Retirement or no retirement, that seems to be a question these days

The expression “Freedom 55” has gone the way of the dodo, and there are more and more articles about 70 being the new 60. Retirement age is being pushed back, and (some) people talk about not being able to imagine life without work. What would they do? It’s all they know; it’s who they are (in their own minds). Just last week, Margaret Wente, in her occasionally insightful although often irritating column in the Globe and Mail, wrote about how her husband, about to turn 70, simply can’t get the hang of being retired and keeps going back to work.

There are plenty of reasons for why many people are working longer than they might have expected to. Some need (or want) the money. Some love the interaction with their work colleagues and would miss that. Some sincerely find fulfillment in their work that keeps them at it. I understand all these reasons. But make no mistake, 70 is not the new 60, not unless you were an unusually tired and worn-out 60. It is true that far more people have good health into their 70s, 80s, and even beyond, but not everyone. And a 70 year-old body has had 70 years of wear and tear. Sorry, folks, but that wear and tear does start to make its presence known! Just ask the people in their 60s and 70s who are lined up for hip and knee replacements.

This post is not meant to be a downer, not at all. Quite the contrary; it is intended to remind you to live without regrets. So please keep in mind that some of the things you love to do in your early 60s may or may not be possible in later years: skiing, hiking, tennis, running, even golf and distant travel. Don’t put off today what you may not be able to do tomorrow. If you keep working – which I really do understand – think about carving out more time for non-work activities, whether it’s travel that you’ve put off for years, volunteering with a charity that is important to you, or spending more time with family. You just never know when time for those experiences or your ability to do them will run out. As I said, live without regrets. And it will be good practice for full retirement.

Reading Margaret Wente’s column about her husband’s impatience with changing course reminded me of my own experience of retiring and then returning to work. I retired from an all-consuming job of university administration when I was 64. My husband had been retired for a few years at that time and I had had a chance to see just how many interests he was able to turn into serious pursuits once he had the time. Some were interests I didn’t even know he had! Watching him become a fulfilled, self-directed retired person gave me hope for myself. And there is no doubt about it, I found all kinds of wonderful new paths to explore, including blogging!

And then, unexpectedly, after five full years of retirement, I was asked to return to work for a year, back to the all-consuming world of work. A world that starts first thing in the morning (which for me is harder than having it go until late at night). It was a role that I was familiar with and I knew that for one year I could manage it. I must have been doing OK, because after a few months on the job I started getting signals that things were going well and “they” thought it would be good for me to keep going when the year was up. At first I was a bit flattered, and just smiled and replied, “I don’t think so.” But when I had heard this from more than one source, more than once, I started to get nervous. I knew very well what retirement was like, and I knew very well what working all the time was like. My husband saw me off, pursued his exercise programs, went out on his bike with his camera and then spent hours with Photoshop, played bridge with friends, read, and pursued other activities and responsibilities, then had wine and chips ready when I finally rolled back in the door.  Hmm, quite divergent lifestyles.  It’s amazing what you can do when you know there’s an endpoint; losing control of my endpoint became increasingly disconcerting. And so, in order to bring clarity and a solid endpoint back to my employment gig, I sent a message to the powers that be explaining why, as pleased as I was that my efforts were perceived as helpful, I could not entertain continuing past my agreement of one year. I itemized why; these were my stated reasons, in no particular order:

  1. In January, I will be 70 and my husband will be 76 older. My parents died when they were 53 and 57. Several of our friends died in their 60s and 70s. I do not have the stamina to work F-T and around the clock. I can manage one year, but that’s it.
  2. This year I am giving up seeing our grandchildren as often as we’d otherwise do.
  3. This year I am giving up travelling with my brother and sister-in-law as often as we’d otherwise do.
  4. This year I am giving up exercise, singing, my French lessons, my philosophy group, my reading club, writing my blog, writing and illustrating children’s books for my grandchildren, quilting, and more sleep.
  5. This year I am giving up seeing very much of my friends, who are the same age I am.
  6. This year I am giving up spending more time with my husband.
  7. This year I also seem to be giving up ever feeling relaxed!

They heard me, and I re-retired at the end of that contract year. For the record, it took me a full year to get back into the rhythm of being a successful retired person again, and that from someone who already knew how to make retirement work. I share this experience so that those of you who are close to retirement – and those of you who are years from retirement – will know that there are plenty of options for people after the “traditional” retirement age, including pursuing new interests or renewing lifelong interests that you haven’t had time for, and tending the ties that bind. Most of us find that we don’t have enough time in retirement to do all the things we want to do; we still have to pick and choose. What’s truly liberating is that the choices you make are up to you. Give yourself a chance to try it!

