Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What's the Problem with Retirement?

     I was playing golf with my buddy over the weekend. We had to wait a bit on the 9th tee, so we got talking and I asked him, just in passing, how his wife was doing. He said, okay, but she doesn't really do anything.

     For the record, my friend is semiretired. He's a 62-year-old lawyer who is bored silly with his job, and has arranged to work, essentially, three days a week. He works three days in the summer, four days in the spring and fall, and takes off two months to go to Florida in the winter. He takes home a pro-rated salary, which is still a half-decent amount of money.

     He described his wife's day. She gets up and has breakfast. She reads the paper. Then she goes on the computer for a couple of hours. Then she'll go shopping, and by the time she comes home, her day is over. She has a glass of wine; they have dinner, watch a little TV and go to bed.

     He wasn't really criticizing his wife, not directly. And I know he still loves her -- or at least his marriage is solid. They've been married a long time, with two kids, and as he lives and breathes he is a real family man. But you can tell he doesn't approve of his wife's lack of activity.

     I pointed out to him that her schedule is a about the same as his, on his days off. He sits around and reads the paper and watches TV -- except instead of shopping, he plays golf, although he does go to the health club four or five days a week. Except for his heart condition (or maybe because of it), he stays in pretty good shape.

     I also pointed out that his wife is retired. They have a son, age 31, and daughter who's 25. The kids are grown up (although their daughter still lives at home.) So his wife's job as a mom is mostly over. Also, she worked for most of the years of their marriage, full time before they had kids, and for a while after; part-time for the rest of their marriage until she lost her job about six or seven years ago. After she got laid off, she decided she'd had enough. Still, she'd worked a good 25 to 30 years, while still raising a family.

     So what does he expect? Not only for his wife, but for himself?

     He thinks his wife is wasting her time -- although he's not concerned that he, too, is "wasting" the 40 percent of the work week that he's not working, reading the paper, watching TV and playing golf.

     I was thinking about this as I read a statistic, reported by Umair Haque in the Harvard Business Review, saying somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of today's employees are "disengaged" with their work, meaning they don't care much, if at all, about the work they do. A little like my friend, who used to care, but doesn't anymore.

     "But can you blame them?" asks Haque. "Perhaps they don't care not just because the work feels pointless, but because in human terms, it mostly is." He wonders, if you walked into any typical workplace, would you find people brimming with enthusiasm, feeling self-fulfilled, or would you find dour people stonily working for the accursed paycheck?

     I don't know if my friend is still working for the accursed paycheck, or if he's just afraid to stay home. But I do know that B, who started a new career at age 55, certainly enjoys her work. She doesn't get paid much, but she works with a dozen or so colleagues who occasionally drive her crazy but who for the most part she likes. She works with children, some of whom drive her crazy but most of whom give her many moments of sheer delight. And she's gotten to know a lot of other women in the community -- many of them 20 years younger than she is, who she would never have met otherwise -- and which, again, except for the occasional crank, she enjoys immensely.

     I remember when I was working -- well, a big part of it was to get the accursed paycheck. I had a family to support, from diapers to college tuition, and I certainly could not have afforded to go for long without a paycheck, or bring home much less of a paycheck, without a major change in our lifestyle and a major disappointment to my wife and two children. But I, too, enjoyed the camaraderie of my colleagues, and for the most part I enjoyed the actual work that I did, and I also occasionally felt a sense of accomplishment when I stopped to consider I was producing something that other people valued, that complete strangers were willing to buy with their hard-earned money.

     But if 75 percent of us are "disengaged" with our work -- or if a lot of us are "disengaged" with our work 75 percent of the time -- then what's the problem with retirement? Why should we be so worried about finding something to do in retirement that is fulfilling and meaningful and gives us a sense of accomplishment, or somehow makes us feel that we're improving ourselves? Doesn't that just put a lot of pressure on us retirees? If most of us didn't find that self-fulfillment at work, why should we find it in retirement? If we didn't solve the problems of the world while we were working, what makes us think we will when we're retired?

     Maybe it's enough to find a schedule that's pleasing to us and that we find enjoyable from day to day. If it involves taking a course at the community college or volunteering for Meals on Wheels, that's fine. But if it doesn't, so what? Shouldn't retirement bring freedom from the Puritan work ethic? Shouldn't we at last be free from the pressure of relentless self-improvement?

