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.
Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.
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>> Material circumstances matter little
Well yah, if you have money. If you have no money you see it a little different. That’s the paradox of the time and material. Moreover, pace those harboring romantic beliefs in the deliverances of time, there is never enough of it no matter what you do.
The singer of Cat’s in the Cradle’s lyrics were written by his wife, informed by her troubled relationships, and pop psychologists have been flogging it ever since. But the old army vet Croce got it right with Time in a Bottle as an accurate depiction of how most wise people come to see life in relation to time.
Many of the comments make me think of the old poem “Indispensable Man” by Saxon White Kessinger. Can we chuckle when others are too dense to realize how important we are to them?
We may long to be that important to some other people, but longing to be important in the eyes of most others will be a problem for us. Because …
“It is the tragedy of other people that they are merely showcases for the very perishable collections of one’s own mind.” – Proust
This is in line with one of my favorite quotes. It is sometimes attibuted to, among others, General Gharles de Gaulle.
“The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”
“Want to irritate me? I won’t like it if you overcharge me—but I’ll be furious if you waste my time.”
This 1000x. The level of customer service since 2020 has deteroriated to the point where I sometimes feel I’m in a 3rd world nation. IRS, Treasury Direct, hospitals, doctor’s offices, consumer product companies.
Seems whatever I try to book, buy, or correct (as in fixing wrong charges, wrong orders, etc) requires far more hours, days or weeks of my ever-diminishing time on this planet than ever before.
I know all the legit reasons (and some dubious excuses) companies trot out – staffing issues, higher demand, etc.
But bottom line: there is zero consideration or caring for wasting people’s time. In my ’20s-’40s, it didn’t bother me as much, but now, as time grows more precious, I am extremely resentful at those who deem it worthless.
I couldn’t agree more — customer service has become a bad joke.
Your business is important to us.
Great reminder on what’s important in life. I especially liked the part about the company-family myth and loyalty to the company. I recently took a senior manager position that pays really well but I’m having to do almost 12 hour days Mon-Thu with a 5 month old to take care of, and wondering if it’s all worth it.
Also made me revisit one of my favorite articles on the ‘busy trap‘
Change truly does get old. I can look back on things I have achieved or participated in during my career that I thought were truly significant at the time they occurred. I can look back at deal “tombstones” for billion dollar deals, and at legal documents I wrote that were seminal. But even with all their ripples, they aren’t very noticeable today. There came a point a few years ago where I realized that the world had changed too much for those memories to have much meaning now. [Yes, there were a few people who probably felt the same way I originally did (the ones who were involved in the same deals and activities, ha ha.)] But recognizing this did not depress me – it actually changed my perspective on life in a good way. I gained a new appreciation for the transitory nature of our existence, and it keeps me active. I continually look for ways, however small, to help people and impact events to achieve even small positive change, if I think it can be durable, and achieve some good. Happily, money hasn’t entered into the equation for a long, long time. A thank you or just the smile of discovery is payment enough.
Your comment about employer loyalty was particularly poignant. My father worked for one company his whole life and, as I began my working career, I hoped for the same. I eventually managed to work for only handful of companies, mostly due to my own ambitions, but by the time I retired, any notion of employer loyalty had long since faded. My son has already worked for more companies than I did in his short career, and is much more motivated by money and his free time than any sense of loyalty to his employer. There may be some companies where employer/employee loyalty still exists, but in much of the working world today, work is merely a transaction that exchanges labor for money.
Terrific insights as usual. Several things really hit home. First, I’m amazed at how many seniors ride electric bikes in our beach town. They are everywhere. Second, I’m a fan of the younger generations. I might just be lucky, but my children, their cousins, and their friends, are all terrific people, hard-working, and moving on with their lives. Third, I saw first hand how the “non-person” trend worked in the companies I worked for. I started with GE and was merged, sold, merged, and sold over 30 years. My job was moved 70 miles, then 3000 miles, then 300 miles. I survived it all and enjoyed my career, and many of the people I worked with. The end was fairly ignoble, but I had seen it happen to a number of friends and colleagues, so I was (mostly) ready for it.
