Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Retiring shy

I was discussing retirement by email with someone yesterday and although they have worked for 30 years and squirreling money away in deferred comp as well as their state pension plan, she said she was afraid to retire. I wanted to know what there was to be afraid of. She said finances.

Let's see. She is about to move into a house that will cost about one-fourth of what she currently pays with about the same square footage and her retirement and deferred comp, sort of a 401K, should net her a tidy sum. I doubt she'll quit working her part time jobs. But I don't see the problem. After all, isn't retirement why everyone is working?

She said she goes back and forth. She will retire. She won't retire. She will. She won't. I told her that no choice is still a choice. She didn't know what I meant, so I explained it. Not making a choice about whether or not to retire is still making a choice, a choice to keep working and not retire because. No choice = staying right where you are, doing what you are doing. "Oh," she said.

All of this started me thinking about retirement and what it means. Retirement is like going to heaven in a way. People who believe in heaven feel like they're working for that time when they can kick back and relax and rest from their labors here on earth, maybe go fishing, or sit on a cloud and play some celestial instrument, visit with departed family and friends, or sit around praising whatever deity they believe in. It has always seemed a nebulous sort of existence to me, rather undefined and uncertain. Maybe that's how people think of retirement.

My father retired and all he could think about was going back to work. My mother filled shelves, boxes and cabinets with material, thread, yarn and crafting supplies, saying she intended to spend her retirement sewing and crocheting. She doesn't work but she doesn't sew either. She does, however, crochet sometimes while she watches endless hours of television. Lately, she has started working in the yard, something she didn't do before she retired. That was my father's domain. Most of the people I have met or know who retired are still working, some because they need the money and some because they need to feel usefully employed. Makes you wonder what they think about retirement now.

In the days before people went to offices to work and instead worked the land they didn't really think about retiring. They probably figured they'd keel over in the field while plowing or harvesting or somewhere on the farm during the endless chores, or they'd die in their sleep.

I don't plan to retire, per se. I would love to quit punching a time clock or being at some company's mercy for the rest of my days, but I always planned to spend the rest of my life writing. I don't get tired of writing and I can write just about anywhere. Maybe the thought of retirement is about a goal, a light at the end of the tunnel, an end point attached to something you don't want to spend the rest of your life doing. People who enjoy what they do don't want to have to stop, but companies have this rule about moving over for someone younger. Maybe it's time to redefine retirement.

Retirement is supposed to be a time to relax and enjoy yourself, do all the things you put off until some far away tomorrow, a time to start living. If, however, instead of retirement we transition into doing something we want to do, something we enjoy, something we can pick up and leave off whenever we get the urge to take a trip or a few days off to enjoy life, and we actually live in the meantime, then we don't need to see retirement as THE END. Retirement could be a beginning, THE beginning.

A man I interviewed several years ago had retired from some company, went back to school and got a law degree and was pleading a very important case in front of the Supreme Court and he was enjoying himself. I interviewed a woman in her nineties who still ran her family's funeral home and practiced law. I interviewed several people who worked in restaurants and security companies who loved their jobs. They said money was a factor, but mostly it was because they felt useful, like they had a purpose in life, a reason to get out of bed.

Most people need to feel useful, need to feel there is something to look forward to when they open their eyes in the morning. That doesn't mean they should keep working a job that affords them no satisfaction, no sense of accomplishment or pride. It's time we stopped thinking of retirement as an end and treat it as a beginning, a chance to venture into new territory, a time to learn a new skill or do what we've always dreamed of doing but put off because we had to earn a paycheck. Retirement could be the end of have to and the beginning of want to -- a time to enjoy life where ever and doing whatever we want.

I don't plan to retire from life, but I do plan to retire from working for someone else and working for myself as a writer. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy life until there is no more life left to enjoy. I'll either die with a pen in my hand or computer under my fingers, on my way to do research or interview someone, or I'll die in my sleep. That's my idea of retirement.

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