     Maybe it's okay to just relax ... like my friend's wife.


Robert the Skeptic said...

My work was OK, in that I didn't hate my job. I actually felt badly for people I knew whose identity was tied to their work; to some extent they thought the employer would not be able to function without them.

But for all the new products or services or innovative ideas or management improvements one has made, in 6 months to a year, nobody remembers or cares what you put your life energy into at work... it's water under a bridge.

My new rules are:
1. Don't set the alarm,
2. Never make an appointment before 10:00 AM, and
3. Remember, EVERY DAY is the weekend. I just have more of them now.

Midlife Jobhunter said...

Very thoughtful post. I'm thinking your friend probably doesn't know exactly what his wife does. Maybe never did. Like who might be making that dinner or planning and shopping for it. I think that of my husband - that he doesn't know exactly what it means to create/keep a home because someone else has done that for him. Can't blame him - completely.

I used to play golf. Enjoyed it. However, if I parred a hole, chances were I'd get an 8 on the next one.

Banjo Steve said...

My hunch is that the way you lived your life pre-retirement is how you will live it post-retirement. If you attacked your working life with energy, finding ways to create fulfillment - during and outside of work hours - then you will do the same with your retirement days.

If you did a job merely for the paycheck without taking responsibility for making the job rewarding in some way, well, why should you expect that retirement will automatically be stimulating and rewarding without any real effort/strategy on your part?

I remember a brief news piece about a toll plaza collector who, in his tiny restrictive work booth, seemed to just have a blast, singing and smiling and complimenting the drivers as they went by.

A couple of favorite quotes:

"Attitude: The difference between ordeal and adventure."

"The world is extremely interesting to a joyful soul."

Mac n' Janet said...

I enjoyed my job when I was working, but not half so much as I enjoy retirement, I think I spent my working years planning my retirement and it has been ever better than I hoped.

Satisfying Retirement said...

The key to happiness in retirement is to think of it as simply another phase of your life. If someone was bored and unfulfilled as a child, a young adult, or a middle-aged person, odds are great that mindset will simply continue into retirement.

If, other the other hand, that person always was able to take on a new challenge, find a new passion, engage well with people, and be comfortable with himself, retirement is just a title we've placed on a time of life.

I'd suggest that anyone afraid of retirement hasn't really learned to live up to that point, and is simply filling time.

Terry said...

I'm still working and to be honest, I like the camaraderie and (usually) my work, but still, it's a paycheck. If I had untold wealth I'd probably be traveling most of the time. That being said, I agree with Midlife Jobhunter in that her husband probably doesn't really know what she does most days. Someone has to do the laundry, cooking, shopping, cleaning. Unless they have a full time maid, it's probably the wife that does it. Hence, when he sees her relaxing, she's likely been working at all of the above all week....

rosaria said...

Interesting and thought provoking post. Yes, if we were not engaged in our work, in our lives, in those of our family members, what will change in retirement?

Dick Klade said...

If a good life is "purpose driven," the great thing about retirement is that we're free to define our purpose however we choose. If the lady has decided after years of hard work that her purpose now is to relax as much as possible and enjoy every day, hooray for her. If hubby believes his purpose is to demonstrate he still has the skills to do his usual work, hooray for him. Sounds like this is a fine couple who might profit from a little friendly chat about the goals each has in their "new" life together.

Kay Dennison said...

I was forced into retirement and only resented it because I need the money. In fact, I hope to go back to part-time work soon. I do like being retired -- I have enough interests to keep me occupied for a very long time.

MerCyn said...

I have known people who did not do much of anything when they retired. They seemed to get old - act old and look old - faster than more active contemporaries. The less you do, the less you want to do and eventually you don't care...

schmidleysscribblins.wordpress.com said...

Funny you mention golf today. I was reading about the women Suffergettes who burned messages with acid "Give women the vote" in the greens of the men's golf courses. Served them right I say, denying women the vote.

On the other hand, what's wrong with a little enjoyment in life after working hard for years? After 30 years of fulltime work + kids + school, I was ready to retire and have never missed it for one minute, although David longed for his job for many years. Maybe it is a man/woman difference?

I am busy as I ever have been with domestic stuff and school, but I do things I enjoy. Perhaps your friend's wife is too? To each his or her own, I say. Dianne

Nance said...

