Before taking a closer look at ‘retirement’, let’s check out some of the changes that have occurred during my lifetime. When I was growing up in the 1930s and early 40s, life expectancy was much shorter than it is now. Remember that was just before World War II. Guys hoped to make it ’til 65, or perhaps a little longer. On average women lived a little beyond that. My dad made it to 68. My mother lived to 80. People seldom made it into their 90s, much less to 100.
Technology was a lot different then. It took three days to get from New York to Europe by boat and about the same time to get from Penn Station to San Francisco by train. There were no jet planes and no Interstates. At the end of the period the first of the antibiotics, natural penicillin, was just introduced. Long-distance calls were placed through an operator. We had radios, newspapers and the movies, but no TVs, computers, the Internet or iPhones. My guess is that for most of you it is pretty hard to imagine what life was like.
For the most part guys were expected to get a job and bring home the money to support the family. The primary role of women was taking care of the family and the household. Some had jobs as secretaries or nurses. World War II introduced us to Rosie the Riveter. Job opportunities for women increased markedly during and after the War.
Here’s how those conditions affected the retirement years. As a guy, your adult life has been spent working full-time at a job that you didn’t necessarily like just to bring in the income necessary to support the family. Women took care of the family and the household, and perhaps the grandkids in their later years. Both expected to live a few years longer at most. If they were from moderate or low income families, they probably were unable to set aside funds for future spending. Sometimes money for current expenses had to come from their children’s current income. The Social Security system — at the time it was known as Old Age Benefits (OAB) — had just come into play. Any income from it helped support those who reached their retirement years — a few years at best.
World War II and postwar periods were prosperous times. Significant technological changes brought along with them new products and new processes of production. Good jobs were available — both for men and women. The G.I. Bill of Rights covered some of the college expenses of previous members of the armed forces. College education opened up new job opportunities and, in some cases, entry into a profession, along with the good salaries that came along with them. The changes in the health-care system led to a longer life expectancy. That was in marked contrast to the pre-World War II era when we were in the midst of the Great Depression.
Changes in the Retirement Years
The traditional approach has been to treat retirement as an entitlement. The recent technological and economic changes make reconsidering that approach a good idea. Times have changed. For one thing we live longer than our predecessors.
This has led to the possibility of considering retirement in a very different light. Let me begin by telling you how I — a 91-year-old nominally retired economist — and a few others have treated our retirement years.
I really enjoyed my academic career, the teaching and the research. Nevertheless, in 1985 at 58 after 30+ years I became so fed up with the academic politics, and the hassles that went along with it, that I decided to retire. That opened up the question of what to do next.
I shifted my focus from the economics of the pharmaceutical industry and health-care to the study of high-end craft markets. After attending craft shows, especially the national ones, and meeting and making friends with the artists, I visited and worked with them on a cross-country tour. When my mother was hospitalized, early in 1986, I returned to the East Coast and worked out of her Manhattan apartment. That enabled me to support her while continuing to work on the project.
When Mom died in November I decided to take a break. I’d been to the US Virgin Islands before, but never to St. John. So that’s where I went. I decided St. John was where I wanted to live, so I moved there in the summer of 1987 and stayed there for over 18 years. I was fascinated by the independent, self-sufficient Free Black community that existed on St. John for over two centuries, on a small, isolated austere island. Some of their ancestors were freed even prior to emancipation. I studied and wrote about the community and worked with the descendants. I was particularly interested in their baskets. St. John baskets provided the Islanders with a source of income. They were sold throughout the Caribbean and in the US and Europe. Mr. Herman Prince, the premier basketmaker-teacher at the time, who has died since, was a friend. One of his baskets is in the Smithsonian collection.
I never expected to leave St. John. But in January 1999 I had a heart attack. (Which, by the way, was misdiagnosed at the St. Thomas hospital and they sent me home.) I returned to the States and had a four-vessel coronary bypass operation at Duke University Hospital. That’s how I got back to North Carolina.
Since then I’ve kept reasonably busy. I co-authored a book with Erin Coyle entitled, “Making Space for Yourself”. It has sayings that I have come up with and images to go along with them that she provided. I have also published a pricing manual for artists and craftspersons entitled, “An Economist’s Take on Pricing Art and Craft — A Pricing Manual” and a book called “Making the Poor Richer: The Causes, Consequences and Potential Remedies for the Greater Inequality in the Income Distribution”.
