Retirement: A new and different form of work
By Gary L. Welton
Both financial and physical well-being in retirement require foresight and planning. Although far too many people fail to plan their financial resources, perhaps even more people fail to plan how to invest their hours and days once the structure of the work week is removed by retirement.
In his book “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison writes, “Don’t you know the quickest way to die is to retire?” Unfortunately, there is some research evidence to suggest that he is on to something here.
Although many of us are quick to complain about our hours at work, the work week establishes a certain stability and structure to our lives. It sounds utopian to be freed from work responsibilities, to have, as Henry James in “The Portrait of a Lady” writes, “weeks and months made up only of off-days.” The removal of this structure, however, without plans to invest one’s time, often leads to aimlessness and decline.
Although many people have ample hobbies and delayed projects to fill their retirement days, others find their lives to be suddenly empty. In “The Gift of Asher Lev,” Chaim Potok writes, “A difficult day? I didn’t do a thing all day! For you, my husband, that is the most difficult kind of day you can have.”
In “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde observes, “He had set himself to the serious study of the great aristocratic art of doing absolutely nothing.”
Or, “The more he did nothing, the less time he seemed to have,” as Leo Tolstoy writes in “Anna Karenina.”
What should we do with our new freedom, our unfolding spare time? In “Fathers and Sons,” Ivan Turgenev writes, “There’s an empty space in my trunk and I’m stuffing hay into it. It’s the same with the luggage of our own lives. It doesn’t matter what you fill it with so long as there’s no empty space.”
But it does matter. Retirement gives us control and choices as to how we spend our time. We now have the time to pursue projects of interest. In “The Chosen,” Chaim Potok writes, “I am doing things I consider very important now. If I could not do these things, my life would have no value. Merely to live, merely to exist -- what sense is there to it? A fly also lives.”
If there is no sense or meaning to it, then Isaac Singer’s character in “The Manor” is correct: “I can die, I am no longer needed.”
Indeed, we must find meaning in our retirement. Again, in “The Chosen,” Chaim Potok writes, “A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning.”
In what choices do we find this meaning? In the book “Without Remorse,” Tom Clancy observes, “There was more to life than the avoidance of death. Life had to have a purpose, and one such purpose was the service of others.”
The avenues in which we can demonstrate that we love our neighbor as ourselves are all around us. We can invest in our grandchildren, our neighbors, our churches, and myriad needs around the world. We have earned our rest from punching the clock. We have earned our rest from reporting to our supervisor. We have not, however, earned our rest from loving our neighbor as ourselves, from investing in the next generation. Our work takes a new and different form. The pressures are reduced. Nevertheless, the work remains critical.
In “The Sorrows of Satan,” Marie Corelli writes, “Clear before me rose the vision of that most divine and beautiful necessity of happiness -- Work! Nothing merits more thankfulness and praise to the Creator than the call to work, and the ability to respond to it.”
Do your financial planning, but also engage in planning how you will invest your retirement years in the world around you. Remember Chaim Potok’s assessment from “In the Beginning.” He writes, “It is nice to have lots of money and it is terrible to be poor and hungry. But the most terrible thing of all is to be useless.”
Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values.