Some thoughts on retirement

In the past some-odd years I have had a lot of conversations about retirement.  I’ve thought a lot about it over the years.  Of course, I don’t know first hand (its still 20 years away!) but I thought I had some interesting thoughts about it based on observations and what I saw.

What made me begin to think about it was how I was hearing how everyone “couldn’t wait” to retire, particularly the generation before me.  They acted like it was going to be a paradise and they were going to live happily ever after.  This made me wonder where they got these ideas.

This desire, though, is not surprising as I’ve heard many people, in my life, moan and groan about having to go to work.  In other words, there’s a general dislike toward work.  What’s interesting is that the dislike toward work is very prevalent with the post WWII baby boom generation who preached the ‘work ethic’.  This generation is also the first generation to be brought up with consumerism and, as a result, has a self-pleasing quality about them.  It’s really no wonder why they see retirement as a paradise:  that’s when they will be able to ‘please’ themselves.  But its also ironic because they generally preach the ‘work ethic’, of how great work is.  Quite a few from this generation, that I know, would go out of their mind if they had nothing that they can do.  For many of them this will lead into a conflict in retirement, of the ideal of ‘having to work’ and the ‘dream of not working’.  These often lead to conflicts and inabilities to cope, leading to despair, depression, apathy, and even a premature death.  Often, when they retired, guys with the ‘work ethic’ found themselves useless, worthless, and not needed anymore.  This, as I found out, could be devastating.  Many, I feel, often died earlier than they should have as a result.  But this conflict, from what I have seen, is largely ‘unspoken’.  No one speaks about it.  Its part of the ‘silent retirement dilemma’.  I’m about the only one, that I know, who speaks about it as a reality.

A lot of the silence that surrounds this dilemma seems largely a result of their the ideas of how ‘great’ retirement will be.  Despite what happens noone seems that willing to destroy that image.  In fact, I found a great denial and refusal to admit of any dilemma by many people, even though they may be suffering its effects. 

But, regardless of this, its always made me wonder where they got the idea that retirement was going to be ‘great’.  I’ve questioned that point of view for a number of reasons:

  • When you retire you’re old and can’t do much.  This is not the best of conditions for a ‘paradise’.
  • They have no idea what retirement is like.  I don’t know anyone who knew what to expect from it but they had their mind set:  . . . a ‘paradise’.
  • Retirement is a complete life change.  It’s a complete change of ones lifestyle which one has been living for decades, oftentimes.  This type of a situation, generally, leads to problems and conflicts, not a paradise.
  • What does one intend to do with all that time, particularly when it goes on for year after year?  Some people were so unrealistic as to think they’d golf or fish all day, everyday, I guess for years! 

Basically, for many of these people, moving into retirement would be like moving into an unknown world and an unknown reality.  They generally haven’t a clue what to expect.  Remember . . . this is a complete dropping of the lifestyle one has lived for decades and accepting a new life . . . and this in old age!  In some cases, the ‘new retired life’ is so different that it can create something like a ‘culture shock’, or “retirement shock” that some people can spend years trying to overcome. 

Despite this, there is a common belief in the ‘retirement paradise’.  This, at least from my observation, seldom materializes.  Many retired people, I’ve found, discover this fact and will even try to talk themselves into thinking that this is not the case.  Whenever you ask them they say they are “loving retirement” but when you get to know them you find depression and a sense of loss a common theme.  This shows, to me, that there is an extensive “retirement myth“, of a denial of the actual conditions of retirement.

It seems to me that a ‘good retirement’ doesn’t just happen, as many people think.  Quiting work does not automatically bring the paradise they hoped for.  My observation is that a person has to work just as hard in retirement, to make retirement meaningful, than when they were working.  In some ways and cases, you have to work harder.  Naturally, all this varies with the person.  Some people, almost naturally, make retirement meaningful.  Others, will never attain it.  Most, I think, have to struggle for it, in varying degrees depending on the person and their situation.

Overall, though, I think it is silly to automatically assume retirement will be ‘great’.  I’ve always felt that the best way to prepare for retirement is right now, by developing a good attitude about life and work.  In short, if you can’t be happy now, while working, then you won’t be happy in retirement.  Retirement is just a continuation of the you live now.  As a result, what you have now will be ‘carried over’ into retirement.  If you can’t develop it now, then you probably won’t develop it in retirement.

