People think many things about retirement, their own and others’. What does the word “retirement” mean? Commonly, we understand it as withdrawing from or ceasing to work, withdrawing from the productive structured life that has held us up – and held us back. Withdrawing from the life we’ve found ourselves in, usually for decades, by choice or accident (or a bit of both). It begs the question then, withdraw to what?
Many people eagerly look forward to leaving the stresses and constraints of their job behind. They’ve carefully planned for financial stability to continue to lead the life to which they’ve become accustomed, promising themselves to travel more, slow down, and “enjoy life” – most, without having given much thought to what that means for them. Many have lined up projects that now – finally – they will complete, whether remodeling their kitchens, landscaping their property, digitising their photos, or putting them in albums. These projects take a few months to complete and then what?
When we retire from our work, it is often without considering that our life will not be “the same, but with more time”. Research suggests that we perform at our best when presented with a bit of a challenge, maybe even some stress. When that challenge is left behind with our office keys, we lose more than we think. Without putting in place new challenges, from outside the workplace, we may lose a sort of mental tonus or sharpness, that precisely those workplace stressors and constraints provided us. Without care, our retirement can lead to a deconditioning of our mental acuity.
And what of our identity when we leave the workplace? North American culture puts great emphasis on our work and attempts, often successfully, to define us by our career paths. One of the first questions we are asked when meeting someone new is “What do you do?”. Who, then, are we, when we hand in our keys and are no longer a manager, a psychologist, an engineer, a line-cook, a factory worker? Who is this person staring back at us in the mirror?
When we leave our keys, we also leave the community with which we’ve spent a much of our time, people with whom we’ve shared stories. Even though we did not specifically choose these people, we have woven relationships out of the hours we’ve spent together. It is not a given that those we leave behind will be willing or able to follow us into our retirement, nor even is it necessarily something we wish to happen. We lose some of that glue: our common goals, daily rendezvous and regular physical proximity. In retirement, the work relationships that we do wish to continue may not hold. Without forethought and planning, we may find ourselves isolated.
As we look forward to retirement, we look forward to loosening the tyranny of the “9-5” schedule: getting up early, diving into our routine when we would rather, we think, lie in bed for just a little longer, linger over the news, slip into our comfy clothes, curl up with a book, do some yard work, have that second cup of coffee or tea or check out that new café. Or maybe it is the allure of the trafficless morning: no traffic jams, icy roads, orange cones, jammed metros, or buses that don’t come, raising your blood pressure even before you get to the office! But how long is it before a sense of lethargy and pointlessness sets in? And what of those years of expertise and experience that you have painstakingly collected, no longer called upon, now gathering dust on your mental mantelpiece?
Retirement can have an important impact on intimate relationships, too. All of a sudden, you find yourself 24/7 with your partner, the kids (if you had any) having flown the coop. You may realize that you took your partnership for granted, focusing instead on your career or kids (or both), leaving you with a hollowed-out relationship now, your partner keeping his/her own schedule and pursuing interests that don’t necessarily include or even interest you. Maybe the kids are now eyeing you as a free babysitting service (which is great if that’s what you had hoped for), but might be a stopgap, an activity to fill your hours, since you hadn’t planned for something else. Or what if you have no partner, that space having been nicely filled by your work and its adjunct activities? Where will you get positive reinforcement, tenderness, a listening ear, sex, all considered helpful in living happily and well?
For years, our work has provided us with a structure to our days, a community, and a source of challenge and meaning or purpose, even if that meaning is simply providing for ourselves and our families. With the moment of retirement upon us, a world of time and choice opens… with little external motivation or pressure. Where do we start to create the next part of a thriving and full life? The answer comes in Part 2.