Handy-dandy Wanky retirement planner
February 23, 2023 Comments Off on Handy-dandy Wanky retirement planner
So you are stiff in all the wrong places and soft in all the right ones? Waaaay past mid-life (that’s age 36 for men, by the way) but still calling yourself “middle-aged”? Finding that your recovery days on the bike are measured in weeks or months?
It may be that you are now unofficially “pre-retired.” This is the state of mind and body where you think you are the man you once were while realizing that the man you once were would never have put up with the man you are now. In short, the old canard that age is just a number has proven prophetic. Age really is a number and it increases inexorably, and with that increase comes a decrease in everything else worth having, including life itself.
For some strange reason you’re still working. You know you’ll retire but you don’t know when. Or how.
I can help.
Although I can’t tell you what to think, I can tell you what rationales are fallacious, especially when it comes to retirement. Here are the biggest fallacies you’ll employ to keep yourself chained to your miserable fucking job:
- I need to save more.
- I plan to work forever.
- I’m too healthy to retire.
- I’m going to live a long time.
- I want to provide for the kids (grandkids/great-great grandkids, etc.).
- I need to wait until the market comes back.
- Later retirement means bigger Social Security benefits.
- I’d get bored.
- Work is my social life.
- I love my job.
Before I tackle these incredibly bad and soul-killing Retirement Commandments of Conventional Wisdom, I think it’s important to consider the nature of quantum physics, especially Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle, which he applied to waves and particles. In essence, the principle states that the more precisely you measure the position of a particle, the less precisely you can measure its momentum, which is characterized by its wave state.
More simply put, you can know position or momentum but you cannot know both.
This is not simply, as Heisenberg thought, a function of the observer effect, the injection of the observer’s own energy into the relationship of the particle and the wave, but rather a fundamental aspect of quantum physics independent of observation. And in fact, this unalterable relationship has long been expressed in folk wisdom: you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
Foundationally for all human life, you must choose.
Which brings us back to the quantum nature of retirement philosophy, a concept driven exclusively by marketing. The genius of retirement marketing is that it employs quantum reality to influence the decision about when to quit work. But first a bit of foreplay: work is a function of capitalism, and continuing to work is always a function of continuing to serve the capitalist need to perpetually exploit labor in order to create profit. This is another way of saying that every exhortation to delay retirement is founded on the necessity of capital to ensure adequate supplies of enslaved and underpaid labor.
The marketing argument of capitalism to encourage workers to continue working and thereby delay their “freedom” is based on a simple quantum reality, namely, that the moment of death is uncertain. Think of the death moment as the position of the particle, and think of health as its momentum. The closer we get to the moment of death, the less able we are to evaluate health. The converse is true. The healthier we are, the less able we are to predict the moment of death. Another way to think of it is this: when you die, your biological processes cease. Momentum/health becomes zero. And the healthier you are, the more difficult it is to predict when you will die.
“But wait,” you may say. “The closer a cancer patient gets to the date of death, the better you can evaluate health. It’s in the shitter and he’s about to die.”
Actually, no. The closer you get to death, the better you can evaluate the lack of health, which corresponds to lack of momentum. Health encompasses the robustness as well as the illness of the organism. An evaluation of health that can only pinpoint, for example, a cancer that has mestastasized to destroy the function of all major organs, cannot by definition evaluate the maximal functioning of those same organs, since they are now completely shot. It can only say that they are all now failing and death is imminent. Health is momentum. Death is position.
How quantum physics realities drive retirement marketing
Why does this matter? Because retirement marketing is driven by the uncertainty of time of death. Since you never know when you’ll die, and no one wants to die now, you have no idea how much money you’ll actually need. Actuarial tables don’t help because they are not absolute, and like people in a casino, each player believes that she will be the winning tail of the bell curve because the definition of an average is that a few are higher and a few are lower. The average moment of death for most is meaningless for retirement decision-making in a universe where everyone secretly thinks that she will be the next Jeanne Calment, and where Elon Musk and his acolytes busily push the dream of eternal life, either through downloadable genome/biome/neural networks, AI, biotechnical advances, or transplantation to Mars.
