Retire, Unretire or Keep Working

Jane Bryant Quinn is a well known financial journalist who writes about personal finance. Her books and columns are about investor protection, health insurance, Social Security, and the sufficiency of retirement plan. Now 80, she is retiring.

I read a farewell article by her in the AARP magazine (Yes, I do read my AARP magazine) and I thought it would be interesting to see how someone who has been advising others about retirement would handle her own retirement. Obviously, she didn’t stop working at 67, but her phase one plan surprised me.

“After all these years of reporting and writing about how to prepare for retirement, I’m trying it myself…My husband retired last year and, just as I’ve advised in my columns, we’ve had many, many conversations about what to do with our time. To start, we’re going to follow a dream and live in Rome for a year. Art. Music. Gelato!”

I believe I am in unretirement (not a term I coined). That is when you have ended your full-time career but continue to work: a) when you want to work b) only at things you enjoy doing  c) either paid or unpaid.

For me, the key phrase in her article is “After Rome, my calendar is blank.” That’s a brave thing to say about retirement – especially for someone who has spent a good part of her life advising people about how to plan their future.

My friend Pat decided after retirement to sell her house and car and move to Florence for a year. I’ll confess that I was far more apprehensive/frightened about her going to Italy to live than she was about this adventure. I know that it’s not something I can do – both because of circumstances and because it scares me too much.

What will Pat do when she comes back to the U.S.? (I’m assuming she will come back.) That’s not determined.  Maybe she should go to Rome and visit Jane. It’s not that Quinn doesn’t have any plans:  “I’ll have to invent a life for myself. It’s challenging and not a little unnerving. I’ll spend more time with family and friends, do more reading and more jigsaw puzzles. Then I’ll see what comes my way.”

Quinn made a lot of money telling us how to manage our money in bestsellers like Making the Most of Your Money, Everyone’s Money Book and How to Make Your Money Last.  Notice a theme there? Money, money, money.

I know that having money in retirement is a major concern for people, but I don’t think it should be the number one concern.

I know people who have retired, have adequate money and are unhappy. Why? The most common reason seems to be because “I don’t know what to do with myself.”

Looking at retire in Merriam-Webster online I found lots of definitions. Most of them bring no joy. The etymology goes back to Middle French retirer, from re- + tirer meaning “to draw.” (My French-speaking wife tells me that nowadays the word used is retraiter, meaning both to retire as from a job or as in an army retreating.)

From the mid-1500s the meaning had nothing to do with retirement as we think of it today because no one got to retire from their work. You worked until you either couldn’t work anymore or until you died.

The word doesn’t have very positive connotations: reserved, shy, secluded (as in a retired village), to withdraw, to retreat (from action or danger, or for privacy or to sleep, as in she retired to her bedroom), to move back, to recede, to withdraw from circulation or from the market (as with a product).

That latter meaning is the one that bothers me.  The idea of retiring a product or a service from use because it is no longer relevant or saleable is one thing, but to retire a person from use depresses me.

Perhaps, my transitional meaning comes from baseball. You can retire a batter (3 strikes) or even retire the side (3 outs).  In those cases, the batter or team is done – but it’s not permanent. You’ll get up to bat again – perhaps in just a few minutes; perhaps tomorrow.

Leaving one’s job or ceasing to work after reaching a certain age – retirement –  has been around since around the 18th century, though it was something only the upper classes with some wealth could consider. (Prior to the 18th century, humans had an average life expectancy between 26 and 40 years, so only a small percentage of the population reached an age where physical impairments would force them to stop working.)

Countries began to adopt government policies on retirement (beginning in Germany) during the late 19th century and the 20th century. The kind of retirement that Americans think of today didn’t come into usage here until around the 1920s.

Currently in the United States, early retirement is considered age 62 and the normal retirement age is 67. That’s up from the earlier standard of 65 and it has a lot to do with when you collect your full Social Security benefits. Of the 55-59 age group,  66% are still working. That drops to 43% for the 60-64 group. The big drop is for 65-69 who have only 20% still working. At 70+ you only have 5% still working.

I still hear people say that they’ll keep working until they die – either because they believe (sadly, perhaps mistakenly) that they’ll need the income, or because (happily) they love what they do.

I talked with a friend about this post when I started writing it and he reminded me that none of this may be relevant to most people. He said that the situation I’m in and Pat and Jane are in is not the norm for a lot of Americans. We have pensions, Social Security, some investments, a home and enough that if we’re not overly extravagant we should be okay financially in retirement. That’s not true for lots of people.

Of course, none of us can predict the future whether it be about the economy or our own health and circumstances. But you do need to plan ahead. At least, that’s my approach and it’s a cautious one I have taken my entire life. I bet I missed out on some adventures and fun along the way. Is retirement my second chance?



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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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