Thinking about retirement

What do you think when you hear the word retirement? This is not a straightforward question such as: “what do you think when you hear the word ice-cream?” with its obvious associations to food and pleasure. There are many different ways to think about retirement.

One answer to the question is to say that retirement is an event in a person’s life at a point in time, a sharp break from work. But the counter to that is to say that retirement is a transition, a phase to pass through perhaps akin to mourning, which eventually comes to an end. I think that retirement is both an event and a transition but that doesn’t cover off all questions that may be asked.

The next thought is that retirement will affect people differently for a number of reasons. Retirement, and how a person feels about it, will derive from how they perceive their role in society, in their family and in their community. We are all different in terms of our backgrounds even if it’s possible to locate some common features such as status, size of family and where we live.

Even if two people declare that retirement means that they can spend time working for charitable causes that is not the end of further investigation. I can ask how large is their commitment in time and energy, how does their charitable work connect to their life before retirement, if at all, and what is their motivation: to the extent that they have even thought that through.

Returning to the earlier point of retirement as an event or a transition, it may be that that question gets trumped by a deeper process. That is the process that defines a person’s whole life and purpose. Perhaps on the surface a person went from work to no work, but that’s not the end of it. For example, one person may dedicate a whole life to giving to society, another to nurturing and enhancing his own wealth, another defines himself by his family so that his job is merely a means to that end. In all these cases you could say that there is something deeper and more fundamental going on than an event or a transition.

Of course it’s hard to think that a person’s retirement is not connected with other people. So just as the dominant arrangement in our society has it that people have families, then the family will likely place constraints on the retirement process. One such constraint may be financial, and certainly we can’t ignore money considerations. Another constraint can be the relational structure of husbands, wives, parents, children, grandchildren or even community.

So far, we have considered some of the enormous variability that lurks behind the plain scrim adorned with the word “retirement”. We haven’t even mentioned gender, family and cultural background that again will play into the differences that are possible underneath such a simple word. Physical and mental health can also loom as significant factors in the retirement discussion. All this said, defining ice-cream seems quite uncomplicated.

Finally, there is the matter of choice or agency. That is to say, in retirement each person can make decisions based on a mixture of facts, logic, emotions and perhaps coercion by others, that will lead to an outcome that is the right one for them. Of course reaching that answer is not always easy.

Who ya gonna call?

P.S. Some of the ideas above were stimulated by reading a recent article by Hanna van Solinge.