Years ago I met a man who retired in his late 50s and when I asked if he is happy, he said: “Retirement is a scam”. He told me it was a big dream that turned into disappointment. He was not happy. He felt alone and kind of useless. That inspired me to write an article called Retirement is a Scam in 2017 not only because of what he said but because I read a lot of research about the realities of retirement. I do not want to repeat what I said there but it is a big topic worth discussing again.
Let’s start with this question:
Why do you think so many people wait for retirement with so much enthusiasm?
The first reason is they don’t like work they do or some hate it. Second, they are burned out since many workplaces suck the soul out of them by making them feel like a machine or a number (instead of a human being), while demanding them to work long hours. When you have work that kills you (literally in some cases like the book Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer explains), of course, you will daydream about retirement every single day.
It is actually very sad that work environments make people feel so miserable and even if they have the potential, capacity, and experience to be vital for many decades to come, they force people to choose to retire as soon as they can.
When I started learning about the history of work though, I realized there was no concept like “retirement” before the Industrial Age. People worked all their lives because that was the only way to live and make money. Once people traded their time to make money, they were made a promise that it will pay off at the end by this new concept of “retirement”. At the time though, people died 5-10 years after retiring. Now, someone who retires in their 50s, 60s have at least 20-30, sometimes more years to live. First, we need more money to last that long and then we need some kind of purpose in life. Not everybody has great plans on what to do.
More research shows we are hard-wired to contribute as human beings, even if we are not always conscious of it. When we stop learning and contributing, we feel “not needed”. Our health deteriorates as the Wall Street Journal article “The Case Against Early Retirement” explains. (I have the whole article as a subscriber that I can send you if you are interested.) Especially men who have their work as the biggest focus of their lives have a very hard time when they retire. As I wrote in the article I mentioned above, SCORE mentors I met who are giving away their hours as volunteers even in their 70s and 80s said retirement was fine for the first few years but nobody can travel and play golf all the time. They wanted to feel useful. They want to feel needed. That has so many benefits for society too. Younger generations have a chance to learn from their vast experience and wisdom which would otherwise go to waste.
As the WSJ article points out, when men delay retirement, it reduces their mortality rate by 32%. That says something significant about the role of work in our lives. It also says “many people feel like they should retire by a certain age because it is the way it has been”. We sometimes do it without questioning or having a good plan. Then there are those who are forced to retire. This is also a big discussion among the labor department, businesses, and government entities. Those people who are willing to work but forced to retire have to go through a very difficult emotional turbulence and sometimes financial hardship as well.
If you have been following me for a while, you know why I care about this so much.
The saddest truth about this is people want to retire mostly because they hate their work and they are burned out.
(Hence my article titled “Who else wants to quit their crappy jobs?” got viral-like none before.)
What if none of this was true? That is what we need to change. People are born to bring meaning to their lives. The concept of separating work and life is wrong in the first place. Work is a big part of our lives.
The second worst thing is the fact that people postpone their dreams until retirement not knowing for sure if they can get there.
One reason I love this new generation is they want to do what they love now, not wait for an arbitrary day they will have time. Don’t we all hear or read something that says we need to stay in the moment and talks about the power of now? The only thing we are certain is that we have at this moment. We have this all upside down until now.
We need to find the system to have people do what they love, use their strengths, bring more meaning to work so that they do not chase weekends and retirement.
In order for people to do what they love now and stop dreaming all day about the day they retire, we need to create a whole new DNA for work. We need to find the system to have people do what they love, use their strengths, bring more meaning to work so that they do not chase weekends and retirement. People need to have the flexibility to have time to do things they care about. We should love our lives as a whole instead of having an artificial separation between work and personal lives. My husband (I learn a lot of from him about retirement since he does the financial planning for it) and I both had our share of doing work we did not care about or worked at toxic environments. That is why we chose a different path to do work that is deeply meaningful to us and created flexibility to make sure we do not wait for any future date to fulfill our dreams. That is probably why we don’t have dreams about retirement as many people do. Even if we were to hit the lottery today, I know we will do our work. Because it has never been only “work” in the traditional sense for us. It is who we are in essence. There is no separation between who we are and what we do.
We also know now that doing purposeful work makes us stay healthy physically, emotionally, and cognitively. (Dr. Eric S Kim from Harvard School of Public Health studies.) I always got fascinated by people who love their lives; it seems like all of them had work they cared about. They do something useful at later stages in life too. I am also extremely lucky to have an example like my dad who is turning 90 this month who always had purposeful work to this age.
I am definitely not saying retirement is bad for you. Some people are ready, they have all the means, they have a plan. All I am saying is it is not always glorious as it seems for some of us based on research, especially if we retire really early like in our 50s. Just considering why you want to retire early, being prepared financially, and for what is to come and having a good purpose to live beyond it will help you feel much happier and healthier in your golden years. It is worth putting some thought into it. Make yourself feel needed and useful since that seems to be a common theme among retirees.
In the meantime, many of us try to build a system that supports all this as the younger generations force the change by questioning the status quo.