Why You Were Never Meant To Retire

Why You Were Never Meant To Retire

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In his song The River, Bruce Springsteen asks: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” That’s exactly the way I feel about the retirement dream.

There are benefits to having your grandparents living with you. My late grandfather was especially tolerant about us kids fiddling with the delightful stretchy skin on his neck and earlobes. My sister and I were like cleaner wrasses feeding on his ancient body. My grandfather taught me how to read stock tables, the difference between Buy, Sell, Last and 52-Week High, and a bunch of his favourite sayings like “too much of a good thing is bad for you”.

We learn through observation, not just instruction, so for many of us, our grandparents give us our first clue as to what we might look like in retirement.

Despite not being a religious man, my Grandfather often pleaded with God to take him. He wasn’t suffering from a medical ailment, he had just had enough of living. I recall the two of us sharing dinner one night, I offered to split a hard boiled egg with him. He didn’t want his share because he didn’t think an old man needed the nutrients. As a teenager, the loss of hope infuriated me; I wanted him to live long, and to live well.

Those of us living in the developed world can expect to reach 80-85 years old, depending on your gender1. This is an average, which means half of us will live longer than that. Numbers from the Office of National Statistics in the UK2 suggest that up to a quarter of us will reach 100 years old. The point is this, there is a strong statistical probability that those who retire early, at say 50, might live half a century in retirement.

It begs two questions: (1) How do we fund this (assuming we don’t want to become dependent on government handouts and the charity of our children)? (2) What do we do with all this time?

Many people take the time to think about the first question, but the second one is probably more important.

The parents of Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation, didn’t seem to have very good answers to these questions. My grandfather retired into nothing other than “take it easy”. He rarely strayed from his daily routine: newspaper and a stroll in the morning; various pastime activities to soak up the day; and evenings began with The Price Is Right until he fell asleep on the couch, remote control on his lap (and that’s when my sister and I closed in on his wrinkly neck-skin and earlobes).

What is the alternative to retirement? Keep working? If you work as a window cleaner, do you continue to scale tall buildings till you’re 85? If you’re a dentist, do you continue to stare at mouths and funky teeth till you’re 90? If you work in the city, could you handle the same commute for 70 years?

Baby boomers, being the generation intent on having their cake and eating it too, came up with better answers. They invented financial planners. To date, US$44 trillion has been amassed in pension funds in OECD countries3. Seeing the mental and physical atrophy that happened to many of their parents, wisened Baby boomers decided that an inactive model was not for them. Instead, Boomers can be found in a downward dog position wrestling Sudoku apps, pedaling from rice paddy to mountain villages in time for their helicopter return ride to their resort, and gearing up for the latest undiscovered, ecotourism adventure. And that’s just Monday’s itinerary.

Have these wisened Baby boomers cracked it? Are these the footsteps we should follow?

It certainly looks that way. Us Gen Xers, me included, are working hard now during our productive years, building up our asset portfolio, and staying fitter and stronger than our parents. A small number of us have even figured out that we need less than we think, and taken to putting our feet up earlier. By retirement, I’m referring to what the rich invented and what so many of us aspire to now: turning leisure into a full-time profession, with “take it easy” being the central theme.

It turns out that “taking it easy” is one of the hardest things you can do. Any enterprise rooted in full-time leisure breeds discontent. As an example of this, I am going to use my darling Dad.

I’m lucky that my father is still alive. I am reassured of his vitality on an hourly basis because he Cc’s everybody on every email he sends ‒ to politicians, his building supervisor, his travel agent, his wife. Half my inbox is taken up by these emails, addressed to everybody in Dad’s address book. I feel mildly guilty for not reading them, and hope that he will just phone me about things that actually require my input.

Seeing older people do this, Gen Xers like me make self-promises: “I won’t be like that when I get old. I will keep up to date with social norms and respect email etiquette”. We make these promises all the time: “When I get old, I won’t be bossy and meddle in the affairs of my adult children; I won’t become that old guy that chews the ears off people at social events and on the streets; I will have control over the number of cats, throw pillows and take-away containers I keep in my house.”

Such promises won’t work because they fail to look at the root causes. My father isn’t a naive man. He is well aware of correct email etiquette ‒ there certainly hasn’t been a shortage of “friendly advice” from recipients. He copies everybody on emails because of a need to fill a vacuum: the need to be heard, the need to feel in control, and the need to be relevant. If anger is fear expressed in public, then “copying everyone on emails” is attention-seeking expressed in public.

