A couple of weeks ago at work we had a very nice retirement party for one of my coworkers who had been with our agency for 25 years. She told us how much she was looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren. Most of all, however, she was excited about not having to work.
So many people can’t wait to retire, and I wish them well. But I have a hard time imagining freely choosing not to go to work anymore. Having experienced two year-long spates of unemployment, I am not particularly enamored of staying home. Perhaps this is because I had no income and stood in line for handouts from food banks, some of which was so rotten that we had to throw our gifts away. Perhaps I’d have a different point of view if I were receiving regular pension checks. Perhaps I’d see things in another light if I had a reasonable chance of retiring without being utterly destitute.
My sister was a housewife and mother for a couple of decades before she walked out on her husband when her kids were teenagers and suddenly found herself thrust into the world of work. She was unprepared for any type of career and ended up spending most of her divorce settlement on going back to school. Like me, she knows that she can never retire. She says she’s fine with it, however. “I had 20 years of retirement when I was young,” she tells me.
I don’t know that retirement is a good thing at all. On one hand, my parents have been retired for nearly 25 years and seem to like it just fine. On the other hand, I often see articles like this one by one of my favorite bloggers, Michael Lai, that asks the question whether early retirement is equated with early death. I suppose the jury is still out on that one, as the studies seem to yield conflicting findings.
It is said that a lack of intellectual stimulation can cause brain function to atrophy. With that in mind, one might say that thriving in retirement is a function of keeping busy with things other than work. As Michael mentions, many of us have our entire identities tied up with our work, leaving us floating in space once that tether is cut. This may be one reason that those who have devoted much of their lives to family responsibilities and maintain strong family bonds have an easier time of it in retirement than those who have little in the way of social connection.
At one point during my most recent period of unemployment, I began wondering whether I should just consider myself retired and leave it at that. We’d be poor, but we’d scrape together enough to subsist somehow. After all, who wants to hire a fiftysomething with outdated technical skills who hasn’t worked in a year? It seemed that accepting myself as retired might make me feel less of a loser than I did when I applied for hundreds of job openings and got nowhere fast.
Now that I’m working again, I’m actually glad that I’ll never be able to retire. If I could, I might be tempted to do so, and I know that it would not be a good thing for me at all.
Yes, I enjoy going to work every day. It’s not always a bed of roses, but it does give me a sense of purpose. As I admitted at a recent staff meeting, I am grateful for having a job that allows me to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Would I be able to achieve the same thing doing volunteer work in retirement? Perhaps. But it is a special feeling to know that not only am I a member of a profession that allows me to help others, but that I’m good enough at it to be well-paid for the privilege.
About a year ago, I had a philosophical disagreement with one of my coworkers about retirement. He insisted that retirement is ideal, because it allows you to pursue personal interests rather than having work sucking up all your time. I suppose this is true if one’s personal interests are diametrically opposed to what one does for a living. I once had an employee on my team who was a cage fighter and another who raised geckos. I must admit that such pursuits are a long way from working in the legal world. However, a very different picture emerges when one’s vocation and avocation are more closely related. I have plenty of hobbies that I pursue in the evenings and on weekends. I build my vacations around them. And as much as I enjoy them, I don’t think I’d want to work at them “full time.” It’s good to have some degree of balance in life, and I am fairly sure I wouldn’t have that if I were not steadily employed.
I don’t know whether it’s true that one can expect to die within a few years of retiring, but I’d really rather not find out personally. Instead, I’d prefer to continue experiencing the joy of working. And, yes, I do include the endless meetings, the time pressure and deadlines, the bosses and the coworkers, the paperwork and the politics. This lends a richness to my life that no amount of devotion to my hobbies ever could. I just hope that I’m able to remain healthy enough to keep getting up in the morning, putting on a tie and doing it again and again.
I guess you could say I’m just an old cowboy who’ll die in the saddle with a smile on his face.