Retirement. A word too often heard. Commonly associated with emotions of desire for those seeking it, envy for those that have announced it before you and sadness for those that have achieved it years ago.
Has this word been part of the human society since the beginning? What did our ancestors of ancient times do? Let's explore that a little shall we?
Forced retirement by the government was first introduced in Germany in the late 19th century by Otto Von Bismarck, the then German Chancellor. This forced individuals in Germany over the age of 65 to retire and have a pension paid to them by the government. Some say it was his way of combating the Marxists at the time by bringing in a socialist agenda and others may argue it was truly to allow younger generations to find employment. While this happened in Europe in the 1880s, the Canadian physicist William Osler spoke in 1905 of how an average worker was 'useless' after age 60 and should be forced to retire. He referred to the worker's golden years as between 25-40 (Colonel Sanders thankfully never heeded this at 62… or else we wouldn’t have Kentucky Fried Chicken).
That 15-year golden year period (25-40) seems to still be a common thought among many people in the 21st century. I mean, the idea of retirement still being a "goal" for people speaks volumes of society's belief in the idea from the 19th/20th century period. I think this is foolishness. The average life expectancy of people in the Americas and Europe in the 1900s was between 41-44. A big improvement from the 1870s when it was 35-37. Given these average expectations of course the golden years would be about 4 years before your average worker died. Of course, the government will give you a pension if you worked till 65, most of you would have died 20 years before that anyways. Now, in the still early part of the 21st century, our life expectancy is in the 80s (for those in developed worlds, I live in Canada so that is my perspective). Given the growth in years, shouldn't the "retirement" age be moved up to about 90 then? If we wanted to still stick to this "retirement" idea that is.
With a hard belief that 65 years is the "correct" time to retire it seems that modern society has construed the original purpose for retirement into a new definition to something along the lines of "I just have to bust my ass for x amount of years until 65 to finally have enough saved up to not have to do this shitty work ever again".
I assume that the individual seeking retirement surely doesn't love his work because if he did then why would he want to stop?
(FYI, I use 'he' as my pronoun because I'm a male. If I was a female I would use 'she'. Not insinuating some gender thing for all the delicate snowflakes out there). Back to the main points.
I assume he wanted to stop so that he could dedicate what remaining time he has left to do what he wants. Doesn't seem very logical. Why spend about 40-50% of your life (start working at 22, so 43 years of working and assuming you'll live till 85-100) doing something you don't enjoy?
This notion of "do what you love" has been preached countless times. So, I don't want to bore you with that. But what I am genuinely curious on is this model of "retirement". It almost seems like IF the concept of 'retirement' didn't exist... less people may choose to do something for the sake of earning more money and hoping for some pension your immensely capable government has well prepared for you (my dismay on the quality of government organizations is something I will leave for another essay).
Retirement gives work an 'end'. It's like the shining light at the end of the tunnel that beckons you to run towards it. It's like that scene from a movie where the kid is just running through the dark tunnel and dreaming about the glorious green pastures at the end of the tunnel... yet when he finally reaches the end he emerges as an overweight, hairless and grouchy old man to what is not a green pasture but some lonely dirt patch. Guess it's better than a dark tunnel...... or is it?
I think the fact that there will be such an end to a chapter of this grueling journey called 'work' is what gives everyone a sense of hope for something better after. University seems to be an example. Most kids go to university not to learn but to get a high paying job, quite tragic. I must admit I too was thinking about that path. Many sprint through the 4 years because compared to your 80-100 year marathon of life it looks like a sprint. Also, it could just be that they are thinking "ah crap I hate this thing I'm studying, these boring lectures, I want to be free of this so that I can finally start the thing I want.. make money". Yet near the end many find themselves not knowing what to do with their lives and realizing they shouldn't have rushed the 4 years or should've approached it with a different mindset.
