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What Is Retirement?

David Johnson

AT A DINNER THAT I attended recently, someone pointed out that a high percentage of us were newly retired. That included me, as well as a couple who were just reaching age 60. After the dinner, the wife of the couple told me she was offended by being called retired. She’s writing fiction every day and her husband does some consulting work.

The work they’re doing pays, but it’s not by itself enough for them to live their comfortable, low-key, middle-class lives. They both worked in professional careers, were diligent savers and invested those savings intelligently. Now, they’re mostly living off their investments, with their earned income streams providing a minority—but still important—part of their income. But to the wife, that didn’t mean they were retired.

I couldn’t figure out what she thought retirement was, or why it would be offensive to be thought of as retired. I can’t say she’s wrong, though. Retirement is one of the strangest words in finance, in part because it’s notably vague. It has a couple of unusual characteristics.

First, people who aren’t financial professionals talk about retirement around the dinner table. They don’t talk about single premium immediate annuities or cross-currency interest rate swaps around the dinner table. My point: Retirement is real and important to people in a way that many financial terms are not.

Second, I know what retirement means, you know what retirement means and the guy down there at the end of the bar knows what retirement means. We just all think it means different things.

For many people, retirement seems to mean a planned, permanent, more or less voluntary leaving of their jobs. One obvious problem with this definition is that quitting a job takes two weeks. Many people who retire think they’re going to live another 30 years. That leaves 29 years and 50 weeks undefined.

Furthermore, many people work in retirement, so the idea that retirement always means you no longer work doesn’t fit the reality of many retired people. Some people even work in the same field they retired from. On the other hand, some retirees don’t work at all, because for them that’s the point.

If all this is true, what the heck is retirement?

It’s personal. And on a personal level, I’ve noticed three things about my retirement.

First, I thought the pace of change in my life would slow but I was wrong. Change happens to the world, to my kids, to my parents, to the dead battery in my car and the sink faucet that decides to leak. And to myself, including—sadly—my teeth. Some change is good, some is not, but it happens without seeking our approval and it certainly doesn’t care whether we think we’re retired.

Second, I’m surprisingly busy, to the point of being one of those people who can’t believe they ever had time to go to work. There are all kinds of chores and projects to do. These aren’t heroic deeds and songs will not be sung of them. Yet I seldom finish my day’s to-do list.

The third thing is that my retirement is, in many respects, unusual. Some particulars—such as my nearly complete lack of interest in traveling to distant vacation spots, no matter how pleasant or educational such places might be—are so different from those of other people I admire that I can start to think I’m doing it wrong. But the truth is that everyone’s retirement is different. The fact that yours doesn’t look like everyone else’s is not a bug, it’s a feature.

There is no blueprint for this. We have to think for ourselves, and decide for ourselves what to do and how to do it. Then we have to think about whether what we are doing is as satisfying as we’d hoped it would be and make adjustments—yes, change—as needed to better our lives.

We strove to improve our lives before retirement, and that process doesn’t stop in retirement. Why would we want it to?

Darker elements are also possible, though. Your job, and likely long hours and dedication to it, gave you a function. Now that function is gone and perhaps a bit of your identity with it. If you start checking off your bucket list items and that doesn’t work out as wonderfully as you thought, retirement can start to look depressing.

This is the hardest thing about retirement: matching what gives you satisfaction with what you’re doing and who you are at your core.

Some people are disturbingly shallow and selfish in retirement. But I suspect most of us oversteer in the other direction. I think some of us, after decades of delayed gratification or outright sacrifice, have an odd sense of guilt about doing things just for ourselves.

I’ve had to learn to give myself permission to do things for myself at least part of the time. If those things harm no one else and don’t harm me, and they give me nontrivial pleasure, then they’re good to do.

Of course, you can help others as well. Some people do volunteer work in retirement. I was raised to think work was stuff you did to get paid. If you didn’t get paid, whatever it was you were doing wasn’t work.

And yet pay and value are different things. I learned this while volunteering at a summer camp for kids with cancer. I taught the kids how to fly fish. There was a bluegill pond at the camp and almost all the kids caught fish, in many cases their first fish.

Some of these kids, even as young as 10 years old, were in the midst of fighting terminal cancer. And they knew it.

In doing this volunteer work, I discovered how pretty damn unimportant my problems were—and also something else about work.

No work I ever did for a dollar was as important as the happiness those kids experienced learning a physical skill and catching real fish, their bodies briefly escaping the pain and ravishment of cancer to rise in movement, careful and precise, turning by their own hand and action one small moment into fierce grace and joy, their eyes and faces fired with an astonishment of pleasure in themselves.

There are many fuels fit for burning down despair. Find them.

David Johnson retired in 2021 from editing hunting and fishing magazines. He spends his time fishing, reading, cooking, gardening, freelancing and hanging out with his family in Oregon.

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