Let’s take that phrase and see where it leads us, or at least leads me, because the topic of retirement has been part of a few conversations lately. Wishful thinking? Presenting one’s self with the ultimate present? A necessary next stage in life? A bit of this, that, and some other things, probably.
I have a long history with retirement than most. I retired at 38 years of age, almost three decades ago. (For a bit of that story read from my book, Dream. Invest. Live.) Then I became un-retired from what a few professionals called “A perfect storm of bad luck.” That can happen and I can tell you about it, either by directing you to read the previous twelve years of posts to this blog, or suggesting you wait until I’ve written the sequel, or both. Currently I am at least temporarily semi-retired sort of again, which is at least partly captured in these posts since November 1, 2022 when I resigned my real estate brokers license.
Flip back or throw back or trust older folks who can remember what retirement was about forty years ago. Retirement? Great! Now you can finally do all those things you want to do, but haven’t been able to. Of course, you may have worked a life-long career with the same company at nearly the same job, after graduating from school with the goals of that career and probably that spouse and that family in that neighborhood going to that church and cheering for that team.
My Mom’s doctor retired her for health reasons, so after raising a family she raised an emergency medical service for the community. (Work was a major theme in my family. Fortunately, my parents also knew how to spell vacation.) A woman couldn’t honorably retire, anyway, because that would first suggest she retired from motherhood and housewife duties.
My Dad retired because he could, barely. He’d worked multiple jobs, sometimes at the same time. I recall a period when I only saw him on Wednesday nights, Saturday after noon, and Sunday, of course. Thou shalt keep that day holy, eh? And don’t miss the game on TV. I can’t recall anyone asking him or he volunteering what he was going to do after he retired. There wasn’t much thought into what came after. People weren’t expected to live long.
My retiring at 38 was a disappointment to my Mom because I was no longer seen as being responsible. She wanted to know where she had gone wrong.
My retiring at 38 was considered an accomplishment by my Dad. He had a hard time conceiving it, but he cheered me on.
Retiring at 38 was unexpected but acceptable when I did it, but many friends didn’t know how to deal with it. Without kids or a job or a commute it became difficult to find topics to talk about. Mostly I learned to listen to their stories and sympathize.
I didn’t have a role model, so I decided to make one for myself. After a bit of research two things stood out. 1) If I wanted to keep making money, become a consultant in my previous profession or learn a new career. Some folks don’t know what to do with the extra time and eventually went back to their old job simply to keep from being bored at home. 2) Regardless of whether I wanted to make money, I was advised to take a long time getting to know who I was that wasn’t a job title. It is too easy to identify with the label on your name badge. Engineers can become artists. I decided to “Get in shape and give my wife a skinnier husband for Christmas, and hope it was me.” (Irony kicks in a few years later when I asked for a divorce. Details left out to respect privacy concerns of others who were involved.)
I soon found that I can teach karate – and then the parent organization had troubles. I was courted by a couple of companies, but they were too close to my original profession and I had even greater net worth and therefore less need. (One of those was an early entrant into the field of computer generated graphics for things like water and clouds in movies. Another was for a rocket company that had an admittedly mono-maniacal leader who wanted to have autonomous rockets that could land themselves – and it wasn’t Elon.) Along the way I realized I could write; so, I started writing about things I did: bicycling led me to write about America, hiking and skiing led me to write about nature, etc. As long as I didn’t need the money it was fine because writing has a bad business model.
(One benefit of calling myself a writer: The bar is set very low. People expect little of the work, and are impressed if you’re not like the stereotypical writer who sleeps in, drinks too much, and becomes a cantankerous eccentric who uses too many syllables.)
Now, retirement has become more about financial progress than just a chronological achievement. Even companies don’t expect employees to have life-time careers, or if they do, they can still blithely un-employ them with a tweet. Some people will have multiple careers by either choose or necessity. Starting your own business and failing is more acceptable and more a source of stories than of embarrassment. Hanging onto a bad job is also understandable if the benefits and compensation will be hard to find anywhere else. Working for the rest of you life needs a shorter title because so many are doing that to counter their bad luck whether that was personal, medical, or accidental. Companies evaporate. Too many lost savings, or didn’t save, or counted more heavily on Social Security or a pension that evaporated. Inheritances vanished to pay for health care or because a will was written differently. It is hard to maneuver through decades of life without some significant bit of bad luck arising.
That paragraph could be much longer because we’re witnessing an explosion of possibilities and necessities. The gold watches are gone, and so are the clear paths.
“What will you do when you grow up?” was a question asked of children.
“What will you do next?” and “What will you as grow old?” can be asked at any age, now.
I wonder if the R word has been asked about more lately because: 1) people are getting older (duh) and jobs are less reliable, and 2) the pandemic emphasized the ephemeral nature of any expectation except for chaos. If not now, then when? Hello, Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, Quiet Firing, and whatever label comes next.
Here I am trying to get re-retired, not because I am so financially secure that I can relax and retire (R&R), but because of my health. Working so hard to recover financially degraded several aspects of my health to the point that quitting real estate and its stresses may have long term savings in terms of living longer, better, and saving money on health care costs. The old reasons for why, when, and how to retire have become obsolete because we’re living past retirement age, we’re out-living our technologies and companies; and because retraining is acceptable, entrepreneurship has expanded with the Gig Economy. We’re generally healthy enough to do things later in life that were considered ridiculous fifty years ago.
Someone starting an exercise plan at sixty and excelling is still a story, but one that is no longer alone, but one to compare the other stories to.
I’m glad I retired at 38. Some of the consequences have been difficult (understatement), but if I stuck to a plan from my Dad’s era I would still be working for another year, at least. Then I doubt that I would manage to bicycle across America, walk across Scotland, write three books about year-round hiking and skiing in the Washington Cascades, climb Mt. Rainier, circumnavigate Mt. Rainier, climb Mt. Adams, and you already have the idea half a sentence ago.
My previous decade (I won’t call it my ‘last’ decade) has been tough, but staying in that old career was tougher. I was able to retire at 38 because I could, but also because I had to. Stress was impacting my life – and I was only 38! Would I even be alive to write this if I’d stayed? (Rhetorical but important)
For some, retirement is being redefined as entering their Redefinition phase. If that sounds awkward, it is. Check the literature and see that writers are struggling to find something as catchy as Great Resignation or Quiet Quitting.
It is understandable to aim for retirement and to measure progress against conventional criteria, metrics, and algorithms. It is good to have a plan. But we’re now in an era when you might be the one to find a path that only fits you, or that shows the way that others can follow, and that may be the next big buzzword that isn’t quite Retirement but is something better. Redefinition may not be the ultimate word, but it does a good job of defining what each of us and society have to deal with. Good luck.