You can extend this logic to other not-so-graceful behaviour: boastfulness (need for recognition); stubbornness (need to feel independent and appear to be “still with it”); complaining about people not being grateful for what you have done for them (need to feel connected); hoarding (need for security); meddling in the affairs of others (need to feel important).4

Aristotle said “nature abhors a vacuum”. If you’re a doctor, you get to give advice and cure ailments that killed people before modern medicine. You are nourished by the gratitude of 20-30 patients a day, as well as the admiration, if not worship, from interns, registrars and young nurses. How do you replace all this in retirement? With walks on a beach? If you’re a chef, you make hundreds of time-sensitive decisions during a shift. At the end of the day, you have the satisfaction of feeding hundreds of people. If you’re a carpenter, you might miss the uncertainty of not knowing where the money will come from in the next quarter, but you’d miss the intrinsic satisfaction that comes from applying the final lacquer, and from helping apprentices earn their trade. And if you work in an office, how do you replace the banter, the camaraderie and the social status that comes with people who depend on your expertise?

The point to grapple with here is that you can’t just say, “I won’t be like that when I get old”. The drive to fulfill one’s potential (self actualisation) and the drive to feel relevant/important (self esteem) aren’t things you hang up like old boots when you retire.

Some readers might have had an early taste of what it feels like to have too much time on their hands: perhaps it came about because you accepted a redundancy package, or you’ve gone on extended paternity leave. The free time might be welcomed in the first month or two, but after, say six months, you might notice the discontent set in. If this didn’t happen to you, you might have noticed it in a domestic partner?

For many people, full time leisure falls short of fulfilling our basic human needs. Psychologists say that our brains adapt to new delights quickly: what we find fulfilling, given enough time, becomes mundane5. It explains why you don’t get the same buzz from a song after hearing it a thousand times. It’s why backyard trampolines are the most underutilised asset people spend their money on.

Psychologists aren’t saying anything the ancient Romans didn’t already know:

Desire hath no rest, is infinite in itself, endless, and as one calls it, a perpetual rack, or horse-mill

St Augustine (5 Century AD)

It turns out “leisure” is to our “well-being” what ice cream is to our bodies. We weren’t meant to have it all the time. We were never meant to retire.

The smart readers amongst you will be protesting at this point: What if I am being forced to retire? What if I have a health condition that is limiting my ability to work? What if my diminished mental and motor skills makes me unemployable? What if I’m bored of what I’ve been doing for the past 40 years? Shouldn’t people retire to give the next generation a shot at leadership opportunities? If retirement is bad, then why do some people appear more content during their retirement compared to when they were working? If not retire, then what is the alternative?

These are important questions, and I will tackle these questions in this book. For now, I’d like to address this question: if retirement is so bad, then why is everybody doing it?

Like so many things in our consumer society, clever marketers in the 1950s discovered a way to extract a coin by turning retirement into a commodity. Prior to this, retirement was predominantly a labour movement (i.e. giving retired workers a safety net in their old age).

The financial payoff for pushing the retirement dream is lucrative. For example, if you earned $80,000 a year, your pension fund managers stand to make $237,000 in fees over your lifetime. This number might not sound very big until you consider that your nest egg would be worth $502,000 at retirement i.e. the fees amounts to 47% of what you’ve saved6.

The marketing playbook reads like this: sell the dream, create the need, sell more products. Cosmetic companies perpetuate standards of beauty most of us can’t attain. Food conglomerates grow sales by stimulating cravings for snacks your body doesn’t need. Car manufacturer ads show you cars traversing mountain terrain and whizzing through empty streets (instead of the reality: traffic congestion, bills and pollution).

For the past 70 years, companies with large marketing budgets have been pumping out their version of the retirement dream. Close your eyes and picture what “retirement” looks like and you’ll conjure up a collage of bucket list images such as luxury cruises, turquoise waters, island beaches, mountain chalets, Paris, Tuscany, Galapagos Islands, and the fairways at Augusta. Did you dream these up in your head or did a marketing wiz put it in there?

An even better question is: is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?

Thank you

Thanks to Jocelyn Rikard-Bell for the lesson on tone control, and thanks to Jermir Punthakey for reviewing early drafts.

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© James Lau  April 23, 2020

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  1. https://data.oecd.org/healthstat/life-expectancy-at-65.htm#indicator-chart
  2. Office of National Statistics UK https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/lifeexpectancies/articles/whatareyourchancesoflivingto100/2016-01-14
  3. https://www.oecd.org/pensions/private-pensions/Pension-Markets-in-Focus-2019.pdf
  4. This, by the way, is a taste of what’s to come in my book on ‘Ageing Gracefully’. Stay tuned for tips on “living with people who are aging not-so-gracefully”.
  5. Referred to as the “hedonistic treadmill”. Brickman; Campbell (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. New York: Academic Press. pp. 287–302. in M. H. Apley, ed., Adaptation Level Theory: A Symposium, New York: Academic Press
  6. I’ve assumed a typical investment fee of 1.5%. Research by consumer advocacy group, Choice.com.au, suggests annual superannuation fees range from 0.2% to 2.49%. Calculation developed using Australian government agency’s calculator: https://moneysmart.gov.au/how-super-works/superannuation-calculator. I’ve used the following assumptions: $80k a year salary, no voluntary employee contributions, 0% contribution fee, $75 admin fee per annum, 7% investment return, 7% tax, 1.5% investment fee.

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