What is Retirement?

••• Photo by Christina Hamlett

For every Monday morning that you dragged yourself off to a job you didn't like, there comes the consolation that one day in the future you'll never have to go back there again. Whether retirement makes you giddy with excitement about finally having a life of leisure or consumed with thoughts of dread that your life will suddenly have no meaning depends largely on two things: (1) how much financial security you're going to need, and (2) how you truly see yourself.


In earlier centuries, there was no such thing as planning for retirement. A farmer, a merchant or a servant worked for as long as he was physically and mentally capable of performing the duties expected of him. When he was no longer able to work, he either relied on a family member to take him in for the remainder of his life or else turned to begging strangers for enough food and money to squeak by. The pervasive mindset that people who got old were no longer useful to society made the aging process something to fear, as was the threat of losing one's hard-earned belongings if you could no longer afford a place in which to keep them. The shift from agrarian societies to those that were industrialized impacted the problem as well, because workers were traveling farther from their kin for jobs and, thus becoming more estranged from their social support network. Nor was it easy for the lower classes to set any money aside for a rainy day because of the combined risk of theft and the ongoing need to stay on top of their immediate debts.


The introduction of a fixed retirement age in the late 19th century was tied in large part to life expectancy. Further, there were certain professions that called for a level of speed, strength, dexterity and quick wits that individuals who were past their prime could not handle. Well into the 20th century, people who retired from the workforce--usually after having worked for just one company ever since they were teenagers--subsisted on modest pensions provided by their employers as a reward for loyalty. As people began to live longer and embrace more job mobility, however, this created a strain on company coffers and called for the need to create a system in which employees could contribute to their future financial security through regular payroll deductions while they were still working. In addition to the escalating costs of medical care for retirees, retirement has also been affected by the escalating divorce rate. Whereas women in earlier generations usually left the workforce earlier and depended on husbands to support them, more of them have become single heads of household and are required to keep working for as long as they can in order to meet their expenses.


The purpose of retirement is to give people the chance to do all of the activities that they couldn't do while they were working 40 to 60 hours per week. For some people, retirement is a chance to finally dabble in creative pursuits such as painting, photography, music, carpentry or gardening. Spending more time with one's family--especially grandchildren--is another welcome benefit to no longer punching a time clock. If they have always wanted to travel but were previously unable to get away for more than a long weekend, they can now enjoy a much deserved vacation and, in many cases, take advantage of lower weekday rates and senior citizen discounts for accommodations. If they are empty-nesters, a retired couple may decide to renovate their home or to downsize to a smaller residence. A number of retirees return to college classrooms to keep their minds sharp or to finally get that degree they never had time for when they were working full-time. There's also a growing population of mature workers who decide to go into business for themselves (i.e., consulting in the same field that made them experts) or trying a completely different line of work (i.e., working at an ice cream parlor) just for the fun of it.


With people living longer than their ancestors, the retirement age that was previously a mandatory requirement has undergone significant reinvention. If they're financially able to afford it, it's not unusual for people today to leave the workforce prior to age 50. This is called "early retirement" and frees the worker to enjoy a life of leisure, go into a different profession, or use her expertise to open her own shop or business. If someone has been injured on the job and is unable to return to the workforce because of medical limitations, a second type of retirement goes into effect called "disability retirement," wherein the injured worker receives a monthly payment that represents a portion of what he was previously receiving as a salary. For older workers who have specialized knowledge and skills that would be costly in terms of training a replacement, there is another option that carries the title of "retired annuitant." This means that although the worker is officially retired and is drawing the equivalent of a full salary based on her years of service, she continues to work in the same capacity. There are usually restrictions regarding the number of hours that can be worked per week and/or number of months per year that someone can be a retired annuitant. There are also a number of professions that allow a worker to stay employed for as long as she can continue to do her job (i.e., law, politics, education, communications). Other professions--especially ones which are predicated on looks or athleticism--have a much shorter shelf life.


As creatures of habit, some people have a hard time adjusting to the fact that they no longer have to set a weekday alarm and be somewhere. If their personalities are such that it's difficult for them to function without the structure and rules of someone else telling them what to do, they're likely to drive their spouses crazy by following them around all day in order to have a vicarious sense of purpose. Workaholics who have spent little time cultivating creative outlets--or, for that matter, cultivating relationships with their own families and friends--are more likely to stress themselves into heart attacks and strokes from the anxiety of having no clue how to function as a retiree. Loss of self-esteem leading to depression can be a by-product of believing that one's contributions to society are no longer of any value. Financial security, of course, is often the biggest worry, especially for individuals who have done more "living for the moment" than strategizing how they're going to be able to afford their current lifestyle on a smaller paycheck.

Expert Insight

Even if retirement seems like it's a long way off in the future, it's never too early to start planning for it. Organizations such as AARP (http://www.aarp.org) have the resources, advisers and health/financial management tools to assist individuals and families in making decisions that will ensure the golden years don't end up being tarnished by a plethora of bad choices. There's also no shortage of books about retirement that offer realistic views, advice and templates on how to orchestrate a smooth and healthy transition. Here's a brief list to get you started:

"Your Retirement, Your Way: Why It Takes More Than Money to Live Your Dream," by Alan Bernstein and John Trauth; "How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free: Retirement Wisdom That You Won't Get from Your Financial Advisor," by Ernie J. Zelinski; "What Color Is Your Parachute? Planning Now for the Life You Want," by Richard Nelson Bolles and John E. Nelson; "The Wall Street Journal Complete Retirement Guidebook: How to Plan It, Live It and Enjoy It," by Glenn Ruffenach and Kelly Greene; "Working After Retirement For Dummies," by Lita Epstein; and "The New Retirement: The Ultimate Guide to the Rest of Your Life," by Jan Cullinane and Cathy Fitzgerald.