Great topic, great treatment! For the first couple of years of a 3.5 year retirement, I kept waiting for that gigantic whoosh of inspiration that would point me toward what I "was meant to do" in my retirement. I had deeply loved both my career and my sideline, so I figured I'd be bound to discover a new calling.

The only things that have actually happened involved no whooshes: I've been a very active part of my first grandson's first three years of life, despite the fact that he lives on the opposite coast and we couldn't sell our house; I've fulfilled a lifelong desire to write, although it turns out I write blogs, not books; and I've gardened for both food and embellishment. Wait. There's an important fourth. I've spent as much time with my husband as either of us can stand before this long marriage is visited with age's inevitable--and inevitably big--changes.

Our days are pleasant. We find we don't want to commit our time in any long-term way to anything that doesn't involve our family and closest friends. We know how lucky we are at the moment, reduced expectations and all.

Relax, people, if you're fortunate enough to be able to.

Retired English Teacher said...

Much to think about here. I find that my husband and I move in and out of retirement just enough to keep us interested and engaged at work, and then interested and engaged when we retire again.

Some people will never be really engaged in life.

Joanna Jenkins said...

Interesting post and question.

I used to run a successful advertising company out of our home with long work days and lots of traveling. My husband worked full time a minimum of 60-70 hours per week outside the home. He handled all of my bookkeeping/accounting so he knew full well the income I was generating and my company's profits.

After 15 years of doing my books he was home for 2 full weeks with a health issue. After the first week being a home with nothing to do except watch me, he actually said-- out loud-- "Gosh, you work a lot!


Apparently my husband only ever saw me sitting at a little desk in the kitchen (not my large upstairs office) checking my email as I made us dinner every night and just assumed that was all I ever did-- sit in the kitchen and "check emails". Boy was he wrong and I politely set him straight.

So perhaps your friend isn't really seeing his wife and all that she realllly does?

All that said, I retired 3 years ago and really do not like it at all. Oddly enough, I miss the routine of my work day. Go figure.

Cheers, jj

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

I agree that how you live your life prior to retirement will be how you live in retirement: if you are bored and disengaged with your work, you may well find yourself feeling very much the same in retirement.

I do believe that there is a period of disorientation at first. For the last twenty years of my working life, I had three to four jobs at a time -- one full-time and several part-time. I mostly loved my work as a writer and as a therapist. My last full-time job - the last five years before retirement -- I took for the money and the benefits and I learned the full meaning of TGIF! Couldn't wait to get out of there! Retirement was definitely a relief. My plan was to relax and rest after such a grueling work schedule and, although it felt strange at first, I loved it. I focused on fitness, making friends in our new community, finding peace within. After that, I started writing again and planning to continue that aspect of my previous work life.

I do miss the companionship at work, though not the politics. I miss the high points of my writing career that I may not see again. I miss the infinite possibilities of youth.

But I love not having to get up with an alarm clock and being able to plan my days as I please. I love the freedom to determine my own purpose and continuing life path. And I love exploring the possibilities of each day!

June said...

Being busy simply for the sake of doing something is highly, highly overrated.
I think I'm not crazy about your friend for his comment about his wife.

Anonymous said...

For 40 years wherever I worked (well, almost wherever, there WAS that stint shoveling gravel), I gave myself fully to the problems that presented themselves. I think I experienced work so intensely, all I could do on the weekends was zone out, or flee the city in the car with my wife. I retired at age 60, 2-1/2 years ago, and it’s still too soon to think about working again. I don’t think I will ever go back. On days like today when my wife is away at an exercise class, I will sit and listen to the silence, and it is amazingly therapeutic to me. I think somewhat about my past work life, but I wonder now if the experience was akin to something like slavery. Or maybe, war. Since retiring I’ve tried getting involved in various projects and causes, but each time, it’s been too much, it’s been too soon. Hard to admit, I drank alcohol a bit heavier than usual after retiring, but I think that was part of my healing. Only now have I been able to drop that and actually experience the real boredom and inactivity of most of my days. Y’know what? If you allow yourself to feel boredom, it’s motivating. The other day I was at Walmart, and bought some art paints and brushes on a whim. Maybe I’ll do something with them. The morning glories were particularly bright, this summer.