Whichever trope you subscribe to, that of natural or artificial longevity, the fact is that you don’t know the moment of death and therefore no amount of money can possibly be enough. The best saver in the world can’t afford a 300-year retirement. Retirement planners know this reality and although they may not call it quantum, that’s effectively what it is.
Like all marketing, it’s a lie because as a truly quantum formulation it must also have a complementary variable. Just as position’s complementary variable is momentum, the complementary variable of death is health. Retirement marketing, an end-game arm of capitalism, focuses on the uncertainty of moment of death as a way to frighten you into more work.
But you could just as easily focus on the complementary variable of death, which is health, to encourage people to quit their jobs today and focus on maintaining the momentum of a good life, which can only occur with good health. “But!” you exclaim. “It’s possible to work and be healthy!”
Indeed it is, just as it’s possible for a particle to be moving and to be at some position simultaneously. The catch is that you can’t precisely know the one without becoming correspondingly uncertain about the other. The more you work the less healthy you become, if for no other reason that you are aging, and the healthier you become the less you work. How much is enough? We don’t know but that’s not the question. The question is which one are you going to try and measure? Because if you spend your life measuring health/momentum, you’ll be totally clueless about the moment of death but will have had an amazing run. Contrariwise, if you spend your life calculating how long you’re going to live and trying to manipulate circumstances to maximize it, you may live longer but your life will have sucked. And don’t tell me that Warren Buffett has had a good life. Can he sprint up a flight of stairs? Jump rope for five minutes? Fuck his wife? No? Then his life sucks and, I’d argue, has sucked for a very long time.
This is simply my value judgment. But what is not my opinion is this: living your life calculating the (most remote) moment of death is mutually exclusive with living your life calculating the maximal health obtainable from your body. Calculating the most remote moment of death includes, aggressive use of health care, minimal risk taking, sedentary lifestyles, using digital media to suborn actual movement and mobility, and of course plugging in social media to replace experience. These things will help calculate the most remote moment of death possible, but due to the quantum nature of existence, force you to abjure calculations to maximize health.
“Well,” you may say, “sounds like you’re simply pushing health as a way to live longer.”
Unfortunately, no, because in the same way that momentum doesn’t predict position, health is no predictor of your moment of death. Jim Fixx died at 52, Jack Lalanne at 96, Tom Simpson at 29. And although riding the Tour de France greatly extends longevity by an average of eight years, it still doesn’t allow you to predict the moment of death. Thierry Claveyrolat was dead at forty.
The converse of this is true as well, as you’d expect from the uncertainty principle. The time of death is no predictor of health. A person can live brain dead for decades. An elite cyclist can be killed by a car while training. The fallacy that good health is predictive of a longer life, the mantra of the medico-health industry, is statistically correct but as fallacious and misleading as the mantra of retirement marketers that we should continue to work because the moment of death is uncertain. No amount of good health will keep you alive forever, and more to the point, no amount of good health will enable you to pinpoint the time of death. In fact, the healthier you are, the less certain your time of death will be. What’s certain is that a healthier life is a better life, even if it’s ended by a fatal plunge while rock climbing. In the same vein, a well-funded death in a nursing home, shitting your pants and too demented to recall your own name, is a life writ horrible.
Life or health?
So it’s just as silly to use good health as a way to live longer as it is to use longevity as a path to good health. The more precisely you measure either, the more indeterminate the other becomes.
Nonetheless, you have to choose which one you’re going to spend your life measuring, and you likely need a rationale. The rationale to continue working is simple: you will run out of money, die sooner, and in penury. The rationale to pursue health is equally simple: better to die healthy and poor than sick and rich. For many people, already locked into terrible health and constrained by debt, the train has left the station and won’t be coming back. Capitalism continues to function because hundreds of millions have given up health so that they can live, “live” in this case meaning “have access to overpriced, needless consumer goods while eating terrible food cheaply during ever-briefer periods of sobriety while heavily utilizing modern pharma-healthcare.”
Happily, these folks don’t need any retirement marketing to stay in the traces. They are already old and poor and sick and relatively immobile, and the cessation of a paycheck literally would mean and will mean imminent death. They are doing what they were supposed to do: work all their lives. Doubt it? Full Social Security kicks in at 70. Average lifespan of a US male is 73. Do you think they just pulled those numbers out of a hat?
