What is Retirement anyway?

A few weeks ago a friend came over and prepared a financial analysis statement for my wife and me. One question that stumped me—surprisingly—was, “At what age do you plan to retire?”

Retire? Retire? What does that mean? After chuckling, my friend asked, “At what age do you want to have enough money to not have to earn money to live on?” Of course, the basic assumption is to amass a certain amount of cash by a certain age. Work work work. Save save save.

I still didn’t get it. His question sounded more like, “How long do you think you’ll need to work in your crappy job until you can do the stuff you really want to do?”

I’m reading Chris Guillebeau’s new book, The Art of Non-Conformity (aff link). Here’s what he writes on page 101 (the “Competence is Your Security chapter).

When you focus on escaping the humdrum of the cubicle…you also need to have something to escape to. Otherwise you may end up no happier than you were prior to the escape.

And that’s the problem. So many people spending their working lives now, most very unhappily I might add, so they can get away from it all later. Just like Chris wrote in his book.

And I have proof. Just the other day, a co-worker went to a funeral. It was for a lady’s spouse whom he had worked with years earlier (he worked with the lady not her husband). She retired after 40 years working for the government. Her husband had previously retired and was anxious for her to retire so they could, “get on with their golden years.”

She decided to put in five more years so they could have a little more spending money. And she did. Then she retired. Less than a year later, her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimers. She spent another five years taking care of her husband until he died a few weeks ago.

Unfortunately, I see this all too often. I had another friend (also a co-worker) who died in the spring of 2007. He couldn’t wait to retire to a little condo in South Florida. Only thing is he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer—four years before his escape hatch was supposed to blow. Fortunately, he was able to take an early retirement. Do you know what he did then? All the things he dreamed about before retirement. He was 52 years old.

Why is it that retirement is something so many people desperately seek? Maybe your situation is different. I work as a government contractor and I work with hundreds of people who are quietly, desperately working for something beyond their current predicament. They don’t know what it is but it’s just got to be something better. To them, retirement is a destination.

So, I asked myself. Is it worth it to spend the next 30 to 40 years doing something that is boring at best and insignificant at worst so that I can save enough money to then make my dreams come true…later? When I’m burnt out? Or physically and emotionally sick?

I don’t think the problem is work. Work allows us to take care of our families. Be good citizens. Support our churches. Pay taxes for roads and bridges. Work is a good thing. What’s bad is work we weren’t meant to do. Sure, I understand that sometimes we have to perform menial or unpleasant tasks in the realm of work. Every job has a “crap factor” as Po Bronson puts it. But a lifetime of unpleasantness? Work that’s so bad that all I can think about is not having to do it someday?

So where does that leave my question, what is retirement anyway? I don’t know how to define it. It’s not a measuring stick I use. I’ll work for the rest of my life. Some of it I’ll get paid for. Some of it I won’t. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I use my God given abilities now. Not at some time in the future. Not hoping that something better is out there for a better day.

What’s more important? Taking charge of my life now? Or rolling the dice and leaving it up to chance later? I know my answer. What’s yours?

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