Retirement: Plunging Into New Activities
The idea of retirement invokes the idea of a personal withdrawal. From a lifestyle perspective, retirement is the final stage of our working careers, the time at which we are no longer required to directly participate in the economics of society. In The National Health Information Center's Younger Retirees Face Higher Death Rate [via Business of Life] we are reminded that the idea of retirement also carries with it a sense of decline and abandonment. That is, retirement not only declares the end of a career, but it also hints at the end of our life. At the same time, our society largely fails to question the benefit of an idea like retirement. As alluded to in Younger Retirees Face Higher Death Rate there is a challenging psychological component to the idea of retirement...
Retirement as Identity Crisis
"There is a widespread perception that early retirement is associated with longer life expectancy, and that retiring later leads to early death," the researchers wrote. "The possible health benefits of retirement, such as reduced role demand and more relaxed lifestyle, have been postulated to improve longevity among people who retire early."
Not so, the study found. The death rate for workers who retired at 55 was 37 percent higher than for those who kept working until 65.
Retirement is an economic curriculum. The underlying prerequisite is the quest for enough material wealth to maintain a desired lifestyle without having to work. If a person does not have enough money to survive on, then sources of income must be generated through work. The material wealth required to live without work is quite substantial and we spend many years attempting to accumulate money through pension plans, retirement plans and other forms of financial investments. In this sense, retirement is a kind of unwritten diploma that grants us the right to not work in society.
One of the more unfortunate consequences of retirement for many people is a deep sense of bewilderment. This sense of bewilderment comes from a dramatic change in identity. In the midst of our working careers, we tend to derive self-esteem, motivation, and a sense of purpose from the work we carry out. Sometimes it seems that a seemingly innocent question like, "What do you do?" really means, "What work do you do?" Retirement, along this line of thought, is "What work do you no longer do?"
Younger Retirees Face Higher Death Rate focuses specifically on the issue of health:
Health has an inevitable effect on survival, said Colin Milner, chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging, in Vancouver, Canada. But many people underestimate the importance of their job when they give it up, he added.
"We tend to build our lives around our work," Milner said. "When we are no longer working, we can lapse into lack of activity, and that can contribute to bad health."
Of course, when we retire we are often at a more advanced age and therefore in a state of declining health. This is a very curious aspect of an economically driven tradition, that is, we agree to spend our years of optimum health working under the banner of progress and contribution to society. But this progress and contribution is not without sacrifice. Does it not seem odd, even psychotic, that we would all proceed through life under these terms?
Milner states that retirement tends to breed a kind of sudden shift to inactivity, and this lack of activity contributes to health problems. It is obvious to say that physical inactivity is detrimental to our health. I would suggest that inactivity is also alive and well in the workplace. Many working people spend a good part of their day on their behinds, and this has been encouraged further by digital technologies. The retrieval of physical activity can be seen via health clubs, outdoor programs, organized community sports, and so on.
Plunging Into new Activities
To be healthy, retirement must be active, Milner said. In his experience, he said, retired people who plunged into new activities enjoyed their lives more, and were thus healthier. One study showed "that older adults who volunteer to help others can reduce their risk of dying prematurely by 60 percent," he said.
The phrase "plunged into new activities" is quite compelling in the quote above. Retirement, then, can be seen as an opportunity to seek new experiences and to have the freedom to do so. But sometimes the psychological shock of having suddenly acquired this freedom can be emotionally debilitating. We spend twelve to twenty years acquiring an education, then another thirty to forty years in the workforce only to come out the other end some forty-two to sixty years later with a new sense of freedom? A society that demands forty-two to sixty years of a person's life before granting them an opportunity to "plunge into new activities" is clearly a psychotic society.
Retirement: The Mind-Body ConnectionCandace Pert clearly points out that " the body and mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other." The article Younger Retirees Face Higher Death Rate, to my thinking, ignores this important connection. Simply making a body active as a end unto itself does not necessarily mean that the psychological effects of retirement will be reduced.
Since we have been conditioned over many years via education and economics to be lifestyle lemmings, the idea of suddenly granting people the freedoms associated with retirement late in life is quite bizarre. In addition, retirement is often associated with decline:
Many people in the later years of their lives, due to failing health, require assistance, the highest degree of assistance - in some countries - being provided in a nursing home. Those who need care, but are not in need of constant assistance, may choose to live in a retirement home. This is a facility giving the retired person some degree of freedom, yet with close-by medical assistance to handle emergencies.
- Wikipedia: Retirement
The idea of retirement brings us into a close proximity with our own end. But why shouldn't retirement bring us into close proximity to a new beginning? Perhaps the feeling of sacrificing our years of optimal health to suboptimal experiences leaves us with a feeling destitution. Perhaps, more acutely, our retirement retrieves the mythic in us and makes us wonder of the journey we took in life was the right one. Because retirement is intimately linked with advanced age, it is unavoidably linked to the question of our own end.
Retiring Throughout LifeIf we were to break the chain that holds retirement to something that occurs toward the end of lives we might find more fertile soil to promote more vibrant lifestyles. There is no reason that retirement should be something that is merely thought of as occurring toward the end of life. Why not have ten retirements spread throughout our lives?
To an econophile such a thought would at least be foreign, if not contrary to their ideas about progress. However, if our society is built on the premise of helping people to live vibrant and rewarding lives, should we not allow them to plunge into new activities at various ages without having the cloud of working to earn an income hanging over their head? Or would allowing people to explore life authentically be too damning on the GDP?
Another example of failing to take the idea of retirement beyond the underlying assumptions can be found in The New Meaning of Retirement. Unfortunately, the "new meaning" mentioned in the title has no significant connection to everything that follows. Instead, what we read is a variation on the theme of economics in which we read about a minor variation on the theme retirement called bridge retirement. The idea of bridge retirement centres on the provision of part-time employment in which older workers vary their activities between engagement in employment and non-engagement. While the idea of bridge retirement certainly has value, it fails to address the more significant lifestyle issues.
In failing to question the underlying assumptions of retirement, Younger Retirees Face Higher Death Rate misses the point. The issue is not as simplistic and facile as increasing physical activity. We need to question what retirement can mean to people at any age, not merely what it means toward the end of our lives. Retirement is not an experience that is subservient to an economic and financial bias.
- Newsweek: Turning 60