In our culture, retirement is the holy grail of adulthood. The American Dream is based on the idea that anyone who works hard can rise above poverty, have upward mobility, and retire in financial security by age 65. That’s the life goal we’ve been told to pursue since childhood, without understanding what retirement truly means or that there are some real downsides to consider.

Retirement synonyms (same or similar meaning): depart; go; relinquish; remove; retreat; separate; surrender; withdraw; decamp; exit; recede; regress; rescind; resign; revoke; secede; yield; absent oneself; deny oneself; draw back; fall back; get away; give ground; give up work; give way; go away; go to sleep; leave service; make vacant; seclude oneself; sever connections; stop working.

Those words don’t make retirement sound so glamorous, do they?

Retirement antonyms (opposite meaning): advance; continue; remain; stay; approve; arrive; come in; increase; join; begin; enter.

Much better. Those words evoke something more interesting and worth pursuing as we age.

Happily Never After: Rethinking Traditional Retirement   I’ve always thought the idea of working toward retirement around age 60-65 was wrong. From the day we’re old enough to understand – and convinced to accept – the concept of working 40-plus hours a week for a living, we’re also expected to buy into the construct of saving for that far-off day when, at age X, you’ll have accumulated enough assets to “retire” and live a life of ease and luxury, not a care in the world.

Except for that life-threatening cancer diagnosis at age fifty. Or the divorce that suddenly vaporizes your goal of early retirement. Or the arthritic knee or hip that needs replacement at sixty, ruining long-held plans for a post-retirement life filled with your favorite outdoor activity. Or the fact that you’re overweight, out of shape and exhausted from the stress of working too much and exercising too little for the last four decades to enjoy all that free time post-retirement, should you actually live that long.

Not to mention that, assuming you do make it well into old age, saving enough to support perhaps thirty years of work-free retirement life is daunting, especially given today’s cost of living and exorbitant health care costs.

Is there another path, a way off the retirement rat wheel?

A Brief History of the Concept of Retirement   Soldiers are the first beneficiaries of a retirement system, as far back as 13 B.C., when Roman Emperor Augustus paid pensions to Roman Legionnaires who serve 20 years. In the 16th century British and European governments paid their soldiers pensions after a term of service. In the US, the government paid pensions to disabled or impoverished Union veterans or to the widows of the dead after the Civil War and Southern states paid pensions to disabled Confederate veterans. These pensions become a model for Social Security.

In its early history, farming dominated the US economy. Families worked their farms, with older men handing over the more physically challenging work to sons and hired hands until…they died. Most men worked until illness or death prevented them from continuing. In 1880, half of Americans worked on a farm, and nearly 80 percent of the men worked past age 65.

As factories began replacing farms, many thought older people couldn’t learn working with new machinery and maybe they should step aside for younger workers. And around the turn of the century, growing prosperity meant some actually could stop working as they aged. By 1890 a handful of companies flirted with providing pension benefits to workers, and from there, private pension plans grew.

During the Great Depression a way to convince older workers to leave their jobs to make way for younger workers was needed. The Social Security Act was enacted by Congress in 1935, setting retirement age at 65 even though the average life expectancy of American men was age 58. Medicare health benefits for the elderly are added by Congress in 1965 when, with better medical care and overall health, life expectancy increases significantly, to almost 70. Today, life expectancy in the US is 78.69 years, although it has dropped slightly in the past two years. A retirement concept conceived to cover a handful of years is now expected to cover decades.

And guess what? Even those who do retire in their sixties are often compelled to find a new job, whether out of financial need or boredom or a combination of both. According to recent Labor Department statistics, nearly 20 percent of people age 65 and older are working, or looking for work, up from just ten percent in 1985. The over-65 age group is projected to be the fastest growing segment in the US workforce through 2024.

Retirement May Not Be All It’s Cracked Up to Be   Think about it: if you’re enjoying good health at age 65, you have a good chance of living to 85, maybe even 95 depending on the genetic gifts of your ancestors. That’s twenty or thirty years with lots of free time to fill. To what purpose? How will you continue to contribute to society? When you were forty, you perhaps imagined filling that time with travel and a myriad of your favorite physical activities enjoyed in your youth, maybe even volunteering for a favorite cause. But what if your health doesn’t cooperate? Or what if you weren’t able to save as much as a travel-filled life requires? What then? Do you have a backup plan?

Your mental health takes a hit in retirement. Divorce, bereavement, and physical health problems contribute to mental health issues, including depression. The Mental Health Foundation recently reported that one in five present-day retirees experience depression. In fact, being retired increases the chances of suffering from clinical depression by 40 percent, and the likelihood of having at least one diagnosed physical illness by 60 percent.