As you can see, once I answered the question of what do I want to do while I’m still around, I devoted some of my discretionary time, energy, resources, and funds (TERF) to those projects. If you’d like to see some of the other things I’ve done in my 33 years of retirement, check out my blog post, “Me–Then ’til Now”. Those are some of my other accomplishments. My thanks go to those who have helped me along the way. Some of whom are also “retired”. And there’s more to come.
I’m not the only one. You can see my friend, Bill Gaigle, who calls himself “The Chairman” at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market on most Saturdays. Bill grew up as part of a large family on a farm in Minnesota. Some of his uncles work in wood. That was part of his heritage. After 10 years working with an insurance firm in Arkansas and 7 more living and working at an outdoor facility designed to help troubled teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18 recover, Bill decided to retire and follow his passion. You can see Bill, now 64, sitting on one of the cedar chairs, along with the wooden tables and other objects he made. Also on display are pictures is previous projects. People stop by to spend time with him and admire his work. Some really like what they see and buy or order something to take home.
Some of my craftsperson friends who reached retirement age continue doing what they love doing and passing their skills on to others. One, Michael Sherrill, currently has a retrospective exhibition at the Mint Museum in Charlotte.
You can also meet Susan Laswell at the Carrboro Farmers Market. Susan is the primary income earner and provider for her family that has experienced some serious medical issues. Although Susan is eligible for retirement, she ’s not there yet. She is a really fine basketmaker. It is not hard to imagine what Susan will do if and when she retires!
For an interesting insight into the challenges — both the benefits and the costs — of viewing retirement as an opportunity, see Jeffrey Brown’s interview of Nell Painter, historian and artist. It was aired on the PBS NewsHour on July 23,2018 entitled, “ This new and ‘old’ artist offers a self-portrait in starting over”.
I know scores of productive ‘retirees’. I’ll bet you do as well. In retirement, they are doing what they love doing and continuing to make a contribution.
The New Look
In the years long gone, viewing retirement as an ‘entitlement’ was appropriate. The conditions most folks faced until they reached retirement age and their shorter life expectancy made that a good fit. However, the changed conditions have opened up new possibilities.
An important thing to recognize is that as adults — at every age — there is one priority above all else: we have to take responsibility for and take care of ourselves before we do anything else. To accomplish that some of our limited time, energy, resources, and funds (TERF) must devoted to providing the things — the goods and services — required to survive. Among them are all the chores necessary to stay alive and well on a daily basis. Some of the TERF must be provided by others. Most often we pay for the required goods and services out of our limited funds. Additional amounts of our limited TERF is necessary to fulfill any obligations or commitments that we have taken on. The balance of our disposable time, energy, resources, and funds can be used for whatever else we choose. It is from that perspective that I would like to address “retirement” with you.
Avoiding or delaying the decision to retire and continuing to work has its advantages. The job provides additional income. Furthermore, postponing retirement increases Social Security and pension benefits. It also makes it possible to put more money aside for unexpected contingencies and for the retirement years. Gods’ willing, eventually each of us reaches the place where we have to face the question, “What will I do when I retire ?”
At that time two things are certain. One is that sometime in the future we will die. The other is there is no way of telling ahead of time when that will be. We cannot know how much time we have left.
I must admit in 1985 when I decided to retire I did not take that into consideration. About six years ago, 28 years later at the age of 85, I decided to address the question of how much longer I have to live. I pulled up the University of Pennsylvania life expectancy program and learned that on average I had about six more years. A couple of years later I decided to check it out again. I found out that the program could not tell me because I was no longer in the cohort group. Nonetheless, here I am at 91 and still trying to figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life — perhaps another six or seven years.
As I mentioned earlier, the classic way of viewing retirement is as an entitlement. We spent our adult years working hard, so now is the time to lay back, cool out and to take it easy. If along with Social Security and retirement benefits we have put aside enough funds to make that possible, clearly that’s an option. We can prop our feet up for the rest of our life and cool out.
What if, instead of viewing retirement as an entitlement, we can view it as an opportunity?
What often happens is that we wake up one morning and realize that we have reached ‘retirement age’. However we got there, unlike for our predecessors, the amount of time spent in retirement can be considerable. As I’ve shown, for me, up to now, over 30 years have gone by. That is more than half my previous lifetime.
