Retirement? What The Hell Is That?

I attended a wonderful party last night celebrating the life of a former co-worker who died recently at the fairly young age of 66. He is a legend in my field and this event served not only as a warm remembrance but also a reunion of colleagues. I was the only person in the room who still works at that company. It was great to see several people who used to work there who I had lost touch with.

Many people there are at the leading age edge of Baby Boomers, as was the man who died. A universal question as we each greeted each other was “so what are you doing now?” One said, “My 66th birthday is next week and I’m going on Social Security.” Another, who was my boss at another job years ago, said “I just retired three months ago.” Nearly everyone else in the room over the age of 55 had moved onto other backup careers and was planning to retire soon and those under 50 had moved onto other interests and no intention of retiring.

Retirement was on my mind years ago. In my forties it became obvious that technology would eventually allow me to do much of my job from anywhere and I actually developed a plan in which I would convert my full time, single-location job to a part-time remote location job to eventually a retirement. I even had a real estate agent searching for properties in one of my favorite resort areas; that would be my “remote” work location. My plan was to spend half my time there and half at my home base, till I could fully relocate, which I expected would take about five years from the point at which I began the process.

Plenty changed after my fiftieth birthday, however, and that plan is a mere memory I occasionally drag out and write about, like I’m doing now, or laugh (and cry) about when talking with people who are not all that much older than me who are “retiring.”

So what the hell is retirement anyway?

I am a workaholic by choice. I love my work. The only thing I would really change right now is the quantity of what I have to do; the sheer amount of work I have to do right now is ridiculous. But I am passionate about it and, without even a hint of self-congratulatory bragging, I can say I am at the top of my game. I am good at all the things I do and I continue to improve my craft. Any time I think I know it all, I snap back into reality and realize I can always learn more. There are peers who are better but that just gives me more incentive to get better myself.

Just like everything else in American society right now, retirement is being redefined along generational lines. Older boomers are at the tail end of the previous generation’s work pattern: one career, one or two employers for the entire career, a pension plan from that employer, retirement between age 55 and 65. Younger boomers and most Gen-Xers don’t have that pattern, partly because business has changed and partly because they don’t want it that way. Gen X and younger typically have, by choice, two or three careers in their lives and they save for later years on their own, not counting on pensions or even Government programs like Social Security. Even the word “career” seems ancient in that context. “I’ll do this for awhile, then I’ll do this, then maybe this.”

The common ‘second comment’ last night, in response to my follow up question about what these new retirees would do in their retirement, is “projects around the house.” Hmmm, so if you’re 66 and you have twenty to thirty years of relatively good health ahead of you, are you really going to spend all that time remodeling the kitchen or fixing loose door hinges? At least one of these people I spoke with last night was a high-energy media manager, news expert, international broadcast executive, former college professor who in his youth hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. I don’t see him spending the next thirty years tightening door hinges.

One thing each of these ‘retirees’ do have in common is they are financially prepared for an extended period of time without regular “job” income. They have paid-for houses, pensions (something media companies did have at one time, before I got into that line of work), decent savings and eligibility in programs like Social Security. I have a union pension and eventual eligibility in Social Security, if it doesn’t go away, but I don’t know if that’s enough. I have none of those other things.

After several of these conversations, I let myself think about my original plan. What was my ‘retirement’ really going to be? I’m pretty sure all I wanted was a more flexible way to continue to work. Like many people, I had let my job and my identity merge, but over the past five years or more I have specifically moved to separate those factors, to make my work something I do and not who I am.

But as I said, I love my work. Some days it doesn’t even feel like a job. I am lucky and grateful for that. If this job went away I would still find work. I have considered a career change of sorts, but I am unlikely to pursue it except as a backup plan.

My personal joke is that when I’m 80 I’ll still be making commercials, editing audio, interviewing people. The technology by that time will probably allow me to do it all by voice commands without even pushing a button, using a device smaller than my iPhone. Maybe I’ll just think it and it’ll happen.

Sure, I want to travel and do all those other things ‘retirees’ seem to want but I don’t have to retire to do that stuff, do I? I doubt you’ll find me fixing door hinges or sitting in a rocking chair on a front porch. Although it is entirely possible my retirement decades from now will involve sharing stories over glasses of wine. It’s kind of what I do now anyway.