I lived through this concept again on my path to be an accountant. I was in a specialized accounting program, so I had accounting pounded into my head since first year. The following statement defined our belief of the path of an accountant after we graduated: "you study something you hate for 4 years, then you do the work you hate for 3 years, to get a designation you didn't really want but mom said was good for you, to find out most of your exit options from public accounting are doing controller tasks you hate". This is definitely not what every accountant thinks. Though.. 85%+ of my university friends are in one of the Big 4 accounting firms (i.e. Deloitte, KPMG etc..) or a form of public accounting firm and the vast majority agree with this remark.
For any future accountants reading this, don't be discouraged. Accounting as a skill is valuable, no one can deny that. I chose to do accounting as it is the fundamental language of business and that fluency has build a strong foundation for my career thus far. I chose to study it to gain fluency, and fluency is not binary (i.e. yes or no) but in a spectrum (i.e 0 – 10 scale). I saw it as binary, but in hindsight it is a spectrum. People aren’t going to say I’m not fluent in English because I don’t know the grammatical prose of a prefix of a word… same for accounting.. when would do most business folks need to know the 3rd requirement for revenue recognition in IAS 18…. Very rarely. IAS is international accounting standard.. and no I don’t think Jeff Bezos needed to know that… but Jeff if you are reading this please correct me.
Back to the accounting tragedy.
It was this end of getting the accounting designation that accounting students are sprinting towards after having completed university. There was a sense of cult-like group-think. Self-imposed by the students to some degree but I'd argue it was more the environment in our school that continued to uphold to celebrity status those who got into the Big 4. The vast majority would become lemmings that followed the lead lemming (the ones that got into the Big 4 early in co-op/internships). They'd bust their butts to get high grades, pad their resume with extracurriculars they didn't care for. This 4-year sprint is done by following the lead lemming.
Let's say they get past the first hurdle and make it into the public accounting practice and can now start getting some experience and dedicate any other spare time of their life to study an exam that doesn’t relate much to what they actually do. It's a grueling 3-year sprint of working 80-100 hrs a week for 1/3 the pay of friends in investment banking (this again is a very common comparison).
You get that designation. You get the designation that promised in all those advertisements you would get to "rule the world" and fly around in helicopters running shit.
Now you should know what you want to do with your life. It should be all green pastures. You're just waiting for someone to come down from the heavens with that sweet designation certificate and a scroll that tells you your life's destiny for ultimate happiness and riches.
But damn. You wait but no clouds part and no spectacled man in a power blue suit comes down in his Rolls Royce to give you the good news. This is a common phenomenon that has happened to lots of my friends. You realize that the lead lemming led you all over a cliff. I definitely ran off that cliff earlier than my friends so was able to mend my broken bones faster from the fall.
(Imagine just a bunch of accountants outside the office of a skyscraper staring up at the clouds. Laughing to myself right now as I write this. Yeah, this kind of humour gets me going)
Back to the tragic accountant's tale: The end you've been running to happened. But the glorious end you were promised is nowhere in sight. You actually see this as your designation approval gets nearer. It's like... you're on a conveyor belt and you just know it's going to put you over the cliff. You hear the screams of the people that have already plummeted. But you just can't get yourself to get off because you're too afraid. Too afraid of what will happen if you get off the belt. So, you end up sitting on that belt to be thrown off the cliff because at least you know how that story ends.
This is what I think retirement is like.
In the 20th and 21st century we've created this marathon version of an accounting designation. Only the race is so long that people can shut down and drone on in autopilot with the idea of a glorious and rich freedom to do what they really want to do with their life. So.. instead of a 100m long conveyor belt you're looking at a 100km conveyor belt.
So, what happens during this path to 65?
Let me tell you what I THINK happens. Based on my assumptions (which you just have to assume are wrong anyways), what I've seen (my eye sights are horrible) and what I've been told (I mean they call me old man Dan, hearing isn't my best sense).
You work. You climb that corporate ladder because you know what's better than an analyst? A senior analyst. You just bust your ass and work those hours and kiss the superior's ass and make awkward smiles in agreement to your colleagues so that you get that sweet sweet "senior" vocabulary stuck to your name. Mmm then you really want that Manager title. It's like a new level. You get to "manage".... So, you repeat process. Boom. Now you want that Senior Manager.... and it goes on and on.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to climb the corporate ladder. It is a grueling process that takes perseverance. From my experience though you can get to a certain upper level just by trading time for it. No big deal, just give them your time and you’ll get there eventually.