Some of us may decide to stay on the job, or to get a different one, in order to have extra funds that would provide greater financial security in the future. The additional income may make it possible to pay off a home loan or others debts incurred earlier or to have a larger contingency fund to help cover unexpected expenses.
Others enjoy watching professional sports and movies, or playing games on their computer. Another option would be to spend time with family and friends. Some go to the local Senior Center where they hang out with friends playing cards, Scrabble, pool or ping-pong. That is how they decide to use their disposable TERF.
Another possibility is to become more actively involved in family relationships, like being involved with and taking care of grandkids or helping to support family members or friends who are in need of assistance. And there are the things we’ve wanted to do — like going to concerts, sporting events and museums or visiting old friends we haven’t seen in years. There are all the places we’ve always wanted to see. Now is the time to consider going there while we still can! We can use some of our disposable TERF doing those things.
Others take on a cause or mission. For example, some of our limited disposable TERF can go to help those who have been afflicted with cancer or HIV AIDS; to assist those have been incarcerated come back to a more normal, productive life; to help make the medical and recreational use of marijuana legal and more readily available; to fight the opioid epidemic and try to get those involved in creating it accept responsibility for the problem; or to assist in any other venture we consider important.
Some of us have always had a passion. Something we’ve always wanted to do ever since we were teenagers. Perhaps it is painting, writing poetry, playing an instrument, basketweaving, knitting or birdwatching. However, other commitments — like earning a living or taking care of family — took priority and did not allow us to engage in that activity. Now may be the time to do the thing we’ve always wanted to do. Perhaps it is good time to take a class or apprentice ourselves to an expert, to see where it leads. Some of the objects we create or the services we provide can be given away as gifts. It is also possible that someone might even be interested in buying them.
Under some circumstances by treating retirement as an opportunity the ‘retiree’ can make a significant difference. For example, some couples or individuals with sufficient funds are able to ensure that the rest of the life is taken care of by entering a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC). Once they are established in that setting, they can use their unique skills and some of their residual TERF to help others. One way would be to mentor younger individuals. That would enable them to pass their unique skills on to future generations.
There are those who have been very successful and as a result accumulated a large amount of funds early on, perhaps in their late 30s or early 40s. They could consider ‘early retirement’. That would make it possible for them to treat their retirement years as an opportunity, be able to take care of themselves and do whatever they really want to do for all the years ahead of them.
Let me remind you that the recent changes in technology were largely beneficial, and very likely contributed to our wealth and made us better off. Nonetheless, those changes made others worse off. There is another opportunity for those who have been successful and accumulated a significant amount of funds. You might consider using some of your disposable TERF to assist those who have been displaced, harmed and pushed into the lower end of the income distribution is by the recent technological and economic changes, some of which you may have helped bring about. Consider helping them make the adjustments necessary to have a better life.
Here’s one example. Having a college education helps people get out of the lower end of the income distribution. Frequently the student loans they incur are a significant burden. Moreover, the loans come at the time in their lives when freeing them of that burden would make it possible for them to make a greater contribution in the future. One way those with disposable funds could help is to “adopt” those individuals and pay off their student loans. Another would be to help fund a not-for-profit organization that is set up to pay off student loans. You may come up with other ways as well.
Those are just some suggestions.
Remember each of us is unique. We have our distinct traits, strengths, background, skills, experience, interests and expertise. Some also have our “passion”. Those attributes put each of us in the position of being able to make a special contribution. After taking care of oneself, “retirement” is the time to pursue any of those options or any other ideas that you come up with. Only you can decide what is right for you. When you have conflicting objectives, the path you choose defines who you are as a person and what your legacy will be.
While I am still around my agenda, after taking responsibility for and taking care of myself, is to use my unique professional and personal traits and experience to help others make the choices that are best for them, for others and for the planet. To the extent that I am successful, that will be my legacy.
The path you choose will determine what the rest of your life will be like and what your legacy will be. Only you can decide the path that is best for you.
Perhaps retirement makes it possible to do some things you’ve always wanted to do but could never get around to. Think about this. It may also provide us with the opportunity to consider using our unique traits to leave behind things that benefit others, things that no one else could provide. That would be our legacy. My hope is that is what I’ve done.