Finding retirement traction (part 1): Ending the freefall

As outlined in the previous post, it wasn’t long after I became an ex-MD before I became more focussed on trying to redefine my identity in this new stage of life. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I found to read on the topic–books, articles, and TED Talks that were provocative enough to help me start charting my unique retirement path. It quickly became clear that the questions I had I would ultimately need to answer for myself.

To better understand retirement, I started with the history of the word itself. I wanted to be sure I was getting it right, after all. What is retirement supposed to be for? What are you supposed to be doing in this period? What kinds of goals should I start focussing on?

And as I researched, the questions became more personal. What is important to me? Who am I? What makes me tick? How do I figure that out? What was it about a career in medicine that attracted me so strongly? What basic itch will I need to keep scratching to have an enjoyable and fulfilling retirement? Is there anything else I want to do or see or experience before I die? How much time is there to get my life rounded out?

What was retirement supposed to be for?

The concept of retirement was originally German: In the 1880’s, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s newly-united Germany was facing multiple social challenges. Weary from several wars, the new republic had the growing threat of out-migration to better opportunities in the Americas. And there were intriguing socialist reforms being proposed by a Marxist wave spreading across Europe.

To stave off these challenges, and appeal to both the German working class and large numbers of ex-soldiers (many of whom were either disabled or getting older), Bismarck was the first to propose a national pension program (in 1889), for those aged 70 or more, recognizing that “those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.” By granting social rights he was able to forge a bond between workers and the state, and stimulate German economic growth by giving workers greater security and a reason to stay. Shrewdly, though, he selected 70 because he knew few workers would attain it, and thereby it would cost the state very little. It was only about 15 years after his death in 1898, that the age of eligibility was rolled back to 65.

In Canada, Old Age Security pension was enacted in 1951, when an amendment in the BNA act allowed the federal government to operate a pension plan. It was also initially available to Canadians after age 70, although it currently serves seniors age 65 and up. In the USA, 65 was also selected as the age to begin distributing social security payments, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935. He had looked at existing examples (such as Germany) and similarly noted that, since the average American lifespan at the time was only 61, the cost to the US Treasury to cover these social security payments would be minimal.

Interestingly, not every country or culture has the luxury of a retirement, and some do not even have a word for it. Some writers make a distinction between a job (a source of income), and your work (a pursuit that gets something accomplished, which blurs the meaning of retirement, inasmuch you can retire from a job, but continue your work. In Spanish, the word retirement can be translated to “la jubilación”, which, when translated back to English, suggests a time for jubilation or celebration.

Old Age Security vs longevity.

Obviously, with a revolution in longevity in Western countries in the last 50 years, things have changed considerably; governments have started to sweat as to how to cover this burgeoning financial obligation. Starting in 2023, federal OAS eligibility in Canada will be raised gradually to 67 by 2029.

It is now pretty clear that most of us will have many, many functional and productive years at our disposal after age 65, a luxury that previous generations really never even dreamed of. Up until just 20-30 years ago, a human life span could have been easily looked at as having primarily two stages: The dependent years from birth to adulthood, that include the formative years of education and training, until the transition to independence; and adulthood itself, the productive and procreative working years, until work was no longer possible, whether due to disability, infirmity or death. For the lucky few who made it to 65 unscathed, and actually retired, it was still thought of as little more than a brief bonus, with the grim reaper waiting in the shadows. With such little expectation in mind, retirement has been thought of, and even defined as, the end of one’s productive life, and the downward spiral of infirmity; for the rest who didn’t make retirement age, adulthood generally meant working until you dropped, whatever your career.

What is retirement for–today.

Things are different now in this, now, 21st century. It appears that you can have your cake and eat it too–you can make it to age 65 with many years, even decades of functionality still in the tank, while being eligible to collect an old age security cheque for the duration. An overwhelming majority of us can all expect to have a true, self-directed,third stage of life–one that is both significant in length and opportunity–to define for ourselves, a luxury never before possible.

Defining your retirement.

We need to now vigorously redefine retirement. In a 2015 CBS 60 Minutes story about a Harlem seniors singing group, Alive: 55+ and Kicking, Executive Director Vy Higginson was quoted as saying. “The first 50 years are for learning, and the second 50 years are for living. Life just begins when you’re in your 50s”. That seems never more true than it is today.

