As I See It: So You’re Thinking About Retirement
August 28, 2017 Victor Rozek
If your IT career spanned the AS/400 years, you may be of an age when you are considering retirement. Certainly, if both your health and your bank account are reasonably robust, retirement can be as sweetly anticipated as a tax refund. The prospect of leisure and travel, or just putting a halt to the daily grind, exerts a strong gravitational pull. But reality is like the spellchecker of the imagination: it corrects misconceptions.
We are, in fact, absurdly encouraged to view decline as the Golden Years. Retirement has long been romanticized by everyone from the AARP, to financial planners, to Cialis hawkers. Yes, you too can look forward to endless rounds of golf, and sailing, and long walks on the beach. Day’s end will find you and your honey soaking in his and hers bathtubs, outside the villa overlooking the ocean, as a prelude to . . . well, you get the idea.
But as someone who has been semi-retired (meaning self-employed) for a long time, I can safely attest: Nah, not so much.
Not that it’s all bad. If you have a bucket list, you can pursue it. If you have mourned the path not taken, you can explore it. If you have a hobby, you can indulge it. If you have grandchildren, you can indulge them. If you’ve put off living, you can embrace life, if you still remember how.
But it’s not all champagne and sunsets.
The day after you retire, your income will drop precipitously. But your bills won’t. As Chi-Chi Rodriguez famously said: “When a man retires, his wife gets twice the husband but only half the income.” (Yes, that’s a little sexist but you get the point.) The irony is, money is something you have to have just in case you don’t die.
If you’re eligible for Social Security, you will discover that it’s woefully inadequate to support the lifestyle you previously enjoyed. If you’re depending on government health care, it threatens to be severely cut, while private insurance is predicted to skyrocket. And that fact is not likely to change anytime soon. The current notion of Making America Great Again apparently requires making the average American poor again. So you may be forced to downsize, or at the very least, live on a budget, which is about as much fun as limiting your pizza intake.
There is a temptation to think that once you retire everyone in your circle will also be retired and therefore available to play. Maybe, maybe not. Likewise, if you’re in relationship and your partner is younger, he/she may still be working, and may not be free to travel or do fun things on the spur of the moment. Eventually, that will lead to frustration on your part, because you’re ready to recreate; and resentment from your partner, because he/she can’t.
And while that person is gone to work, you will be at home, alone, without the stimulation of coworkers or challenging projects to occupy your mind. If you are not comfortable with your own company, it would be a good skill to acquire prior to retiring.
Then there’s winter. In many areas of the country the weather is just plain foul. If you still have functioning knees and like skiing, great. But you probably won’t be going on bike rides or canoeing on your favorite lake. What you will be doing is staying home day after day, looking at the same walls and the same face(s). You will soon discover that there are many hours in a day to fill. Where work once accounted for at least eight of those hours, plus commuting, now the hours will have to be filled with something else. If you’re a person who has few or no interests outside of work, retirement may seem torturous. But at least your life will be your own.
A great many people pondering retirement have ageing parents and, given the divorce rate, sometimes multiple sets of parents. If you’re very fortunate, they will have their lives in order and will remain mentally sharp and financially secure. But many won’t. They will decline and act out and forget to take their meds. They will need help maintaining their house. Some will no longer be able to drive safely and will need rides to appointments. At some point, they will be forced to abandon their home, and you will have to move them – perhaps multiple times. Assisted living facilities can be superb or awful, but all charge rates that would make a loan shark blush. Several years in assisted living can strip a lifetime of savings. So if part of your retirement plan includes receiving an inheritance, good luck.
A personal observation: As parents decline, invariably there is a desire to fix things, to make things better, to somehow halt or reverse the deterioration. It’s possible that feelings of guilt will surface expressed by thoughts like: “If only I were a better son/daughter . . . .” Don’t do that to yourself. Regardless of what you do or don’t do, the decline will only continue. Cherish the time you have; the guilt is optional.
Having said all that, retire while you can. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” (That obviously goes for women, too.)
Life is uncertain. We are all one diagnosis away from calamity. Post-work challenges may be different and require some adjustment, but sleeping in is not an insurmountable problem. The only thing we cannot replicate is time. Money can be earned, possessions replaced, but time is finite and if you’re nearing retirement the reality is, it’s running low.
There are people trapped by circumstance who, for a lifetime, know only work. People who never get a turn. Those of us fortunate enough to know enjoyment, to pursue fulfillment, and have the freedom of selecting from multiple options, would be foolish not to take a turn. As Jackie Joyner-Kersee said: “It’s better to look ahead and prepare, then to look back and regret.”
There is one last problem you should be aware of, though. Once you’re retired, you’ll never get a day off.