But given 'time' is the only truly finite currency in the world it seems foolish to just toss it away without much thought. I mean I'm sure there is a return on investment (ROI) on the amount of time you invest to a promotion. Promotion grants pay raise, promotion also grants additional higher salary offer from competitor. BAM. High ROI. Win!
Unfortunately, that doesn't work all the time. The point I want to get across is the mindset. Think about it this way. Essentially, what a company pays you to do is give them your time for the salary they pay you. This isn't just your direct hourly period you smash your keyboards to make some excel file. This time includes the time you put into learn a new skill like coding, or a language or the time you invested to read books to gain perspectives on methods of investing etc... All the time you've invested in the past has manifested to you of now and that knowledge and skill base can produce something going forward. The ability to produce that is what the company is paying you for, 2 weeks at a time.
So, you’re on that long ass conveyor belt. Blowing your time away like a pimp billionaire and you get to the end and realize you don't have much of that time left.
FYI, you will die. Just so you know. People around you will die too. Your parents will most likely die before you, statistically speaking. So yeah, time is real finite and so the notion that you are going to blow all of it up to 65 doing something you don't like in the hopes of "getting some back" just doesn't seem to make any sense. Because, who said your parents, or your loved ones would wait around until you retire so that you can start spending time with them and go on vacation? Who said you'd be that hot smoking young self of you at 25 when you retire at 65? Who said Hawaii for a 32-year-old was the same Hawaii for a 73-year-old?
I really do think the acronym the kids use these days for 'you only live once' (YOLO) has been overused and become a source of reason to condone poor decision making. However, my belief is that I will only live once. Given such a view point I do think the Chiang Mai (Thailand) I went to at 24 will be a different Chiang Mai when I go at 30 or 40. Not only because the times have changed, and the city would have evolved but also because I would not be the same. My mindset may have changed, my physique may have changed (for the better of course), and the people I go again with may have changed (potentially with my own children instead of hooligan high school friends). This will also change the actions and experience I would ultimately have. Running through streets without traffic lights and dodging motorcycles to reach that heavenly pour-over coffee bar at 24 may not be a reality at 40 with a family of 4. Haggling for cheap fares on backs of trucks or walking through the tropical rain storm finding the university student night market may not be activities a 38-year-old with 2 young kids may want to do. All is an indication that time will not wait for me.
Yet. I think the drawn idea of retirement creates an effect where people may actually think time will wait for them. I would very much like to burst that balloon and say "nope".
The approach I plan to take for my life is that I would never retire. It doesn't mean that I'm going to be doing only 1 thing forever. I mean, I've already been in 3 completely different career fields. What I plan to do is to continue my life's work till I die. For me my life's work is what gives me meaning in life, a kind of purpose. I also believe this meaning I have now may change as I live through this journey. This could mean that I stop "working" in the traditional sense to do a stint in not-for-profits for a period of time… like raising a child, I hear it's a real expensive venture that is thankless for a while but you hope it can be of value to society.
But the idea is that most people "work" for about 1/3 of their waking lives [40 working hours / (24hrs per day x 7days - (7days x 8hrs of sleep))]. 40 Hours is a long time to sit around on a beach. I mean, even assuming you were having sex for 1/3 of your waking life, another 1/3 spending time with friends and family.... what are you going to do for the other 1/3 when you are 75? I guess you'd be going to do your medical check ups if you neglected your health until retirement. I'll talk about the foolishness of forgoing health for money in another essay, but I just want to point out for the guys out there who are just focused on making a few millions. I don't care how much you got but being overweight and weak doesn't look good on the beach, even if you got Prada sunglasses. Okay, sidetracked by another rant.
Back to the main point.
The novelties of pleasurable activities (e.g. hanging out with friends, sex, TV, gambling etc.) sooner or later lose their attractiveness and you will effectively look for something that brings you a feeling of fulfillment when doing it. Once you find it, you may then ask yourself why you hadn't found that earlier. So, for those who are currently busy at their work with the end game being "retirement", I ask you to think again. Is that the true end game? Isn't the end game you in your deathbed hopefully surrounded by those you love and whom love you back? Given that kind of end game, do you really want someone to say, "well at least you lived 65 onwards with no regret"? Because that time up to 65 seems immensely wasted.