Jane Fonda’s TED Talk of 2011 also provided a similar opening salvo to understanding this new perception of retirement. She posited that, after age 60, we can expect to live as much as three full decades. She calls it “Life’s Third Act”, a time for a whole other career or adult lifespan–a period of time previously thought only to be heralded by declining physical and mental health–“decrepitude”, or, “aging as pathology”, as she referred to it. She exhorts us to look at this period as a developmental stage of life with its own significance, and ask, how do we use this time, to live it successfully?”

“Life’s Third Act.” I thought she nailed it–for those who have made it to 60 in reasonably good health, another 30 years of life is not only possible, it is likely. And she had some excellent ideas as to how to embrace these years–more on that later. As Confucius said so long ago, “We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we have only one.” So, if you are starting retirement, carpe diem!

An important caveat.

However, the ex-MD in me would be inclined to include a caveat: While getting to age 80 with full functionality is now a good bet, the decade after that may be a bit more of a crapshoot, given that Alzheimer’s becomes common in an estimated 30% of seniors by age 85. And the other age-related diagnoses are also more common by then as well: cardiovascular disease, cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, type II diabetes, degenerative osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, to name a few. So, I have come to accept that most of us have until age 80 to get every life goal accomplished, while not relying on the premise that there are more functional years after that. If you retire at 60, as I did, that leaves 20 years–about 7300 days of good health and physical capability–to get it all done before all bets are off.

Since 20 years–7300 days–doesn’t sound like much, this calculation is really intended to introduce urgency into the project of fulfilling one’s “Third Act”. And when you consider which 5 years in those 20 years are the most likely to have good health and vitality in, to succeed in doing your more adventurous pursuits, it is the next 5 years! Time is fleeting, indeed–so it is time to get your retirement going, and there is little time to be too introspective. If you have a bucket list, go for it. If you have unfinished business in your life–some music, reading, sport, hobby, volunteer work, education or training you had to abandon in your previous life, some long lost friend or family to reconnect with, your own health or spartan social life to revitalize, some travel destinations you have long fantasized about–whatever–time to get at it, and the sooner the better. This is your time. All of these pursuits should be personally satisfying, but will they be enough?

Completion. Fulfillment. Embracing your authenticity.

Just as Higginson postulated that life begins in your 50s, Fonda had a similar take on this. She thinks of life’s third act’s metaphor as a staircase, “the upper ascension of the human spirit, that brings us into wisdom, wholeness, and authenticity”– the completion of life’s journey. Such personal growth may well really be, at its root, a recovery process of the unique human spirit that we were born with, which is often suppressed with the decades of everyday life challenges, many of which are stressful, oppressive and even toxic. As your spirit reawakens, so will your sense of direction, and so will your life’s purpose.

Recovering your spirit.

Fonda observed that most people over 50 feel better, are less stressed, less anxious, and less fearful. Perhaps it is because their mortgages have been paid, their children are grown and independent, their financial security assured and their personal lives have long become stable. Or perhaps it is because they have survived the toughest parts of their lives, and it dawns on them that they can finally feel proud of what they have accomplished. As the shroud of expectations, stressors and obligations lifts, their suppressed human spirit and essential identity finally have a chance to return. These become reminders of what they once were, and give clues as to who they still are, and ultimately, where they still want to go.

Reconnecting with one’s lost human spirit is often a re-embrace of a vitality last felt in youth; it is perhaps what Ashley Montagu referred to when he said, “I want to die young at a ripe old age”, or what Pablo Picasso lamented in longing for this lost identity when he said, “It takes a long time to become young.”  So, is the primary purpose of life’s third act to finally”… finish the process of finishing ourselves?” Great question, Jane.

To succeed at retirement, then, is to find your essential human spirit, to redefine yourself in your own terms, not anyone else’s. The new retiree’s path will be defined by this journey: As Fonda puts it, “to know where you are going, you need to know where you have been”.

Although this may be easier said than done, knowing who you are, at your most core level, is fundamental to building the solid foundation for the journey of life’s third act, the time in which we can finally finish ourselves. This may be particularly difficult for doctors, who have been all but buried in a lifetime of obligations and stressors, beginning with their first desires of becoming a doctor, their consuming careers, and their chronic duty to put the needs of others first, ahead of any recognition of their own personal spirit. Ikigai anyone? More on this in part 2 of this post.

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