THE LONGER WE LIVE, the more perspective we have—and the more foolish many of our earlier beliefs seem. We start our adult journey confident that we’ll make our mark on the world and that the financial rewards we collect will greatly enhance our life. By the time we reach retirement, things look quite different. Here are five things I’ve learned along the way:
1. Fame is fleeting. How many entertainers, sports stars and politicians have each of us forgotten? At their peak, it seemed like these folks would be remembered forever. In many cases, forever turned out to be a decade, maybe two.
This extends to financial celebrities. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, financial observers like Dan Dorfman, Elaine Garzarelli and Hugh Johnson enjoyed what seemed like an enviable fame. Today, they’re forgotten or rarely mentioned.
2. Material circumstances matter little. I’ve lived in both cockroach-infested apartments and beautiful homes with stunning views, and I know which I prefer. But I can’t say with 100% confidence that I’m happier today than I was when I was young and broke.
To be sure, this is partly a problem of memory. I simply can’t recall my state of mind three or four decades ago. Still, when I think of the times in my life when I was notably happy or unhappy, it had nothing to do with where I lived, my net worth or the car I drove, and a lot to do with life’s highs and lows—things like falling in love, getting divorced and losing a parent, as well as career successes and failures, both my own and those of my children.
3. Triumphs and tribulations seem small. Humans are hardwired both to worry and to strive. But looking back, all our worries—to the extent we can even remember them—appear to be a colossal waste of mental energy, while the goals we struggled to achieve now seem of little import.
I could happily do without further worrying, but worries continue to dog me. What about the striving? That still strikes me as worthwhile. But the key, I believe, is to strive for what each of us believes is important, rather than focusing on success as defined by our parents, our friends or corporate America’s relentless marketing machine. It’s also crucial to pursue goals where we’re confident we’ll find the journey enthralling, even if our accomplishments ultimately seem modest.
Perhaps the accomplishments that lose their luster the fastest are career achievements, especially once we retire or move on to another job. It’s jarring how quickly we can go from valued employee to nonperson, our years of labor barely remembered by an ever-dwindling band of former colleagues.
An aside: Our nonperson stature with our old employer makes a mockery of all those earnest messages we’d received from human resources, assuring us that the organization was concerned about our wellness, work-life balance, mental health and whatever else was that year’s favored flavor of corporate compassion. My sense is that small businesses can—sometimes—be truly caring organizations. But when it comes to bigger companies, I think millennials have it right: These organizations deserve scant loyalty because they show none.
4. Time is more valuable than money. In our 20s and 30s, amassing both money and possessions seem like worthy goals, for good reason. At that stage in our life, we typically don’t have much money and we still have plenty of time to enjoy the possessions we acquire.
Matters look quite different for those of us who are retired or almost so. Today, I find throwing or giving away possessions liberating. I’m much more parsimonious with my time than with my money. Want to irritate me? I won’t like it if you overcharge me—but I’ll be furious if you waste my time.
5. Change gets old. Every new generation reinvents the world, leaving those of us from earlier generations struggling to make sense of what’s happening. Part of it is physical. I’m simply not going to fly down the street at highway speeds balanced on an electric scooter, let alone an electric unicycle.
But my reluctance to embrace change also, I think, reflects an unwillingness to commit brain power to something that seems unlikely to improve my life. Will I really be happier if I devote time to learning more about TikTok, cryptocurrencies, nonfungible tokens and the metaverse? I doubt it.
That said, I’m in awe of younger generations, and their ability to navigate an increasingly complicated world with seemingly boundless energy. To judge from comments on this site, others are more scornful of today’s young adults. Guess what? When we were teenagers and in our 20s, older generations were also scornful of us. I may not be willing to ride an electric unicycle at 60 miles per hour. But I’m happy to watch others try.