So why is retirement as conceived over a century ago still so appealing today? Why do we spend our best, most productive and healthiest years scrambling to achieve some ephemeral retirement dream, working long hours (often at jobs we hate), stressing ourselves out meeting the financial planner’s savings goals so that we might enjoy the promised stress-free life of those happy white-haired couples you see in all the financial planning ads, smiling and holding hands as they stroll a tropical beach at sunset?

I think we’ve been sold a bill of goods. I’ve always thought that.

Learning from the Experiences of Others   I am, by nature, observant, paying close attention to what’s going on around me. I enjoy watching people interact, listening closely to what they say. I don’t always connect the dots right away; often things heard or observed years apart finally come together in my mind with an impact I hardly anticipate. It was a series of observations over time that led me to believe by the age of 30 that the concept of retirement was a crock.

Some examples. I grew up in a Seattle suburb. My father, a Boeing test pilot, had a dangerous job. While the danger was never discussed explicitly at home, somehow as a child I knew one shouldn’t count on everything going right, because occasionally things went horribly wrong; the three widows within our social circle, the women whose test pilot husbands had died while flying and whose children lost their fathers, were subtle yet constant reminders. While I was high school my parents divorced after 27 years of marriage, their retirement plans imploding, teaching me that one can’t depend on the best laid plans and that even the closest of family relationships don’t always endure.

Moving into my twenties, I listened to friends worry about what occupation to pursue; which one would bring them the best income and retirement benefits. In the ‘70s and ‘80s most looked to Boeing for that security, then in the mid-80s to the fledgling Microsoft. In the case of Microsoft, stock options heightened the allure and many convinced themselves that working horrendous hours and not having a life in their twenties and thirties was worth it if they could become a millionaire by 40 and retire early. Their young children hardly knew them and often their spouses divorced them. I knew this because by age 27 I was practicing family law, representing one party or the other in those disintegrating families. They all started out following the American dream: work hard, create and raise a family, keep working hard until retirement (the earlier the better always the unstated but real goal). Yet time after time, the model failed them. I kept wondering why people sacrificed so much of their youth for some far-off retirement that might never arrive?

Photo: Jan Kroom, Pexels.

My response to observing all of this was to quit putting all my eggs in that traditional retirement basket. In my early thirties I decided to be semi-retired for the rest of my life. I would work part time (I was self-employed so the option was there), pursue my competitive athletic passions and travel while I was young and strong, and continue working at something on a part time basis until I simply couldn’t work anymore. This was a scary approach to adopt because everyone around me was scrambling to save huge amounts of money toward retirement, and I…wasn’t. Without any family history of cancer or heart disease, I was most worried about living past 100, as my maternal grandmother had (my mother will be 93 this year). Was I being foolish? Only time would tell. Certainly, I was taking a big risk.

As I moved into my forties, three of my older friends nearing retirement age where literally counting the days to their official retirement when they would finally have the time to pursue their hobbies and athletic goals in earnest. We were all long-distance trail runners, so having time to train and travel to races was something that anyone working 40+ hours per week longed for (along with time to sleep). One friend retired at age 60 and soon thereafter started slowing down significantly on our training runs. Within a year he had quadruple-bypass surgery to repair clogged arteries. Not long after that, he had a hip replaced. He had to give up running, something he loved and excelled at. The second friend, same age and work history, also had heart issues around the time he retired, but instead of surgery, took beta-blockers which significantly slowed his ability to run. And the third did follow his dream of running more post-retirement, only to have his knee finally give out after a couple years, requiring a full knee replacement that meant he, too, had to give up running. All three did at least beat the odds in terms of happy marriages but none had anticipated the health challenges they faced at age 60 or soon thereafter. Their retirement plans had to be significantly modified.

I also observed family and friends who did reach retirement age yet suddenly found themselves bored and unhappy because they hadn’t planned how they’d fill those 40-plus hours per week previously taken up with their job. Their identities and sense of self-worth were bound to their work, and now…they didn’t know who they were, what their purpose was, what they wanted to do. Grandparenting and travel only fill so much of the void. Don’t we all want to feel useful, have a way of contributing to society and our communities, even into our dotage? Yet few ponder beforehand how they’ll accomplish those particular goals, what their post-retirement identity will be.

