The myth of retirement

No Regrets: Work-Life Integration Part 3

This article is part of a 7 part series No Regrets: Integration Work-Life. 

Part 1: Who will make all the Mai Tais?
Part 2: What amount of work is the right amount?
Part 3: The might of Retirement
Part 4: The Four Burner Theory


Going back to Huxley, he correctly predicted the ageing population and many of the challenges it would bring. For me, there are two major myths around retirement – firstly for the individual related to what retirement might actually look like, and secondly for organisations and the value of older workers.

Planning for retirement


People, in general, are really bad at planning for retirement. I used to work for a financial services firm. Talking to an ex-advisor one day he explained a simple exercise to me. He got his clients to describe how they would like to spend retirement, he then got them to cost that description of retirement up with his help. So far so clear. He then got them to consider big costs – college expenses for kids, quality of care in their old age etc. Then he extrapolated (this is where he earned his money) to show what they would need to have in a pension pot, and what they would need to save to get there. “More often than not” he explained, “their faces dropped.”

In the UK at least there seems to be blind faith in what people are putting away in a pension, the state pension and the value of property, in looking after them in retirement. Having seen that work for previous generations the assumption it is will work for us. “The reality”, he explained “is that people often have to cut back on their expectations of retirement as one long holiday and it’s more of a ‘staycation’”. Being at leisure it seems, is quite costly.

Not only that, but as people tend not to consider their twilight years until well past noon, metaphorically speaking, they often lack the time to really put money away. Even though it may have felt like they were working their asses off in their earlier years without giving serious thought to the years ahead the chances are they didn’t do enough and they have sacrificed leisure time in the process. In short, until the world of work catches up, there is a high chance people will put off enjoying themselves with the promise (lie) of leisure later, only to never fully realise what they were promised.

Why retire anyway?


Here’s the problem: society has a huge bias against growing old. Grey hairs remind us of our own mortality. People who have the scars to provide the calmness that means they don’t have to go at breakneck speed expose the folly of the race. That’s all well and good but as we have seen many people don’t have enough money to retire in the way they would like and the sooner they retire the sooner they die.

A study of employees at an oil company found a surprising result when looking at retirement age. Those who retired at 55 and lived to be 65 died 37% sooner than those who retired at 65. This effect is replicated and observable in a number of different situations.

“A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” -Lao Tzu

But this isn’t just about what is bad for the individual, it’s also bad for the company. I am of the view that wisdom is hugely valuable at work and very underrated. In his book Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, Chip Conley makes the case that effective utilisation of those who are aiming at retirement is a business advantage. Never mind the fact it might just save lives.

But this throws into some question the concept of retirement. If we are saying many of us aren’t saving for the leisure we want, and we may not get to enjoy anyway if we die earlier than expected, what should we hope for? That we save just enough and die just young enough to enjoy our final decade without work. I suggest something quite different.

Let’s view leisure and work as a continuum. One that steadily reduces over time. Not at a steady rate as in the diagram below but broadly following that line of fit. This allows us to invest heavily in work and education whilst we are young – something that requires a younger mind perhaps? Certainly, it’s true we tend to have fewer commitments when we are young – so this is a good time to put in the foundation. But rather than continuing at 40+ hours of work a week, we then slowly dial back for the rest of our careers, we should start to consider alternative models. A 4-day work week unless we are studying? A roman artisanesque 06.00-12.00 day?  Whatever works for you. You can look forward to saving enough to enjoy the time when you earn the least in total (but where your expertise is valued higher) but without the feeling you have to cram your hearts desires into the years where you are most likely to suffer from health issues.

Notice within this approach the line never reaches zero. I’m not sure you can really claim a newborn is doing work but they are learning and their brains are burning glucose like there’s no tomorrow. And of course, on your deathbed, you probably aren’t using your final moments to mentor others. But everything in between is approximately how I see it. I don’t plan on ever really retiring but I also plan on enjoying my life in-between time.

“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” – Mark Twain

I know, I’m incredibly fortunate to have any expectation I might live the life Mark Twain described, but don’t we all have an obligation to help as many people as possible live that life?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash