Stevie Nicks just turned 73. When I heard this on the news, I shouted it out to my husband in the sort of voice that would suggest a tree had fallen on the house. I know why this news shocked me. It’s because Stevie is supposed to be forever young. Except that she isn’t, and neither am I. I continue to fall for the lie that the baby boomers are the first ageless generation. I am sure that many of us plan to go on forever, like Stevie, wearing our jeans and still buying concert tickets until we die.
But according to all the available stats, we are retiring in large numbers. There must be a part of me that accepts this, because I have been reading about ‘the third act’ and this has led me to some interesting work on retirement and longevity. Here’s the thing about longevity. It’s like Stevie and her Botox. You can run, but you cannot hide. As Eric Idle said, Life has a very simple plot. First you’re here. Then You’re Not.
So here’s the question: do we die with our boots on, or enjoy that gap in time between stopping work and the final curtain call?
Bookshops are full of titles about how to succeed, but they are rather thin on advice about when to call it quits. Recently I came across this helpful answer to the question of when to stop. It’s when you have enough, and you’ve had enough.
Setting a retirement date at around say 65, turns out to be something of a nonsense. Why? Because in 1881, Crown Prince Bismarck of Germany decided that if life expectancy was around 58, Germany should set retirement at 65, thus avoiding paying too many workers a pension.
We are all going to exit the stage at some point, but we do not know our Use By Date, or at least, we rarely know it. What will be the gap between stopping work and pushing up daisies? And how many independent and healthy years, (our health adjusted life expectancy) will we occupy without paid work? Crystal Ball anyone?
If we really love our work and it’s not killing us, this must be an easier decision. Keep going, or at least keep your hand in. But if we don’t leap out of bed at the thought of going to work or we are tired of it, then it is probably time to start looking at the camper vans and fishing rods.
Social commentators and economists have some concerns at this point, and they are not about the best kind of camper van. If our life expectancy (and health adjusted life expectancy) continues to improve, we may have to rethink retirement. Some of us are in no shape, financially, to retire comfortably. I have known a few too many women who have approached the retirement years without any financial security whatsoever. Last year, the number of workers over 65 increased by 3 per cent according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. No other workforce age group expanded at this rate. Was this out of boredom, the love of work or necessity?
When I started work, we seemed to gather around about once a month to applaud for someone retiring. They would be handed a gift, possibly flowers and bottles and large cards. Bad jokes were made about gardening and bowling clubs. I had no appreciation back then for the landslide occurring under their feet. I always assumed they were thrilled to reach this day, though their body language ought to have told me otherwise. I didn’t pick up on the dread in some eyes and the worries about how to fill the days, finance the life or define oneself, if not through work.
But I get it now. This is not easy. This is a big change in life; an admission that many things are behind us. It is time to settle the bill on our ambitions and say, that’s the best I could do.
I have been paying careful attention to those around me, and I have been thinking about those who struggle to leave the workforce and those who do it in style.
I think back to a neighbour in London would often complain that he retired too early. His days stretched out before him, with an agoraphobic wife who would not go anywhere and panicked if he was five minutes late back from the supermarket. His annual highlight was a trip to Calais with a group called something like the Retired Municipal Boilermakers. Another retiree, one of the fittest athletes I have ever known, seems to have given up on life (post retirement) and is now dealing with depression and obesity and a host of family issues that overwhelm him. The role he left ten years ago, is still under his name on Linked In. Decades ago, I would have predicted that this man would nail retirement. I am sorry to be so wrong.
Then I watch friends like Milly and Martin, who seem to have mastered the art of retirement, constantly planning travels, volunteering, going to the races, taking great photographs, playing golf, and going to the theatre. They are always up for a good meal out somewhere. Milly just ‘keeps a hand in’ with her career, but it is entirely on her terms. Ditto for Louise and Richard who took up oil painting in retirement and are now collecting art prizes, travelling around their home state for exhibitions and meantime feeding an array of reptiles and birds in their garden. Louise reads voraciously, Richard plays his guitars and makes café grade coffees for their many visitors. I marvel at Angela, who retired at 60 and is spending her days volunteering for two organisations. She looks younger and fitter than when she was working. When we discussed the emotional trauma of finishing work, she looked at me as if I were mad. I never gave it another thought, she said.
American writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, Philip Roth, put down his pen in 2009, nine years before he died. According to his biographer, Blake Bailey, “he had seen others, including his hero, Saul Bellow, go on a book or two too long. Roth quoted the boxer, Joe Louis: I did the best I could with what I had. Roth learned to take it easy. He listened to music, reread old favourites, visited museums, took afternoon naps, and watched baseball in the evening. He was less competitive now.”
I don’t have all the answers, but I am looking at patterns and hitting the books. Retirement certainly looks kinder if you are avoiding major stresses or calamities, though the latter is not always within our control. It clearly helps to have the money to enjoy life, or at least, to avoid daily worries about bills. Having interests and reasons to get out of bed seems important. Having a supportive partner who has separate and fun things to do, is helpful. Social networks matter, but they need not be extensive. Taking care of ourselves physically and mentally is vital. I suspect that learning to accept what is within your control and what is outside of it, is key to finding contentment, but it is arguably the hardest thing to do.
I’ll keep asking around. Those toes in the photograph belong to my oldest friend, who has just retired from full time work. She is sitting on the deck of a boat in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. We were teenagers when we first listened to Stevie Nicks, who sang, Time makes you bolder, children get older and I’m getting older too.
You’re so right, Stevie. We’re getting older too.