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11 Responses to Retirement or no retirement, that seems to be a question these days

  1. Roy McCarthy says:

    My worry is with those who have tough, manual jobs who can’t reasonably be expected to work into older age. They are the ones that generally need the money too. I’d sooner retire but I think I’d drift too easily into laziness.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      That is a very, very valid concern, Roy. There will indeed be many people in jobs that are physically demanding who don’t necessarily have the luxury of retiring ‘well’ when their bodies tell them that it’s time (or they become injured). That’s where having ‘progressive’ social policies should play a role, a concept that seems to be embraced far more by some countries than others. Re you retiring, as long as you can find the time to run, write, stay social, and get enough sleep, then working is working for you! 🙂

  2. I look forward to your blog posts Jane; your mind is fertile and many of your opinions and observations, I share. I have now been retired for 3 years with no intention of ever going back to work.

    This morning before I met a former colleague for lunch, I contacted the producer of Information Morning to work out some details of the piece I will be doing for them next week as Wolfville’s Community Contact; I confirmed with Acadia Life Long Learning the details of the History course that I will start auditing in January, I upped my MSF monthly donation ( I cannot imagine going abroad to work with them at 68 but I want to support their work as much as I can) and I called one of my choir director’s to confirm I was singing with her again in January. Then I took the long-cut and walked to lunch where my former colleague disclosed that she is in active treatment for metastasized breast cancer, she is 51. I was able to let her know that I had both the time and desire to support her. When we parted she hugged me and said she loved me.

    That’s what it means to be retired; I am still probably too busy but I choose the things I do. And my life has plenty of meaning.

    Jill

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hi Jill. Thanks for reinforcing the message and especially for your emotional and important example. That indeed is what we need more of, whether it’s through retirement, partial retirement, or just realigning one’s life priorities to spend more time on tending to the ties that bind. And that is all about having time to tend to personal relationships. Sadly, we often are reminded of this when we are a friend/family member’s funeral and think. “I wish I had taken the time to connect more often.” Re being too busy, when I got my rhythm back, I couldn’t find the time to take up my French lessons again; I am spending that time instead with “my” Syrian family, which is enormously rewarding. I like your reference to the “long-cut”. And btw, Anne Rimmer says she really enjoyed the time she spent with you and Wayne. Thank you. FB. 🙂

  3. DM says:

    Love this post Jane! My mother-in-law looked me in the eye when she was in her early 60’s (having just buried her husband/ my father-in-law) to do the things I desired now while I can and not put them off to some later date that may never come. At that point, she was planning a trip to Ireland with a female friend… She herself passed away just a year or two after that conversation… there are no guarantees and as you have already pointed out, even if we do get to live longer than our parents, our bodies can start giving us fits at any time…I need to get my 1000 mile walk in while I still can….(I want to retrace the route of the Scottish pioneers that settled in our area..they came in 1839 from the Red River area to Scotch Grove Iowa…on foot and pulling 2 wheeled carts with an ox. I want to make this trek so bad I can almost taste it. 😉 DM

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for the reinforcement, Doug. What perfect examples. Your mother-in-law gave you excellent advice. Oh my gosh, I love your bucket list goal. So let me get this straight, you have “run one mile” on your list and walk 1000 miles with oxen and 2-wheel carts?! Does your wife know about this dream??! 😉 If you really want to do this, my husband agrees that you should start right away. He also wonders if you have much experience handling oxen!! 🙂

      • DM says:

        Wife does know about this one 🙂 Tell the hubby, I wouldn’t include the ox and cart on the gig…just walk it. (there have been people who have recreated 500 miles of this trek with an ox and cart (see this link for example: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2007/07/05/pembinaoxcarttrail @ this point I am trying to firm up the route, and have put out some feelers for sponsors..so far no takers..(I would need to take 2 to 3 months off work to pull this off) So until the financial component begins to come together,it will have to remain a desire.

  4. Well done-so well explained what going back to work is like. I also was asked to return, but after I made a mental image of what this would like-I declined even though I was pleased to be asked. I am particularly struck by your statement of readjusting back to retirement after you had worked for that year. It does make sense that you have to adjust to retirement and that takes time. So readjusting also makes sense.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for adding your own experiences, Fran. It sounds like you knew enough about yourself to make that wise decision. For me, watching older (and younger) friends losing mobility – and far worse – and suddenly having their world and options become severely constrained (or ended) has made me realize that one just never knows what’s ahead. Not to be morbid in the slightest, but there’s a time to stop being sucked in by always working. Especially if you want to try running a marathon!! 😉

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