A few years ago I finished my regular job as a Professor in a major university business school. I was sad to stop but I realised that, for a variety of reasons, it was time to resign. As soon as this happened, many of my friends greeted me with:
‘So you’ve retired’ or ‘Aren’t you glad to have retired?’ or ‘Now you have retired, what are you going to do?’.
They all seemed to assume that I had ‘retired’ and most assumed I would be starting a life of carefree leisure and relaxation. Isn’t that everybody’s dream? Free to do nothing, to please yourself, to have fun!
But I never felt I was ‘retiring’. I described it as ‘stopping full time work’. This was a much more accurate picture of what was happening. There were two reasons I particularly wanted to reject the idea that life would somehow become a series of holidays, leisure and lolling about, doing nothing much. First, I had no intention of ‘taking it easy’ or stopping my engagement with the world. Second, I think that is the wrong way to think about life after ending full time work.
Let me explain. Apart from my full-time university position, I also had a significant consulting practice, which I hoped would continue. I had also written 16 books in 20 years and planned to write another one. And I had a thriving social life, which included refereeing basketball as a volunteer, playing tennis and singing in a choir every week. I loved getting up early each morning, making the most of each day, and I had no wish at all to waste away my time (though my wife did hope I would become a bit more relaxed and laid back). I simply planned to use my time differently.
These references by people to me ‘retiring’ and ‘retirement’ have continued every since, despite my continual protestation or restatement that I was just that I had ‘finished full time work’ and was now engaged in other activities.
But who cares? Why does it matter? Isn’t this semantics? Aren’t I being pedantic?
I don’t think so. I think it is very important, as it frames the way you think about your future. In fact, I think it is very important not to retire, even when you stop full time work. ‘Retire’ has several dictionary meanings. Retire from work, from employment, from office, to withdraw, to retreat, to seek seclusion or shelter and even to go to bed!
I’ve watched other friends ‘retire’. It seems this means the following: getting out of bed later (and later), having leisurely breakfasts, having leisurely coffee, perhaps going to the gym, having a nap in the afternoon, spending a lot of time planning and preparing dinner, visiting a health professional (doctor, physio, personal trainer, pilates instructor, specialist), having coffee, drinking before dinner, going to a pleasant movie and going to bed around 10pm or earlier. I’ve missed out planning travel, visiting family and friends, looking after grandchildren and internet searching.
Maybe that sounds like a good life to you, especially if you are currently a stressed employee working 10-12 hours a day, with the prospect of 20 years or more of this to come. To me, it sounds nice for a holiday, but not for a life. And people my age might still expect to live for 20, 30 or more years. Would you want to do this for 20-30 years?? I hope not. I doubt it. There is much more to life than this.
So how might you think about the post full time work period? A crucial issue is that the concept of ‘time’ suddenly changes. From having a time deficit, you suddenly have a time surplus. You can barely imagine how that changes the way you think.
What to do with all that time? Many people continue to work part-time for many years, just as I planned to do (and have done). This has the advantage of keeping you up to date with the world of work, of change and progress, meeting with other people of all ages and interests. Most importantly, it gives you a purpose outside of your own self-gratification. Research shows that this actually makes people happier!
Others find voluntary organisations to contribute their time to. These are quite hard to fit in when you are working full time, but there are literally thousands of organisations who need people with all types of skills which will suddenly come on your radar if you are open to them.
Volunteering brings its own rewards. Learning about new areas of life and the world. Achieving something worthwhile. Mixing with people with similar interests. Bringing pleasure to other people. And being physically active enables you to keep your body in working order and eat some of that stuff you love that would fatten you up very quickly without any balancing exercise.
As well as working for or on something that has a wider purpose, I’ve also found new personal opportunities to engage in that would not have been possible while I was full time working. For instance, I’ve taken up life drawing, bridge and joined a wine group. So my life is not all about working for others. It has plenty of wonderfully enjoyable personal moments to treasure. And did I mention that I took the opportunity to run a marathon, something I never thought I would achieve.
So, to avoid the blobby, do-nothing elements that ‘retirement’ implies, what might we call this period of life, which no generation before the Boomers has ever had before?
I like the term ‘the third age’. There is the first age of childhood, learning and maturity, up to the stage of entering life as an independent adult. There is the second stage of adulthood – maintaining yourself financially independently, saving and investing for the future, buying and building assets, perhaps raising a family. Then there is the third age, of personal freedom, when your family is independent, you can start to spend your savings (or the government’s) as you enter ‘the future’ you have been preparing for and start to be able to have all your time available for your own choices.
Some other people call this the ‘post work’ period, but so many people now work part time as they wind down slowly into the third age that paid work of some sort is often part of the third age. Whatever you call it, the third age is yours to decide what to do. You can choose to continue working, to look after the grandchildren, to travel forever, to sit at home and watch TV or search the internet all day, join groups, start organisations, whatever. The third age really is up to you. It is much more than that negative concept of ‘retirement’. Never use that word!