The largely-outmoded On/Off Retirement Model world was about earning and saving so that, eventually, loooooong into the future, you could quit and not work anymore. As I look around at those I know who, like me, are in or around our 50s and 60s, hardly anyone seems to actually do that. We wonder if our lives would be more enjoyable if the paid work we did offered more of a creative challenge, while also allowing us more free time. We’ve achieved a certainly level of mastery in our professions and have crossed many of the goals off our list that used to motivate us. Are there many remaining rungs on the ladder before we reach the final one: Freedom from the ladder itself?
The traditional retirement model is not an ancient concept. It was fully a product of the Industrial Revolution, with its production quotas, shift whistles, typing pools and lunch pails, whatever those were. Like most outmoded systems, products and services, whether carburetors, taxi cabs, or making hotel reservations, traditional retirement is similarly ripe for disruption, technologically and socially. I haven’t figured this new era all out for myself yet, much less for others, but I want to explore pretirement, sharing what I experience while learning from similarly-inclined people.
The traditional retirement model was full of carrots at the finish line, most prominently pensions (remember those?), mythical gold watches and, eventually, when you are nearly spent, the full corporate endorsement to go play shuffle board in Florida. Those things have largely gone the way of leaded gas. Unfortunately, our society hasn’t yet embraced a clear replacement model for how most of us actually live post-full-time work. There is literally no established structure or language around dialing work down in our society, no gradual staircase from full-bore career to more self-determination that is understood and accepted as fully legitimate.
Few workers seem to understand those who “give up a really good career” in their 50s or even earlier. That’s the time when we’re supposed to be in full Benjamin-stacking mode and demonstrating the mastery of our professions, grooming the next generation climbing the ladder. We managers might have finally become one of the people everyone else is working for. How could we just quit and do something else when we finally have all the brass rings in hand or nearly-so?
It helps to consider how insecure our position as even a senior professional really is. We mostly work today for corporations and organizations that call themselves “At-Will Employers” (see your Employee Handbook.) Employers have all of the power to hire and fire you, which they certainly do without any hesitation when they choose to. An individual has no power in that arrangement, except to exercise the other half of it, which is to build some assets and skills while working full-time so that we could ultimately fire the employer “at-will.” That language is also in your employee handbook, though few of your colleagues are prepared to exercise it as ruthlessly as your employer is. What if we had an acceptable, honorable language for today’s vast ranks of people our age who have put themselves in a position to exercise their half of the At-Will-Employment equation?
If our employers, explicitly and in writing, feel no obligation to help us descend the escalator from full time work to something else, what can we do for ourselves?
What if we learned how to hack our financial assets in non-traditional ways before age 59.5 to support the pretirement lives we want to build for ourselves right now?
What if we didn’t fear the loss of employer-provided health insurance anymore, because we can now use Health Savings Accounts and health insurance exchanges and other methods to bridge us to age 65 and Medicare? Our country is finally, fitfully, joining the rest of the rich, advanced world toward more rational and high-quality health care delivery. We can finally come out of the cave of dependency on At-Will employers for our very medical care, blink in the daylight and chart our own paths.
What if we got out from under oppressive mortgages and expensive house upkeep and, instead, leveraged our accumulated home equity to generate income, pursue travel or engage in more creative, smaller-scale and perhaps international or even cooperative living arrangements? Many, many people explore the infinite variety of housing arrangements that are better for them and provide significant financial relief from the expensive 3BR/2BA, two car garage model. Their housing choices make their pretirement budgets work really well.
If we pursue for ourselves a creative and practical toolkit for pretirement, using words that are more nuanced and useful than On/Off “retirement,” then five or ten years from now, most people we meet will know instantly what a person means when they say “I’m pretiring.” Pretirement could be a fully-respectable, accepted and understood phase of life.
Pretirement is already practiced by perhaps a majority of people. Our commercial society just doesn’t fully understand and recognize the concept as legitimate yet. To many, it still seems a little flaky or unfortunate to just abandon the earning and spending treadmill early. “Oh, does she have a health problem?” “Did he get fired?” “Their kids are out of college and his wife comes from money so, sure, he can quit and travel.” Quitting seems”crazy” and/or “irresponsible.” It’s been said that every job, no matter how good, comes with it’s own bucket of manure. Perhaps the people who make those comments and who can’t fathom your choices will be able to understand once their bucket finally overflows, too.
Those in the non-profit sector, like my wife and me, face an additional challenge, because we are supposed to be about improving a society that needs us. We feel some inherent guilt pondering changes to careers dedicated to addressing the needs of the homeless/environment/sick people/children/other serious problems of society. I am part of some professional organizations full of people my age and older who seem to remain genuinely fully-motivated to work-until-they-can’t on behalf of their organizations’ missions. It’s awesome to see the ones who are still positive going strong for four or even five decades or more of full-time work for a better society. I am in a good place at the moment, career-wise, though I know some others who are no longer happy in their work but who stay year after year. I do not want to become one of those folks and I won’t ever let that happen.
Sometimes you hear that someone is “semi-retiring”, “going part time” or “retiring early.” Those words, along with the less-common “pretirement”, are part of the lexicon of this phase of life and are descriptive for many people’s routes through it. As I said, I might be eventually done altogether with my demanding profession and not be interested in going part-time or semi-retiring from it. I don’t know yet so I am working to make sure my choices, including working longer, are totally optional. If I do change the type and volume of my paid work, preretirement seems a better fit for me than those other descriptors. It’s hair-splitting semantics, perhaps, but it’s more apt for my mindset and probably for a lot of others out there. It’s important to have the right word for what we’re each doing.
I understand and respect that responsible people do what they have to do in the total context of their lives. Many people just need to work to provide for others who depend on them. I am sure that many other people still really like working at what they’ve been doing. I read recently about a 107 year-old barber – who drives to work. Fine, though also a bit terrifying as a fellow driver. I’m not judging others’ choices and situations. Some people still have a pension dangling out there, which seems to both entice and torture them. There is no one-size-fits-all, only individual journeys that each person navigates as best they can.
I’m the type who takes action when I need to. As I face up to my own situation and feelings using whatever assets I have to create flexibility to make changes easily if my wife or I choose, perhaps others like us will obtain some benefit if I write about it. I want to use my blog as part of my personal toolkit to explore alternative work and a lifestyle for always keeping myself happy, challenged and engaged throughout my one life.
How are you thinking about pretirement?