! We are adults.  Then, we work.  We work for the next 40 years, while we find our partners, buy our houses, raise our children and, using the new terminology, we spend our lives “adulting.”  To what end?  Our paycheck says that we contribute 7% of our gross income to this thing called FICA, which we are told will fund this elusive, restorative and luxurious thing called….retirement.  Politics and policies aside, and even though our FICA contributions actually are used to directly fund those already receiving it (which is a whole different blog entry), we labor under the idea that if we work hard for 40 years, we have a system in place that will allow us to leave the workforce and enjoy the rest of our lives in leisure.

Here’s the thing, though.  As soon as our kids can talk, we start asking about what they want to do “when they grow up.”  Parents and grandparents start this conversation in elementary school and ask every year thereafter.  School counselors are employed to ensure we complete our education and become productive members of the workforce. 

Sure, we all want to be ballerinas, firemen, astronauts, or surgeons.  I wanted to work in the post office because I loved stamping things!  For the next 20 years, we attend schools that teach us how to “be something.” We take personality and career inventories to find the best careers fit for our temperaments and skill sets.  We graduate with degrees that prove our skill set and predict our career path.  Then we’re off to the races!

Many of us become our profession. Just go to a cocktail party, first date or another social gathering where we meet someone new.  After initial introductions, what’s the next question?  If I ask you to tell me about yourself, what’s your response?  Do you tell me your favorite color, that you love to cook, or that you stubbed your toe in third grade so badly that it now looks like the crook of a Bo-Peep costume?  Nope.  You tell me your profession.  Perhaps it awards you status, or offers a context for future conversations.  Our professions give us value and meaning.  We assign social status to certain careers.  We create a narrative that goes along with someone’s job title, even though it may not be true.  It also depends on the audience.  Does your opinion of me change if I tell you that I am a teacher vs. a professor of gerontology?  What if I went even further and told you I was an ordained minister!!  It depends on your experience and perspective, right?

Tis’ not just about job status, though, it’s also about taking meaning from the work we do, making friends in the workplace, comraderie – even in the worst situations.  We live in this world, for better or worse, for the bulk of our adulthood.  If you’re a full time worker, that’s 2040 hours a year.  If we work for 40 years, that’s 81,600 hours of our lives.  If each year of our lives is 8760 hours, and we spend 2920 asleep (assuming 8 hours), 2140 at work and another 3700 hours cramming everything else into our lives (parenting, domestics, commuting, etc.)  That means that roughly one-third of our lives is spend “doing what we do.” 

In a not so elegant segue to the topic of leisure, let’s talk about what we do when we aren’t at work.  What do you do now?  How much time do you spend watching the television, surfing the internet?  Outside of our two weeks alotted vacation time, we tend to establish patterns in our lives.  A typical day of many of my friends begins with two hours of preparation for the day (shower, food, parenting, and commute) followed by an eight-hour workday, followed by a commute home and an evening of food preparation, consumption, and cleanup, followed by…..electronics.  Sleep.  Repeat.  The intensity of the home time can fluctuate depending on the age of children.   For many, the Normal Rockwell picture of the family at the dinner table is complete fantasy as we pull through the drive-thru for an in-the-lap meal, on the way to extracurricular or social activities.  It’s not worse than before.  It’s just different.  It’s awfully busy.  Is it, however, teaching us what the heck to do when all of that ends?

It’s no wonder that we have terms like “midlife crisis” or “empty nest syndrome.”  These are a very real phenomenon for those who find their personal meaning in roles that are malleable.  We will always be a parent, but where we always need them, those darn kids don’t always need us!  We may get to age 45 or 50 and realize that there is more life behind them than ahead.  What about all of those dreams we had?  Let’s try to fill them now!  I assure you that the transition at midlife is real, but where some of us laugh at the sags and bags, others of us just freak out.  We do our best to find meaning, fill quiet space or recapture our sense of youth by hopping on that motorcycle or leaving our middle-aged spouses and pursuing new romance and passion.  No judgment.  It’s just a thing.  However, if we don’t navigate the waters carefully, we won’t learn in time to apply our experience to the next phase in our lives.  Retirement.

For those of us in the Baby Boom and Generation X groups, we grew up anticipating the magic time when we’ve worked long enough and can enjoy a lifetime of choice, recreation, and leisure.  If we have saved and invested appropriately, we may have that choice.  More and more of us are realizing that we are not going to have the retirement that our parents had.  We haven’t accumulated the wealth that our parents did.  We grew up in a time of economic prosperity, and enjoy conspicuous consumption without a philosophy of saving.  The average Baby Boomer has less than $10,000 in savings by the time they reach age 55, and will simply not have enough time in the workforce to save the million dollars that it will take to retire comfortably at age 65 and live the 20 years that trends predict. 

Let’s assume that we can retire, though.  What are we going to do?  It sounds utterly luxurious to have options, and the resources to make choices about when, what, and where we are going to do whatever we are going to do.  However, think about the last time you went on vacation.  How long did it take before you were ready to come home?  Think of retirement as one…neverending…vacation.

Yeah.  Right now, that probably sounds pretty darn great.  However, there’s a bigger picture.  If we have defined ourselves by our careers, made our social connections through our professions, or spent so much of our lives invested in projects and outcomes, we may run the risk of feeling a bit adrift when that goes away.  “What does a fireman become when he retires?”  The answer?  A retired fireman.  How many of us will hold on to the badge of our profession?  My academic’s hat wants me to delve into a lengthy discussion of role theory and how research shows that those of us who maintain a sense of self through role adaptation report higher levels of life satisfaction….but I won’t.  Instead, I’ll summarize by saying that there is a direct link between having a sense of purpose and being a happy retiree.  That does NOT mean that we need to be busy all of the time, just that we have a reason to get out of bed each day.

The beauty of retirement for many comes from the right to choose.  There is something refreshing about having options, and steering one’s own ship through life.  Imagine what it would be like to get up in the morning and decide how you were going to spend your time, with one option being to do absolutely nothing. 

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