At 67, after giving up motorcycles after 50 years of riding, we got ebikes. We take them camping with us along with our kayaks and travel trailer. Currently on a 4 month road trip exploring the west. Never too old to embrace new things!
Your comment about worry reminded me of a quote from the movie The Spanish Prisoner: “Worrying is like paying interest in advance on a loan that never comes due.”
while that’s a little glib, and there are some things worth worrying about, I know that most of the energy I spent worrying was wasted.
I too am a forgotten former employee, but I wouldn’t expect otherwise as companies mainly look forward. This benefits shareholders, but I agree there are no warm-and-fuzzy feelings for past contributors who helped the companies get there.
RE: “Triumphs and tribulations seem small” – I still have quite positive feelings about past career achievements which had beneficial environmental and third-world financial impacts. My kids still ask about them.
Like most folks, our children remain our biggest triumph and tribulation. Every life and career is a journey, and no one can take away the meaningful progress and achievements regardless of their nature.
I listened to a TED talk about computer science and decision making- and what I took away was that everything we do gives us information. The key is to figure out if you want new information or whether you want to exploit the information you already have. Are you going to explore or exploit? As we get older, we think we know what we like and want, so we are much more likely to exploit the information we already have rather than gain new information and risk a bad result. Now, I use this tool to think about all kinds of silly choices. Am I exploring or exploring here?
I meant to write-Am I exploring or exploiting here?
There should be a third ‘E’ – enjoying the new information.
Spot on Mr. Clements … My favorite quote is from Albert Einstein … “The most aggravating thing about the younger generation is that I no longer belong to it”!
“To judge from comments on this site, others are more scornful of today’s young adults.”
Very true! Sadly, those making the scornful comments do not look in the mirror themselves.
After watching my sons grow up – working with young adults in Scouts, and watching the young people I hired – I have nothing but hope for the future. Of course they don’t necessarily like the things I like, or do things the way I would. But they are industrious, responsible, and want to make a difference. I’ve had my shot at the world. I’m willing to let them have a go at it.
Nothing of the past is as grand or bad as it appears from today’s point of view. I’m guilty of criticism of upcoming generations. It just seems some of the basic courtesies, responsible behavior have truly changed, that and more living for the moment and less concern for the future. No doubt my grandparents had similar thoughts of my generation.
Every once in a while a “young” person will hold the door open for me. It really makes them stand out from the crowd and gives me a little hope for the youngest generations.
Blushing slightly as I recall some of the more heavily edited stuff I’ve turned in 😬
I’m sure mine are the worst. Especially when I use the free world’s supply of acronyms.
I had the exact same thought!
Fear not, John. You’re an easy edit!
As usual your observations are spot on. I was especially taken by the “nonperson” observation. That is something I can relate to first hand and after twelve years retired still remain a tad bitter. The way I was treated upon retirement after nearly fifty years still hurts.
On my last day not one of my fellow officers stopped by to say goodbye. The grandest gift I received was a bottle of wine. When I asked about the tradition of giving a retiring officer a Movado watch, I was told this – S&P 500 – company “didn’t have the funds.”
Several months after I retired I noticed benefit related communications were being sent out that were factually wrong and misleading to employees. I point that out to my successor and then my former boss. My reward was to be told in so many words to mind my own business.
There is much more that happened, but I won’t bore readers with it. The fact it still all haunts me after all these years says much about how it all hurt after being what we used to call a “company man.”
But I also realize it was not a corporation acting this way. There is no such thing as a company when it comes to this kind of thing, it’s people, sometimes just vindictive, sometimes those just seeking the next rung on the ladder and not caring how they get it, sometimes just know it alls with micro perspectives for the long term.
There is much positive created by the next generations, but from my aging perspective there is much lost as well. As I see it, the number one flaw at the moment is lack of personal responsibility and accountability – perhaps followed closely by paying top dollar for a pair of jeans ripped to shreds.
My last day of work also happened to be the last work day of the year. I was endeavoring to clean up as many loose ends as I could which took me after 7pm(12 hour day, not uncommon). No one else in the office, my group had left(as well as the rest of the office area) but they did a good job of saying goodbye and thanking me for giving them much help over the years.
