I should be an expert at retirement; I’ve done it so many times.
When I’m asked, “When are you going to retire?”—as I often am at seventy-four—I usually try to avoid the question by responding, “I just want to retire before they ask me to.” I am coming up on my seventy-fifth birthday, and I have practiced medicine—mostly in psychiatry—for fifty years. It seems like a benchmark, a reasonable time to pull the plug on my working life.
Feeling some pressure from my kids, I Googled “retirement planning,” which generated over a million hits for financial planning and an abundance of pop-up ads for wrinkle cream, revealing the two most basic worries about getting older: Will I have enough money to retire and the good health to enjoy it? In my Google search, I found little about the emotional aspects of retiring.
I’m blessed to have had a career I love, and one that doesn’t demand much physically, so I continue practicing. But I am haunted by the gremlin of diminished skills and recognize that at some point, I’ll have to give it up. I recently informed my employer of my retirement date and started planning a big retirement party. Almost immediately I began to have questions: Have I really retired if I continue to do a little work on the side? What if I want to write another book or speak about the one I’ve written. Does consulting count? What about the podcast I’ve been thinking about? I began to feel like a retirement hypocrite.
Perhaps you’re thinking about retiring, too. Do you hate your job? Are your workdays stretching out in an infinite line before you? Has life become a boring routine of commuting to work, working, eating lunch at your desk, working some more, commuting to your home or to the gym or a bar, then sleeping to store up energy for another day? Do you feel you’re no longer really living the life you intended? Has your employer made your retirement decision for you?
Some people have settled into a routine that is comfortable and predictable for them. One man commented to me that he had worked at a mind-numbing assembly line job for thirty years, but that for him, the light at the end of the employment tunnel was the “golden handcuffs” of the retirement benefits package. His job was a means to an end, and he had varied interests and social circles that enriched and gave meaning to his life. But for others, the lack of spontaneity causes them slowly to begin to feel they are dying inside. They settled into a routine but later began to question the mechanical nature of their lives. They envy those who are spontaneous and live in the moment, moving from one excitement to the next without commitment. But a truly hedonistic lifestyle also can leave one feeling alone and dead inside.
A few decades ago, working at an organization for twenty to forty years was not uncommon. A loyal employee made a commitment to his or her organization in return for a pension and health benefits for life. But that happens less often now. While some of these long-term employments still exist, lifetime employment is nearly dead and is unlikely to come back. Today, many older workers feel as if they are nothing more than a commodity that can easily be replaced by a younger (and cheaper) employee. Yet statistics show that the median number of years workers had been with their current employer dropped between 2014 and 2016. Median employee tenure was longer among older workers than younger ones, with a larger percentage of older workers having had ten years or more of tenure.
No One Way, One Day, or One Time
Whichever route you choose to retirement, at some point you come to a period between retirement age and old age that some have called “the third age”: a time after paid work ends and before fragility and dependency force a retreat from society.
I have sometimes envied my contemporaries who had a designated retirement date and a secure pension. Occasionally, I regret not having lived more frugally. The decisions I made were right at the time I made them, although they may seem less “right” now. But regret is a horrible waste of time.
Not everyone has the freedom to choose when and why to retire. Some—women more than men—are not financially prepared to stop working. (Ads for financial planners are of no value for those who have no finances with which to plan.) Poor health and the need for employee health benefits may preclude others from retiring. Some have taken their identity from their work and fear retirement as a decline into nothingness. Sometimes changes in the workplace or family demands can prematurely push people from their jobs.
I love Plato’s allegory of the charioteer. The charioteer must learn to balance the forces of the white horse (reason) with those of the black horse (primal desires) to lift the chariot to get a glimpse of the heavens. Too much reason, and the chariot never leaves the ground; too many primal desires, and the chariot flies out of control.
Philosophers and mental health professionals tell us that the mind is always being governed by these two opposing forces. I believe that Plato got it right by suggesting that these forces must be harnessed in tandem if we are to get a glimpse of the heavens (e.g., life in the third age). Being governed by reason alone (e.g., designating a date for retirement) destroys passion, and primitive instincts not challenged by reason can get us into a whole lot of trouble.
Perhaps this third age can be a time to revisit a passion, a time for less-demanding work (paid or unpaid) and more leisure, a time to be more active and to engage more deeply in relationships. From my perspective, we spend too much time measuring time and not enough time experiencing it. Real freedom comes when we take control of our time.
As we age, our values change. Having recently gone through the process of downsizing to a simpler life, I discovered that the stuff I had collected had lost much of its value and had become a burden. Putting those material objects up for auction was less difficult than I imagined—I sold the stuff but not the memories of collecting it. Some of those possessions were purchased to compensate for the loss of time I had, making the money to purchase them. I was busy, and I thought I loved it. Now, I recognize an emptiness in that striving. Occasionally, I wonder, “Did I sacrifice too much for my career?”
Successful aging may have more to do with a coming together of the past, present, and future—a validation of what was and a preparation for what is to come. My future is unclear, but I know I will grow into it. No longer driven by the need for a professional identity, by motivations for financial security, or by a culture whose values are no longer my own, I am free. I am free to find my own path in the third age. I may reinvent myself, find a bridge job, or create a second career. I will not retire from psychiatry but will “retire” to a new, reinvented life.
This third age is about developing a meaningful life no longer dominated by career nor a retreat from society. It can be a time of exploration and discovery, a time of freedom, a time to experience time rather than measure it.
When and if I pull the plug on working, it only means I’m rebooting.
A version of this post was previously published on psychologytoday.com and is republished here with permission from the author.
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