Retirement, as I said above, is a life change . . . and its sudden.  One minute you’re working, a pattern you’ve been doing for decades.  The next minute next you’re not.  This is no small affair.  This is a MAJOR CHANGE, nothing to look at lightly.  I’ve always felt that its not good to do such a major life change so suddenly.  I always felt its not good to cease what you’ve been doing for decades.  Retirement, I thought, should NOT be a complete stopping of work, as many people think, but a GRADUAL SLOWING DOWN.  In reality, what you’re doing is adjusting your lifestyle to fit the conditions of getting older.  Many of us have already been doing this, in other ‘milder’ ways, since at least our 40’s.  We aren’t as active, don’t exert ourselves that much, avoid strenuous work, etc.  These are all part of the ‘gradual slowing down’ that happens with aging.  Retirement, meaning the quiting of full-time work, is just a phase in that ‘gradual slowing down’ . . . and it doesn’t end there.  As we grow older, after retirement, the ‘gradual slowing down’ continues and we must continue to do other ‘slowing down’ measures as a result.  It may even get to the point that some of us may end up sitting in a chair all day!  This is because we have to adjust our lifestyle to fit our age.  This is a part of aging.  In the first part of our life, our age tends to make us more active.  Then, in the later part of our life, our aging makes us less active.  That’s the way it is.  We have to adjust.  In a way, once we have to ‘slow down’ in life we are all beginning the ‘retirement phase’ of our life, and this will get more and more pronounced as we age.  Because of this, retirement (quiting work) should not be done as a ‘sudden act’ but as part of this process of ‘gradually slowing down’.  I always thought a good scenario would be to quit your full-time job and get another part-time job, probably one that is not too demanding.  This way, its not ‘sudden’.  Then, perhaps, you can quit that after awhile, or even get another that fits your condition better.   With this, its a slow gradual slowing down and its not a drastic life change. 

I tend to think that the main thing is to adjust our lifestyle to our age.  If you can still do something, then do it.  If you can’t, then don’t.  It also means that you don’t just quit doing things because your “retired”.  In my opinion, retirement is not an excuse to not participate in life.  Just because your retired doesn’t mean you cease contributing to society and life.  Retirement means a slowing down in life, not an escape from life.  Many people, I’ve found, seem to think retirement means they no longer are in ‘life’.  They as if hide in a hole, thinking that this will spare them all the problems of ‘life’.  I think this attitude of ‘retirement-as-an-escape-from-life’ is unhealthy and bad.  All retirement means, in my opinion, is that you slow down.  Accordingly, one should SLOW DOWN in retirement.  That’s all.

A great problem I see in retirement is apathy.  I’ve seen some bad examples of this over the years.  Apathy is particularly gruesome because it is like a hole that is hard to get out of.  It is also something that can come up on you suddenly, without warning.  It seems to me that a lot of the struggle of retirement is trying to avoid apathy

Many people think they can ‘keep busy’.  My personal feelings is that no one should assume that.  We may remain ambitious for a while, which may give it the illusion that we will continue to remain ambitious.  But ambition can decrease over a long period of time, slowly fading with the years.  In can come so slowly that we don’t even notice its happening.  This is why it might be good to plan it as if we have no ambition and will ‘sink’ into apathy. 

Some things to avoid apathy include:

  • Have something that ‘pushes you’.  This makes it so that you have to do things or have to be somewhere at a specific time.   This, usually, is something like work, though, and is basically a variation of it.  Oddly, this ‘pushing’ quality of work is one of the things that makes work so unappealing, making a lot of people want to retire.  Because of this, it is ironic that we need to find similar conditions we found in ‘work’ (the ‘pushing’) in retirement, but we do.  Things that can cause a ‘pushing’ are a job, social activities (like volunteering), family duties, various activities (such as hobbies), having a routine, etc. 
  • Develop a structure in life.  It’s good to have a pattern in ones life, a routine, or format of how one lives on a daily basis.  This structure helps us to remain a certain way and keep us who we are.
  • Participate in life.  Don’t hide from life or avoid it. Do things, go places, experience things.  In retirement we want to continue to live, just more slowly, according to what our age allows. 
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