But the most startling incident that convinced me my life-long semi-retirement approach was the right one for me happened in March of 2003. I first met my friend Ron in 1986. We dated off and on for five years, then remained close friends. Soon after finishing college, around 1980, Ron nearly lost his life climbing Denali when his climbing partner fell and was injured, an experience that shaped Ron’s approach to life going forward. Ron tossed aside the idea of corporate life and created his own outdoor clothing and products business so that he could pursue his passions for climbing and other outdoor sports. He was smart, worked hard, and played hard. His motto: I’ll sleep when I’m old.  Ron understood well that at some point he physically wouldn’t be able to keep climbing, kayaking and skiing so he pursued those passions at every opportunity while he could. Ron’s business success supported adventures to far corners of the world. Then in the spring of 2003, while on a backcountry skiing trip with friends, Ron was killed in an avalanche. He was 54. One of Ron’s other mottos: Life is uncertain; eat dessert first. It’s almost as if he knew his life would be cut short so he lived large while he could. Ron’s lasting legacy to me is to live each day fully, as if it’s my last.

An Alternative: Self-defined Semi-retirement   I won’t know whether my experiment with life-long semi-retirement succeeds until I take my last breath. Many of my early choices were possible because of a good head start (college education) and a decision to not have children. But as I watch more of my contemporaries struggling with life-threatening diagnoses of cancer, dealing with bodies and joints breaking down in incremental but painful ways, spending precious “free” time and resources caring for elderly parents, a spouse with Alzheimer’s, or battling depression from unexpected life-altering events like divorce or the death of loved ones, my long-held sense that life is for living now, not later, is reaffirmed. Life doesn’t always play fair.

While still in my forties I started thinking how I would keep generating a part time income well past age 60. I knew I didn’t want to keep practicing law; although the easiest path, law is also full of stress I wished to leave behind so I gave up my license in 2014. I always loved writing, so in the late 1990s I started taking some courses. I began pitching stories to magazines, seeing my efforts published. The rush of those early successes was proof I was on the right track. I published a book at age 58, and plan to publish more. Who says you can’t reinvent yourself? You can, at any age, even several times if that’s what makes you happy. Invest in yourself, in your personal, ongoing growth.

Also, in my forties I began living a minimalist lifestyle, matching my voluntarily-reduced income. One thing I noticed in my family law practice: The more you make, the more you spend – conspicuous consumption – often on things you don’t really want or need and that rarely bring you happiness.

In some ways, I’ve backed myself into a semi-retirement corner because I don’t have a traditional retirement account sufficient to generate a reliable, livable income and social security won’t cover all of my bills. But you know what? At age 62, I’m fit, healthy, and content with how this has played out so far. I have marketable skills that are transportable and don’t require physical strength. As I watch yet another couple with minor kids divorce despite having set themselves up well retirement-wise, as I worry about my friend battling the ovarian cancer discovered within months of retiring at age 60, as I attend the memorial service of a neighbor and friend who died at age 62 of a massive heart attack just two months after telling me he was tired of working so hard and was going to start collecting social security, as I review all of these experiences throughout my life and ask what’s my best path forward, I have to believe I’m already on it.

Photo: Pexels.

Don’t be sold a bill of goods.   I’m simply an experiment of one. What works for me won’t work for everyone. But clearly that’s also true of traditional retirement.

For most of my life, people have paid good money for my advice. Here’s some for free: Think through your later-life options, your choices regarding work and retirement, especially if you’re just starting out on that difficult path called adulting. Don’t blindly follow the herd. The future is unpredictable and the best laid plans go awry. Live boldly now, with an eye toward aging gracefully should you be so lucky. Consider removing the word retirement from your vocabulary altogether. Choose the path that feels right for you rather than what’s expected or what everyone else seems to be doing while remaining flexible enough to deal with the slings and arrows of life.

My friend Ron had his mottos for living. I prefer to ask a question: Does it pass the rocking chair test? When faced with a significant life choice, I pick the one that, when I’m 100 and sitting in a rocking chair reflecting back on my life, is most likely to spark a joyful memory or a smiling nod that yes, that was the right decision. Choices made without considering the big, long-term-happiness picture, or simply to please others or measure up to societal standards rarely pass the rocking chair test.

Rather than focusing on traditional retirement, I suggest striving for the anti-retirement old age: advance; continue; remain; stay; approve; arrive; come in; increase; join; begin; enter. Seems like a much better recipe for overall happiness and contentment throughout one’s life.

About the author

Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca is a freelance writer and publisher living near McCall, Idaho. A Seattle native and recovering attorney, she much prefers the quiet, slow pace, and distinct seasons of the West Central Mountains, enjoying the skiing, hiking and running opportunities provided by the nearby Payette National Forest. Rebecca is a Contributing Editor with Bark magazine, and the author of Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter (Feb 2014).

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