My father was a “working man.” In his day (1904–1968), that meant he worked hard physically for hourly wages or for a meager income from a small business requiring 10–14 hours a day. In his generation, working men hoped to retire with a pension, which for the majority consisted only of Social Security. They eagerly looked forward to the day they no longer had to work. And although Social Security wasn't much, they could get along by living modestly as they were accustomed. But before reaching the traditional retirement age all too many became chronically ill and could no longer work or died; both happened to my father.
Times have changed. Though there are still many today just like my father, especially immigrants, the pay and benefits (until recently) have steadily improved for average working men. An even bigger change has been the increase in longevity. What do those men (and women) do with the 10, 15, or 20 more years after age 65?
My unscientific and unsystematic observation suggests that most of those retirees (or potential retirees) fall roughly into the following categories: (1) Do nothing in particular; (2) If finances allow, move to a nice climate, play golf, travel, and/or dive into one's hobby or other diversion; (3) Continue work out of financial necessity; (4) Continue work out of habit, to have something to do, to have a place to belong and sense of security, or for the continued enjoyment of the work; (5) Try new jobs to stay engaged and reinvigorated—e.g., volunteering, doing part- or full-time work using one's expertise, or starting a business; (6) Never retire, but continue doing the same work ad infinitum, or until retirement is imposed by illness or incompetence.
My sense is that physicians and other professionals, just like today's salaried workers, would fall into one or more of the same categories depending on medical, family, and other issues.
Active & Passive
But for me a more important and meaningful way to understand retirement and the likelihood of its being a happy time requires only two categories: active and passive.
Passive retirement would have included most working men of my father's generation. The opportunity to stop doing hard physical labor or working long hours was the goal. That is also true of men and women today who do hard physical labor. They often had no specific plans except to rest, putter around the house, to enjoy the grandchildren, and the like.
Dolce Far Niente
In other words, they would simply expand the time for things they already did and have time for “dolce far niente,” a wonderful Italian phrase meaning “the sweetness of doing nothing.”
I have seen some professionals do this. Several older relatives chose this course, but most eventually had a major problem to deal with: boredom; more on that later.
Passive retirement also happens among professionals, who ordinarily do not do hard manual labor and who usually have the resources to do almost anything they wish. Many ease into retirement by doing less work and more leisure activity.
Some, particularly in academic settings, “retire in place,” that is, they pretend to be as active and productive as ever, but they are not, so they go to meetings, serve on committees, busy themselves with non-jobs, such as assistant vice dean for something or other, or just keep their head down and coast. They are boring, but never seem bored.
Active retirement can take on many forms. A good friend and colleague planned long before he retired to live in a warm place and play golf three or four times a week so he could improve his game and enjoy it more, and enjoy dolce far niente. His wife also golfed, so it was something they could do together.
He was an eminent pathologist and turned down opportunities to work part time; he decided to cut the cord from his attachment to medical work. He has had a happy retirement with not an iota of regret.
Other professionals plan to become avid travelers, take courses in Shakespeare, or begin planning to work at something different.
Planning & Preparation
By definition, active retirement requires planning and preparation. Virtually every ad one sees on TV that deals with retirement addresses the financial aspects. This is not surprising, since the ads are sponsored by insurance, investment, and annuity companies.
But while financial planning is important, by the time one is seriously contemplating retirement, usually, the die is cast; it is difficult to substantially change one's financial position in two years and few take retirement seriously and do the necessary research, planning, and testing before then.
So at that stage the financial planning is an exercise on what resources one has and how long they are likely to last.
As you can tell, I am an avid fan of active retirement. I think active retirement is an opportunity for adventure of one kind or another. The likelihood of boredom in passive retirement is high and can lead to excessive drinking and eating, depression, and becoming an unpleasant curmudgeon with no apparent joy in life. In my own case, the impetus for active retirement was powered by my aversion to boredom along with my compulsive need to plan ahead.
Five years ago this month, I gave up a perfectly good, well-paying academic job to try something different before I cashed in my chips. My father and both grandfathers died in their 60s so I had greater reason to retire then if I were ever going to try something different.
Leaving familiar work, friends and colleagues, and financial security was not a step taken lightly, and I admit to harboring misgivings periodically. Planning resulted in my starting a one-man consulting business, which allowed me to stay intellectually engaged in cancer center activities.
The work is part-time, leaving time for unplanned activities such as volunteering at a local hospice, starting the Quality Oncology Practice Initiative at ASCO, and writing this column. I work from home so I have no commute, no employees or bosses, and much more time with my family. I thoroughly enjoy all these and other activities and none would have been possible had I not retired.
For most professionals, my advice is to plan an active retirement. You go around only once and you don't know how much time you have left, so don't wait too long.
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