I know our friend death made a small peak earlier but let’s explore this more. I think the human life in general is a great tragic story. Because the story begins as follows: You were born. You didn't ask for it, your parents chose for it. So here you come out. There is only one thing certain once you are born. That you will die. Ben Franklin (and countless others) think death and taxes are the only certainty, but it seems the Cayman Islands and other shenanigans can change that so... we only get death. So, then you go on living your life. You spend your entire life building emotions and relationships and loving other people, animals, things etc... Then, it comes a time when you will have to say goodbye to those beings you invested all your time and effort loving. They will die, and you will die thereafter. The End.
This is not a pessimistic thought. It is the realities of facing facts and certainties. It is actually required to be optimistic. Because given the tragic end of human life, it is now my own responsibility to live it and enjoy it as best I can. We know the end. Death. Yet, we don't know WHEN and HOW this will happen. Hopefully we will get to live our life through till old age when the body naturally ceases function. To achieve this one of the key investments that must be constantly made is your health. It's one of those things you have to invest early and continue investing in to see dividends decades later. When you are 78 and you don't have a hunchback or decayed motor capabilities because you've invested into your own mind and body you will have achieved a form of success. This kind of balanced investment is required continuously for compounded results. This is something you want to consider and imagine for your end game too.
Now that was YOUR health. But, what about those people around you? I'm 25 now. I'm fit, and neurotic about my health so I'm optimistically going to say I will live till 100. I’vs got 75 more years. Solid. Good for me. But... what about my friends? Will they be with me till I'm 100? What if some only make it halfway until 50? (knock on wood… but seriously guys if you’re reading this, stop smoking).
If I only see my best friend once a year... maybe I'd like to see him more than 25 times before he croaks at 50. What about my parents? If they make it to 100, I'll get them for another good 45 years... if they only make it to 75-85 like the average of their generation I'll only get 20-30 years. Let's now assume I'm the average chap who will pound away at my retirement working a sick corporate job and aim for that sweet retirement at 65. This job has given me 15 days of vacation, which I've used to visit my parents in Vancouver once a year like I did in University. Told myself I'd take care of my parents more once I'm retired. Okay, 65 now. How old will my parents have to be to witness this? About 95. Damn. Probability states my relationship with them would have come to an end at about 45-55, still looking for retirement. At 45, I would've visited Vancouver 20 times in total. So, would've had a home cooked meal from mother 20 times minimum. And that is it? That is real shitty. Pathetic really. Maybe it's fine since my goal is retirement and once I get it I'll get to visit their cemetery everyday.
Think again about the concept of retirement as an end goal. If you need a break, take mini-retirements (i.e. a month off after every X months of work to recharge), or take a sabbatical to really take the time to ask yourself what your end game looks like. Maybe it really is retirement at 65 or maybe your loved ones have a greater part of the end picture. Then maybe arrange a location switch to be closer in proximity to those you love. Plenty of people can say "shut it old man, I can't afford to take vacation" and that is a choice they are willing to make. But it is still a choice, just be aware of what that may cost you. You can’t blame your environment, your boss or your family for the choices you were free to make. Just be aware of what you’ve chosen to gain and loss with each choice.
We're all running a marathon here. I honestly doubt I'm going to be in my deathbed saying "Ah shit I really could've had that promotion 42 years ago if I pulled more all-nighters and saw less of my friends and my family". But that's just me.
My belief is that the societal view of retirement has become quite toxic and I'd like to encourage you to look at your life differently. But remember, you're taking advice from a guy that probably doesn't know what they fuck he's saying. So, take it or leave it.
Action Step: I’m sure when you read through this article someone popped up in your mind. Could be a friend, a family member, a colleague or acquaintance. Share this with that one person. Then, discuss how each of you value your intangibles. One is a fool but two is a partnership. There is value in discussion.