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Saturday, April 19, 2014

To retire...


re•tire [ri-tahyuh r] 

1. to withdraw, or go away or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion: “He retired to his study”. 
2. to fall back or retreat in an orderly fashion and according to plan, as from battle, an untenable position, danger, etc. 
3. to withdraw or remove oneself: “After announcing the guests, the butler retired”. 
 4. to withdraw from office, business, or active life, usually because of age: to retire at the age of sixty. 
5. retirement or withdrawal, as from worldly matters or the company of others. 

One of my friends is passionate about Latin America and travels widely, monitoring elections and writing for an international journal. Her life-long “career” as an energy consultant is gradually shifting to her passionate "avocation".

A family member who is a therapist decided to significantly pull back on her work hours, but then it didn’t “feel right”. Instead of leaving her practice, she decided to slow down the process, and continues to see clients. She is working fewer hours, spends more time with her children and grandchildren, and has increased her volunteer work. 

Another friend had a decades-long successful career as a librarian. As her retirement approached, she was uncertain about what would come next, but stayed open to possibilities. She now works as a volunteer in a number of non-profit organizations, travels, reads, and has time to hang out with friends and former colleagues. 

And me? I don’t plan to retire for a long time. First off, even though I’m technically approaching the typical “retirement age”, I like to work because I’d like to think that I’m contributing to making the world a slightly better place, at least in the small piece of the universe I inhabit. Maybe more basic is the fact that, like many people, I can’t afford to retire! 

When it comes to major life changes, I like to be fully informed, so I decided to study “retirement narratives”. It’s an informal study that is personally driven by my desire to remain engaged in and satisfied with life when I stop working for pay someday (who knows which day). My study is a pre-emptive strike against loneliness and a concern that as I age, I will be on the periphery, no longer a contributor to the world, no longer a player in daily life…I know this can happen because I’ve seen it happen, and I bet you have too. My observations and intuition have been confirmed by reading a ton of books about aging, in preparation for an aging course I taught at Brandeis University, as well as following the substantial media coverage of issues of aging. My feeling was that my informal study would provide me with an opportunity to better understand this life changing event from a sociological perspective. 

My role model for retirement was my father, who didn’t stop working in his job as an English professor until he was around 95 years old. I used to think that his formula – essentially, to never stop working – was how I wanted to live my life. I, too, imagined that I would basically work full-time until I dropped. But now I’m re-thinking my plans. And that’s where my research comes in. My study basically consists of informal “interviews” with friends who are reducing their paid work hours, as well as informal “chats” with acquaintances I run into in random places, like CVS, walking around Jamaica Pond, and on the street. For the people I know and with whom I have regular contact, I plan to follow them over a long period of time, meaning that I want to see what they do and how they adjust for as long as I know them, which could be until I or they die. With these friends, I hear the intimate details of their decision-making. Some of them had full-time jobs in organizations or institutions that provide incentives to retire, and some worried that they might lose their jobs past a certain age. Others work more autonomously as therapists or consultants. 
I want to understand how these friends feel about their paid job as they consider “winding down”: What do they consider will supplant the intense time and commitment they have made to this work? Do they have fears about retirement? Do they have passions they plan to pursue, and plans in place? Do they view retirement as an abyss or a welcome opportunity, neither or both? What will the transition period away from paid work be like? Do they just stop working for pay one day, or do they gradually decrease their hours, and increase the time they spend doing unpaid work or having fun! (imagine that!) How happy are they after retirement, which may include how active they are and how social they are? And lest we forget, how does their health – or the health of their partner – factor into the equation? 

The research questions I employ with my “almost, kinda” friends have a one-two punch. We start by asking one another a few basic questions: “How are you?”, is the starter. Can’t get more basic than that! And then a probing question: “And what have you been up to?” Now this question also seems pretty basic but the reply reveals a lot through their words as well as their body language. If/when they say they’re retired – or just that they left their job of many years – my panoply of probes is unleashed and I ask, “Is it a good thing?” This is a general yes-no question, followed up by “How do you fill your days?” That’s the meat of what I’m looking for. 

