I had long thought that drawing a strong, unbroken line dividing work and retirement was for those who disliked their work and wanted to retreat to lawn chairs, mixed drinks, golf and cruises, and for those who had created large bucket lists to make up for unfulfilling lives. A haughty framing, wouldn’t you say? When people asked me what I was going to do when I retired, I said “I don’t know. There’s such a dense cloud cover between here and there, I can’t see what’s on the other side. I can’t feel what it will be like.” But I had a notion. I wanted to be very engaged by activities that would continue to add satisfaction and give meaning to my life.
Along with others, I anticipated retirement with mixed feelings. We looked forward to leaving the grind, to the absence of responsibilities, the slower pace, taking time over coffee and the newspaper in the morning, then a long leisurely walk in the early afternoon. Some of us couldn’t wait to take up the piano again, throw pots or paint pictures, travel to far off places, and take time with friends. We wanted to take on work-like projects and board seats just for the satisfaction they brought. For others, more time with grandchildren seemed an irresistible lure.
But there were also anticipatory anxieties. We worried that we might be bored. We would rapidly become irrelevant and ignored by all but those closest to us—and maybe some of them, too. Our minds might wither without challenge. Then, too, many of us associated retirement with the nearness of infirmity and death.
Since engagement—being deeply absorbed in activities for long periods of time—was my Valhalla, I assumed that others would join me. By being absorbed in meaningful activities, the primary desire for more leisure and social life would dissipate. In an uncharacteristic fit of modesty, though, I began to doubt that my way was so universal and sent a note to about thirty friends asking what had changed in the way they attended to projects and other activities when they moved from work to retirement.
Their thoughtful responses spoke of many—not one—solutions to the developmental challenge represented by retirement. They also led to a discovery: continuity of character seems to supersede changes in activity. Even while many changed what they did with their time, they all seemed to remain very much themselves.
Some were like me. They found projects that occupied their attention and gave zest to their lives. Some of the projects mirrored their life’s work. One friend, for example, expanded her research and writing about affordable housing. Another pursued her passion to fix our climate but did so with greater flexibility and ease. A third deepened her love of literature—something she had taught for decades—by writing a book on Dickens. In each case, freedom from institutional constraints, from bosses, pay checks, and from injunctions to be well behaved turned out to be delicious, even liberating.
Others turned away from lifelong patterns. These are people who had worked very, very hard, often with great success. Now they don’t work hard; they hardly work at all. They play. Where before they were highly focused, now they jump from one activity to the next, almost without pattern; the jumping, the freedom to follow their whims, to be inconsistent, is what they find pleasurable. Even as they defy their own need to stick with work and projects, though, they retain their characteristic intensity. Each little activity is taken up with great care and concentration. But they eschew long-term projects with goals, measures of effectiveness, and airs of importance.
From what I observe, this second group is composed of people for whom work contained a driven and seriously anxious component, which they don’t want to repeat in retirement. Even professional success had taken a great toll. They dearly wanted to shed responsibilities and to stop pleasing. They are ready to be responsible only to themselves. Sustained projects would plunge them back into the old cauldron.
There does seem to be a third type: those with shorter attention spans, who never could or never wanted to manage lengthy projects. One friend, for instance, dearly wanted to be done with institutions. He maintains that he could have continued in his work without them but that’s hard for a surgeon to do. He does not want to conform to organizational norms—or to any norms. He chose early retirement and has become happier than he’s ever been as he grows more eccentric with time.
Knowing him, I noted that he does have a sustaining project: building a beautiful art collection and broadening his expertise in Asian and African artifacts. He insists that I am wrong. What he’s doing is just so much fun. Even auctions, which others find tense, are an engrossing game to him. He pursues his project by choice and in the style he wants and in accordance with the timing he chooses. He engages and disengages as he sees fit. He is free and that’s what he likes. Much of his behavior looks very much as it did when he worked but he is the master of the whole domain.
I suspect that the desire to distance ourselves from our masters is what many of us have in common—whatever and whoever those masters are. Some are external—bosses, financial responsibilities and the like—or creatures of our own psychic creation. We want the freedom to make our own choices and to serve as our sole judges.
Character crosses the developmental divide more or less intact.. Whoever we were before we continue to be after retirement. If we were intense before, we remain so. If we had a short attention span beforehand, that is how we are afterwards. If we were focused before, we remain so, though in retirement, fearing the need to achieve, our focus may be in brief bursts of energy and attention. If we needed sustained engagement with something outside of ourselves—like big projects—then we are likely to continue in that vein. The post-retirement strategies we choose are meant to provide satisfaction and pleasure and to protect us in new ways from our inner demons.
At the same time as we doggedly remain the same, we also roam. We roam from old consistencies, from the need to achieve, from the need for approval and external reward. As we roam from old behaviors and, more importantly, from old injunctions, we grow a little or a lot more eccentric. The permission we give to ourselves to be eccentric and the way we demand that others accept our eccentricities may be the truest achievement of retirement and aging.