March 13, 2014

Planning for Retirement

I can hear you now–you’re probably saying, “Plan for it? With the economy the way it is, I’ll NEVER be able to retire!” But read on: there may be something here for you in any case. And, no, this is not a blog about financial preparations for leaving the workplace. You’ll need to find another kind of expert for that.

For men especially, work is what life is about. We learn from an early age that we are meant to be the breadwinner, the provider, the go-to-guy on matters of “get ‘er done”. I often talk to men about the way, when we were boys, were socialized to “shake it off” and to “take one for the team” even though we were hurting, or disappointed. Those are lessons we are taught, in both subtle and overt ways to boys from the day they are born. We are good at fulfilling the demands of roles that involve physical strength, emotional restriction, mental toughness, even indifference to pain and damage to health. We can take it! But it seems that sometimes, often in our middle years–somewhere between 40 and 60– we begin to wonder whether all of that was worth it. Often our work is not as satisfying as in earlier years, and we’ve devoted so much energy to the workplace, it’s hard to see anywhere else that satisfaction might come from. Even family life may have become less interesting, as children become surly teenagers or leave the nest altogether. Maybe we neglected partner relationships because the role of provider was such a prominent one for us. In any case, we come to a place in life where–with actual retirement still perhaps a number of years away–we recognize that work is about all we have.

Just while I’m thinking about it, let me put a word in for the women reading this: everything I’m saying here may well be true for you as well. Women have worked hard to obtain places in the world of cultural rewards (money, status, diplomas, etc.) beyond the home, and society has now changed expectations for you, too. Not only are you expected to be the heart of the home, and the source of gentle comfort for your family, you’re also expected to be the hard-bodied lover, to create the social fabric of our communities, and the clear-minded career woman as well. Is it any wonder, considering all the real-life demands, not to mention the internal pressures, that most of us feel stressed out? Who imagines that retirement will be anything more than a long weekend, with permission to sleep late, after all!

But, back to that topic for a moment–retirement is where we’re headed, right? In important and very functional ways, men and women today have been very good at performing the tasks set before them. They have carved out careers, taken on matrimony, built family units, and taken out mortgages of astounding size. Society needs all that. But they have often NOT invested nearly enough in the one thing necessary to be successful: PEOPLE.

They have not budgeted time to slow down and develop an identity that will exist away from the important roles they are fulfilling. Some will say, ” A parent. I will always be a parent, so I’m not neglecting that as I fulfill my role of associate vice president in charge of marketing” And that’s technically true. A parent is a parent is a parent, after all. But children leave home and create families and careers of their own, needing less and less parenting over the years, and what then?

The retirement planning I would like to suggest is this:

Find a variety of meaningful activities (hobbies, travel, volunteering, teaching, physical fitness, classes for personal enrichment, etc.) that you’d like to engage in, and make it part of your identity. We are all involved in the development of a personal identity but generally it is restricted to a) the work I do for a paycheck, and b) the family members I relate to. Infrequently do I hear someone begin his or her self-description (or end it for that matter) with the hobby, or the non-work organization, or the circle of friendships they created. There are millions of sources of meaningful activity, and you must find the ones that provide pleasure, gratification, and meaning for you. The importance of having numerous activities is that when one isn’t available, there are others to fall back on. I often give my patients a list of 250 things they might do for personal pleasure and renewal; community activity; hobbies and creative outlets; sports or leisure; learning or reading’ socializing, family activities, and helping others; health and fitness; spiritual, inspirational, or religious activities; satisfying or enjoyable chores; and couples activities. It’s a place for them to start, but anyone can begin to compile such a list on their own, or with the help of people they know.

Retirement from the workplace is a moment of reckoning; either you’ve done the work of developing a life, or you haven’t. There isn’t much in between. Successful retirement planning will include purposeful activity that brings you satisfaction, puts you in a state of “flow” (other blogs will guide you) and challenges you to set goals for the future. Beyond these activities, successful retirement planning will require that you build enough relationships outside your current workplace so that you have a wide network of engagements to keep you active and learning something new.

Think about the people you know over the age of 60. Which ones are the most interesting? Which ones seem the happiest? Which of them are the healthiest or most enthusiastic? Finding meaning in life requires that we look beyond our work roles–while we are still actively employed–so that there will be meaning in life beyond that time, too.