The problem gets knottier for people turning 50 who have accumulated some money and whose health isn’t irretrievably wrecked. I know a lot of these people because I’m an old, angry, healthy, affluent, white guy. We are the decision-making demographic in America, and have been forever, so there are always a few of us who get to make a choice. It would be wonderful if younger people from different demographics pulled their heads out of the sand and realized the path they’re on, but just as information becomes more available and theoretically more democratically emancipatory, capitalism subverts the information flow so that it simply enhances capitalism. I’m talking about the Internet, cell phones, and the Web 3.0, all of which have completely captured the health and cognition of everyone under forty, and most of those above. As nice as it would be to suggest that people cast off their chains, the vast majority of the American population under thirty, and maybe forty, could no more tell you how capitalism functions than they could explain quantum physics.
But back to the argument about why you should retire now.
“I need to save more.” Doubtful. If you have access to $500,000 in retirement accounts or in a home, you have enough money to live an amazing life somewhere else. Note that there will come a time when you run out of money and your life becomes instantly horrible followed by death, but when you stay in the traces your life becomes gradually horrible followed by death, with no redeeming decade(s) of amazingness, fulfillment, and expansion of mind-body to fill the quantum dimensions of your personal universe. Here’s an example: with $500,000 stuffed in a satchel and earning no interest, you can live an amazing life for the next 30 years in a country like Colombia. If you’re earning interest, make that 40 years, and if you draw any Social Security at all, it’s more like 50.
And please don’t tell me that you don’t speak Spanish or that Colombia is dangerous. The earth has dozens of countries covering most of its land mass where you can live securely and experience an amazing existence. What’s required is that you set aside your prejudice and accept that for the rest of your life you’ll be moving, mobile, mentally active, and perpetually engaged in measuring the momentum of health, not the position of moment of death. If you’re still skeptical, all that means is that you really are comfortable in the harness, and the prospect of free will, filling your hours with things that you dream up, having interests that require great physical mobility, are all anathema to you. Shorthand: you like the couch. Which is fine. But don’t couch the couch as a need for “more money.”
More radically, you don’t even need $500k to get off the slavery train. You can do it with far less, but the less money you have, the more totally you have to accept that your life is health and nothing more, commit to maximizing the things you experience, and let the death date take care of itself.
“I plan to work forever.” This is a perennial fave. No, you don’t plan to work forever. Capitalism plans for you to work forever, either by hanging onto the job you allegedly love until you die, or by retiring so that you can take a consulting gig or part time job that pays less while still keeping you in wage chains. Alternatively, you can retire from paid work and become a volunteer, working for free–capitalism loves this best of all. Most ideally, you’ll “work forever” until 70, collect three years of Social Security, then die.
Still, we can think about this critically. Why would you choose to work forever? People who give this answer have two rationales only: 1) they need the money, or 2) they love their job. Working forever out of financial need takes us right back to Reason One above, which is ridiculous. More ridiculous, but less obviously so, is the notion that you love your job.
Loving your job is of course impossible. Work consists of solving problems for someone else for less money than the labor is worth. If you weren’t solving a problem, no one would pay you, and if you were charging more than the solution was worth, no one would pay you. Work in capitalism is by definition exploitative. No rational person enjoys exploitation, or seeks to prolong it more than necessary. To the contrary, exploitation is one of the first things that workers try to escape from by becoming capitalists themselves so that that they can do the exploiting. This is the root mentality of every wanker out there dreaming of owning a bike shop.
So no, you don’t love your job. What you have done is make peace with the exploitation, you’ve accepted it as inevitable, and you’ve engineered the circumstances to be minimally loathsome. This isn’t love, and there’s an easy test: if you were offered the same pay to do the same thing without having either bosses, managers, customers, or clients, would you still do it? If you wouldn’t, then what you love is the exploitive relationships, the routine, and the grind of hierarchy. If you would, then what you love isn’t the job but the activity, and folks, activities aren’t jobs. If you love the law so fucking much, retire your license and write contracts for the fun of it.
