Poem By a Retired CEO ( circa 1975)
Our names are as they were.
We look the same.
Our wives are just as kind.
In fact, more thoughtful.
But we don’t feel the same, not quite.
The young men do not stand; we never felt they should.
Our old friends smile, but turn a moment sooner to the younger man.
And that is fair.
We’re just as good friends as we were, but not quite so important any more.
Not so important. No.
This poignant poem reminded me of an incident from over fifty years ago. A couple of years after I’d left high school, I visited an old school friend at his home. I rang the door bell and his father opened the door. This was a man whom I had been in awe of. I had usually seen him on his way to office, immaculately dressed, hair neatly combed, a serious look on his stern, bespectacled visage. The man who opened the door looked quite different. He had retired since the last time I’d seen him. He was clad in pajama bottoms and a rumpled shirt and in his hand was clutched the morning newspaper. He seemed somehow diminished, shrunken, a shell of his former self. The thought flashed through my mind, “This is what retirement does to a person.”
Retirement is particularly hard on those who have lived only to work, those for whom the job is their life. They work hard, they climb up the corporate ladder and, suddenly one day, the ride is over as the poem above articulates so well. Having given their all to their careers, there has been no time to cultivate hobbies or friends. The drastic changes that retirement brings are even more acutely felt in India where the distance between boss and employee is much greater, and where the loss of company perks results in a drastic change in lifestyle. Without the rituals of the office, there is nothing to do; the days stretch out into the distance, an endless succession of empty hours waiting to be filled … how? No wonder that, in the old days, retirement was often short. People lived only a few years, sometimes only a few months before they cashed in their chips.
This was the way it was. Things have changed.
For one thing, the days are long gone when you took a job with a company and stayed with it until you retired thirty five or forty years later. In these days of globalization, outsourcing and “lean” staffing, companies are not loyal to workers and vice versa. Everything is temporary and both sides are looking out for themselves. This has its negatives but it has also resulted in workers attempting to strike a better work-life balance , when they can. As one of my good friends is fond of saying” Your job is not your life”. Young people today are aware of this truism and I see this in the way they plan their lives.
They are aware that retirement today is likely to be much longer than in the old days. One reason is that, unfortunately, it can come much earlier than expected because of downsizing, outsourcing and mergers. Another reason is that people are living much longer than they used to, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine. Consequently, people are thinking more about retirement than they used to.
They think about what they want to really, really do and sometimes, when they can, they go for it. Many are the stories about people who kicked over the traces, and quit their jobs to pursue their dreams. One of those is a good friend of mine who quit a well paying job in finance to open a Kashmiri restaurant. As a young student in Britain, he had run a successful catering business and loved it. In the years since, his only cooking forays were when he cooked delicious meals for his friends, including me. However, the siren song of starting a restaurant was too much. His son having graduated, his family responsibilities lightened, he took the big step, taking early retirement and starting a restaurant. It cannot have been easy. Restaurant startups are usually attempted by younger people, people in their twenties and thirties; my friend was in his mid-fifties. With guts and hard work, he has done it. The restaurant will celebrate its first anniversary in August, things are looking good, business is improving and my friend is having a ball in his ” retirement”. Good for him.
Even those who do not want to strike out on their own can plan for a happier retirement, and often do. One of my bosses did not have any interests outside of his job and his National Guard service, which together kept him totally occupied. A year before he retired, he asked himself what he would like to do in retirement and took adult education classes in Photography, Computers and Military History. Now retired for over twenty years, he is happy as a clam. He takes lots of photographs, reads voraciously about Military History and uses his computer skills as president of his retirement community association in Florida.
Yes, the new retirement is very different from the old.
P.S Of course, all this pre-supposes that one is well off financially and health-wise, something that unfortunately is harder these days than it used to be.
(The poem at the beginning of this post was taken from American Dreams Lost and Found, by Studs Terkel ( 1980).