There’s been a lot of talk in my neck of the woods about retirement / retirement planning, these days. Another colleague has bid farewell to my workplace, there have been discussions in government about pushing back the age of retirement to 67, Hubby is concerned about his ability to retire in x number of years . . . But every time I hear someone mention looking forward to retiring, or having the right to retire — Hubby included — I’m honestly bothered.
Being able to retire is, in my mind, not necessarily a granted right. I think it’s become something of a given, but it’s a privilege in a society with increasing costs but static pensions. And historically speaking, in Western society, retirement didn’t really become an expectation or a reality until sometime during the 20th century.* Think about it: pensions were introduced at a time when most people didn’t live to see their 60th birthday. We worked until we died. It’s not a pleasant thought, yet that was reality for most of recorded history. And those who didn’t die on the job eventually became either revered elders, cared for by their (grown) children and communities, or paupers who were dependent on whatever system was available. The idea of being able to step away from one’s job or career to make room for a younger adult, enjoying one’s “sunset years” in a degree of comfort, seems to be a widely-accepted social goal.
I get it. You work and work and work and then you stop and you enjoy the years remaining to you (or months, weeks, days) as much as possible, reaping the rewards of your years of work. That depends on whether you were able to save for that eventuality, something that more of us are finding it difficult or impossible to do. And thanks to modern medicine, better nutrition, healthier lifestyles, etc., most Baby Boomers and the generations following them can expect those sunset years to turn into decades. Heck, the parents of the Boomers are still going, too, in many cases. My paternal grandmother passed away in her 80s, my maternal grandmother in her early 90s.
But it bothers me that this hope, this expectation, is now so widespread. The game has changed and now, financially, our goals have to include being able to provide for not only ourselves and our kids as they’re growing up, but also the potentially three or four decades after we’ve retired. It’s not surprising how many retirees end up having to go find part-time jobs, especially if they end up caring for elderly parents, grandchildren, or other expenses. And yet — my mother-in-law is about to officially retire, and every time she visits, the subject comes up that she feels she’s earned it. She’s earned the break from working, and deserves the time. Yes, of course she has. But that sense of entitlement — that it’s a part of the cycle we all get to have — how true is it outside of our sphere of #FirstWorld living?
There was a Star Trek: Next Generation episode involving a culture in which all members of society are expected to end their lives at the age of 60, regardless of whether they wanted to or not. The story involved a man who wasn’t ready to go; he still had important research to do and wanted to marry again. But most of his society expected that their lives would finish up at that age, partially to keep the population in check, and for other reasons including ensuring quality of life (given that quality may decline sharply after the 6th decade). It was a controversial story in many ways. After all, the majority of human beings would prefer to live as long as possible, fighting for another day — or hour, or minutes — of life even in the most dire of circumstances. It’s not improbable or impossible for us to stop making contributions to society after 60. How many successful thinkers, inventors, doers, artists, etc., reached their peak after 60? Or 70? Or older?
And yet . . . Maybe it’s the attitude with which some people approach their retirement that bothers me. When someone speaks of their retirement as something that is their due, as though nothing else could be expected, that everyone will or should enjoy it no matter their financial circumstances — I think it’s the lack of gratitude and amazement that bothers me the most. Retirement is a gift. It’s not an award granted to those who work hard enough and long enough, because death could and does happen at any time. If you find yourself in a position where you can step away from paid work in order to spend time on other things you enjoy and do out of choice, whether it’s travel or family or hobbies or sports, that’s not something to which you were entitled or that you had a right to expect. It’s an amazing and beautiful gift, because you’re in the minority of the world which will receive it. To be perfectly honest, I think successfully retiring with the ability to withdraw completely from paid work is like winning the lottery. You may have done an awesome job with the finances, saving appropriately and investing wisely, building your nest egg as we’re all advised to do, but you also could have had a major medical crisis or worse, died. If you can retire, completely, then you’ve won a gift from nature.
And be kind and understanding of those who must continue to work even when society says they’ve “retired”. Because that’s what we’ve always done, we humans. We live, we work; we work to live, and then we move on to another journey.
Maybe that’s really why people focus on retirement as The Goal — because what happens after that is what is most feared and unknowable.
*ADDENDUM: Found some interesting articles on this, if you’re interested in further reading . . .