My informal study has no real parameters. My “sample” is fairly random; it’s not designed with any demographic in mind; I’ll talk to anyone. I’m not keeping track of how many people I’m interviewing, and I’m cool with going with the flow of the conversation, wherever it leads. I’m not discovering anything new, in a broader sense. There’s plenty of literature that argues for continued engagement in life, as one ages. Instead, my study is about getting at the particulars. What do people do as they’re considering retirement? Do they consciously prepare? Once they retire, what are they doing and how do they feel about it? 

The issue of retirement has become even more salient because we are living longer. For example, in 2000, the life expectancy in the U.S. for women was 77.6, and for men it was 74.3. In 2010, those numbers had jumped to 79 and 76 respectively. It’s important to note that there is also a racial disparity, as reflected in 2010 figures, with white women projected to live until they are 81.3, and African-American women projected to live until they are 78. For men, the comparison between white and African-American men is 76.5 to 71.8, respectively. 

Despite these gender and race disparities, an increase in longevity has resulted in a larger gap in time between official retirement and the point where people stop working for pay altogether. Dr. Mo Wang from the University of Maryland calls this period “post-retirement”, a time when people may choose self-employment, part-time work or temporary jobs. Dr. Jacquelyn B. James, from Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work (http://www.bc.edu/research/agingandwork/) calls this “transition” period “the “crown of life”, which implies that it is a special time, perhaps less fraught with the demands of one’s “regular” job which may have consumed years or decades of their lives. According to Wang’s research, “retirees who transition from full-time work into a temporary or part-time job experience fewer major diseases and are able to function better day-to-day than people who stop working altogether.” 

At the same time, other research doesn’t focus on the impact of paid work; rather, it notes that as people age, those who stay engaged in life, both socially and intellectually, will fare much better than those who retreat, regardless if they are working for pay or doing something else like volunteering, doing unpaid caregiving work, or just about any activity that engages them. 

In my effort to amass retirement narratives, I welcome you to tell me yours! It would be great to hear about your journey, whether you’re in the thinking stage or you have started instituting changes in your paid work schedule, or you have left a paid job and are in a next chapter of your life! 

Also, just for fun, check out this video of a policy debate between Republican Paul Ryan who wants to increase the retirement age, claiming that the Social Security fund is depleted, and Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who strongly disagrees: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIrltAkTf38

10 comments:

  1. Good piece Mindy: I created a "virtual" retirement company at 58 that I could do from anywhere using email and internet technology. Ten years later I have over 50 employees and am working 12 hours a day with no letup in site. And I am having fun. I do think about selling the company and buying a luxury RV and go traveling. That would be spending my 6 kids inheritance so will continue thinking about it while working away. Gary, Nashville

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  2. Hey Gary - You certainly have had many lives! Your "retirement" company is a great example of a "bridge" job has a life of its own! And kudos for creating work that is fun! That luxury RV definitely takes a back seat (pun intended) when balanced with the need to leave something behind for your kids. A very good point!

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  3. Dear Mindy, Your comments are retirement are thought provoking. It is difficult to make a conscious decision to really retire. I believe that part of the difficulty lies with our inability to acknowledge that there is a limit to the pursuit of an active life (77.6, 81.3 or whatever). Those of us who even have an option to retire at all are faced with a complex question: pro's versus con's. The decision seems to be almost as diverse as the membership of any large population group.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Johannes! It's true that for some, the option to retire is purely economic, and the majority of low-income people end of retiring entirely on Social Security income, which is woefully inadequate. Leading an active life is often hampered by health issues for many, but it also depends on how one defines "active". Because we know from the research - and our personal observations - that people who stay engaged, whatever that means for them (e.g., church/mosque/synagogue, social club or program, being with family), continue to stimulate their mind and body, which contributes to greater longevity.

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    2. I comment on a part of one paragraph: "If/when they say they’re retired – or just that they left their job of many years – my panoply of probes is unleashed and I ask, “Is it a good thing?” This is a general yes-no question, followed up by “How do you fill your days?” That’s the meat of what I’m looking for." What I find is that a small number of friends with whom I thought I had a team, were not prepared for something that hasn't happened to me: They have lost the energy to do things like they used to. That means team members I once thought I would have are no longer available. I end up working with much younger people, but their goals are not those of my former team members. It wasn't a problem I expected.

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  4. Hi Mike - Yeah - Manny actually ended spending a great deal of his time with younger people, through his interests in theater and politics. And it served him well, because as his old/older friends died off, he wasn't alone (although he often felt that way anyway!)... Thanks for commenting!

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