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Reasons For Retirement

Posted Apr 28 2010 2:35am

In response to a story published here last week ( The Courage to Get Old ), Elaine Magalis asked on her blog, Late Fruit, Why Would Anyone Want to “Retire”?

“Ronni and several of her respondents were discussing what retirement means to them - 'growing, learning, individuating, becoming all that we can be' – sounds good! – except that for some people it doesn’t seem all that wonderful,” writes Elaine.

“There are the physical problems of old age that are so much worse for some of us than for others and, of course, money problems and, as Ronni puts it, “a culture that does everything possible to marginalize old people.” Including, I might add, chuck them into the aforementioned category of “retirement.”

“I realized what was bothering me about the column: the word “retirement.” As if we were no longer involved in life, no longer active, no longer contributing, as if we were finished. That certainly isn’t true of the artists I’ve described in my posts.”

I don't need to repeat today my difficulties with the word “retirement” - for the reasons Elaine enumerates and others. It took me a long time not to choke on it. But I would like to point out that the word has its uses.

To the Social Security Administration and pension plans, it refers to those who are collecting benefits they have paid into all their working lives.

To the Internal Revenue Service, retired is an important classification that carries with it different rules and regulations in regard to what taxes are to be paid, or not, and which deductions apply.

To workers themselves, it refers to the time, usually at 60-something, when they bow out of full time employment. There are companies, some law firms for one, that require partners to retire at a specific age. For others, like myself, it was not a choice; we were forced out of paid employment due to our age and age discrimination. Some people who have done heavy physical labor simply cannot go on after several decades – their bodies wear out.

And as Elaine points out, disease or debility cuts short careers some might otherwise have wanted to continue beyond the usual retirement age. Finally, there are those who are glad to leave the world of work behind whether because they disliked their jobs or are just tired of the rat race. That, to me, is as valid a reason to opt out after four or five decades as any other.

So retirement is a useful word whatever negative undertone is attached to it by the culture.

The word itself bothers Elaine, but what bothers me about her post is the implication that artists (by which she seems to mean only famous musicians, painters, actors and writers) have a superior creative vision and dedication than everyone else.

“As I read Ronni Bennett’s column in Wednesday’s Time Goes By, I began to wonder if artists are in a privileged position. They don’t retire, unless they’ve always had a day job and retirement means they can finally do their real work full-time.”

“...not one the people I described there ever stopped working for what mattered to her or to him. Not one of them 'retired'.”

Most retirees, whatever artistic aspirations they may have had, found that the need to house, feed and clothe their families came first and whatever those jobs were, it was “real work” - not to be dismissed as a “day job.” It could easily be that the guy who, for example, operated a concrete mixer – which might seem tedious and mundane to others - found as much personal satisfaction with his part in building useful structures as someone who writes a great novel.

I recently listened to a man who worked on a fishing trawler for many years describe the details of his job. He grinned and his eyes danced as he spoke and he dismissed what I considered terrible conditions of wind, water, cold and high seas. He chose this work and relished the danger as he and his mates battled the elements each day to retrieve their catch.

Too old now for such labor, he is “retired” from fishing. He likes to “sit a spell” and tell fish tales from his career and when he feels like it, he sometimes designs and builds fine furniture which he had dabbled in throughout his life. But he doesn't think it is any more “real work” than fishing was and would resent anyone who said so.

The woman who writes the Cop Car's Beat blog comes to mind. Retired from her career as an engineer, she is now a trained Red Cross volunteer who travels the United States to disaster zones to apply different skills. She “retired” from one profession to take up another to which she is equally dedicated.

I don't mean to pick on Elaine and it could be that she is grappling with the pejorative nature of the word “retirement,” as I did for a long time. Once that it reconciled, it is easier to see that few people are lucky enough to be allowed to continue the work they love until they die.

Those who retire from their lifelong jobs do so for many reasons and are not any less dedicated to what matters to them than famous writers, musicians and painters. It just becomes something different.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Gail Title: On Making Myself Really Sick

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