What was most rewarding though, was receiving all the forwarded emails from my manager the following week from my longtime customers expressing their profound thanks for bailing them out of supply chain trouble and offering 2nd and 3rd options when the 1st wasn’t available.
Those are the types of problems I relished to find solutions for. My older long-term management expressed their thanks for that, but my new manager was happy to see me go as she wanted to hand pick her crew and I was part of the old guard. Her prerogative of course, but a reminder that the co-workers and customers is what kept me coming to work everyday. A distant memory now. More time to spend on long neglected relationships that suffered when work took a larger share of my time than it deserved. Easier to see in hindsight. I am glad I am still around to have new adventures.
I always got a kick out of the gifts I received from a former employer. I know, you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
On one particular anniversary, I received a gift card that worked out to be the equivalent of a $5.00 per year bonus.
Another time they made a monetary donation (in my name) to an organization that I never would have donated money to. I think they assumed they knew my world views, but it would have been nice if they’d simply asked me where I wanted the money to go.
this is a huge pet peeve of mine. Giving is personal- an emotional connection to the cause. I give to deserving nonprofits I care very much about – and they’re often not the ones companies or employers push.
I stopped shopping at one chain because every single time I checked out, cashiers asked me to donate to the company’s pet cause of the week or month. Wasn’t the employees’ fault – they were told to push this. It was annoying to be pestered every time & forced to decline. Just put up a sign or box and let people donate if desired.
I’ve had employers pressure us (staffs) for donations to a nonprofit because of an executive’s personal connection to the cause: their own kid or sibling was impacted and they want to use their company as a fundraising platform. I sympathize, but my family members were seriously impacted by OTHER things these employers never supported.
I love AmazonSmile: their list of nonprofits allows everyone to do good but still have a choice in where their donation goes.
It saddened me that I wasn’t included in the discussion about a donation that was being made in my name. If asked, I could have quickly offered up 2 or 3 charitable causes that I would have felt very good about. Instead, I felt irritated. It seemed like it was a case of, “We know what’s best for you” which, honestly, was a constant issue with this particular employer…
When I walked out that corporate door I refused to look back because I saw how previous retirees were treated over the years and it was not “warm and fuzzy”. The gold watch retirement is most likely a myth from ancient times when individuals were valued for their contributions.
I did the same when I retired and now I’m happy to be nonperson from my old employer’s view. I liked my job and I thought it was important and that I was important at the time. However, I didn’t realize how little it would all mean to me once it was in the rearview mirror.
I’m saddened to learn that your colleagues did not celebrate your fifty years of achievement. Having just retired after thirty years at one workplace, I believe the most important mark of passage to be answering affirmatively, “have I helped others?” and “have I worked to the best of my abilities to improve my workplace?”. From your previous posts, you did so exceeding well. Hold on to those memories for they are the most meaningful.
You are so right. I was quite moved when in 2021 my old employer took away retiree health care benefits and many retired people I had worked with for years turned to me for assistance.
Excellent observations. But you seem to have overlooked the opportunity that comes in retirement to spend more time in service to others (although providing an excellent forum for financial education is indeed a service to others). The relentless marketing machine that you reference is on full display with the ads from investment management companies featuring images of mainly men playing golf, driving motorcycles, strolling down beaches, etc. as if to suggest that retirement can only be a life of leisure and self-indulgence. There’s more out there to do than that.
So true! With unanticipated changes in my retirement “plan” (what I imagined I’d be doing versus what I am doing), I’ve found wonderful new friends and sense of purpose in volunteer activities. An added benefit: the interview process, if any, is much simpler and lower stress than for a paying job.
Very wise advice. All three of my successful sons are flying down the street on an electric scooter and I keep trying to ask them to get off and watch. So far, I have been unsuccessful. Even suggesting that they slow down usually draws a negative response. So, the Mrs. and I will focus on taking care of ourselves and supporting them if they hit a chuckhole.
You should get your own electric scooter and show those little twerps a thing or two!!