Slightly more complicated is the case of the multi-millionaire. What about the real estate tycoon who made his fortune buying foreclosed properties and evicting the residents? He has now graduated to much more lucrative things such as subprime loans, as well as the purchase of multi-family dwellings in order to raise rents. He’s a great guy.
Why should such a person ever retire? “I have a lot of younger people in my firm I still want to mentor.” Ah, yah. An immoral guy who’s fine booting families onto the street feels noblesse oblige toward the youth. Rest assured that the youth he’s “mentoring” cannot fucking wait for him to retire and go away and give them space to actually be promoted and have a life of their own.
In his way of seeing things, why retire? He has power. He does what he wants. People cringe in his presence. He even makes the priests kiss his signet ring, as he donates liberally to the church. It’s easy to see that he loves his work, at least on the outside. But on the inside? What if in reality he’s miserable? His health is horrible. He drinks all the time, and when he’s not intoxicated he’s on pain meds. His marriage is a sham. His relationships with his children are terrible at best. He can’t cycle, jog, or even eat well because his every waking moment is spent figuring out how to steer the mighty ship of capital, a slow moving, shit-laden barge that turns slowly and only with great effort.
In short, it’s not the work our little Donald Trumps love, it’s the power, and they know that the minute they step down, most of their power will evaporate. It’s no coincidence that LBJ died shortly after being “retired” to his “beloved” ranch in Johnson City. LBJ thrived on the sex, power, and money of the Senate and later the presidency. He no more wanted a quiet life in the Hill Country than our real estate tycoon wants to mentor young people. Both are in the thrall of power, but make no mistake about it: that’s not loving your job, it’s loving power and control.
Crucially, the power can only be maintained through work. And that puts the capitalist right back on the same track as the lawyer who’s working for “just a couple more years” to “sock away a few extra bucks.” The work makes true health impossible. Capitalism, in cahoots with quantum physics, makes you choose one or the other, and as long as you’re working, whatever fake reason you tell yourself, the choice is a more remote time of death instead of a fully expanded and healthy life.
“I’m too healthy to retire.” The alternative formulation is “I’m too young to retire.” Both connote that with all this power, vim, and vigor, I’d be crazy not to double down and work harder. It’s ridiculous. Work, by definition, is the antithesis of health. The model of capitalism is to pay you the least when you’re healthiest, and the most when you’re oldest/sickest/closest to retirement. Moreover, if you’re still that healthy at fifty, why in the world would you devote any of your remaining health to something that promises to make you sicker?
It’s possible to score more highly on the health scale than others as you age, but no one gets of the casino alive, and if you choose to keep working, you won’t even get out of it with your health. The argument is that you’re too healthy to keep working, or it should be. How many people worked really long and hard had miserable fucking lives that either ended badly, or are going to, like the professor who plodded on at his academic post until 73, when he was forced to leave. He already had dementia. He’d done nothing for his health his entire life, and he was a pile of smoking ashes shortly before his 83rd birthday. Those final ten years had been consumed by booze, food, doddering around the block and, I kid you not, checking emails.
Or what about the frayed, cynical, loveless psychiatrist who’s in her 80’s and still works? Perhaps she went from being a highly paid MD psychoanalyst in private practice to spending her final decade as a hack contract psychiatrist for the VA, where she evaluates veterans for psych disability benefits. Perhaps she rants and raves about all the malingerers, fakers, frauds, and worthless pieces of shit trying to rip off good old Uncle Sam … that’s her “love of work,” finding reasons to deny health benefits to people who marched off and fought in foreign wars? Yes, she’s too healthy to retire, though she can’t walk a hundred yards and lives in constant terror that if she ever falls she’ll fracture like a vase.
Riding my bike around the country I ran into countless able-bodied people, male and female, who were way too healthy to work. And they may have been without a fixed abode, and many of them likely had drug/alcohol addictions, but they were using their health to tramp around the country; warm places in winter, cooler ones in summer. None of them seemed consumed with the false zeal of a job they hated or consumed by dementia.
The point is that if you hit your 50’s with some financial stability, and still have command of your physico-cognitive faculties, expending them on more work is dumb beyond belief unless you really are one of those people for whom freedom is the worst of all possible worlds. And don’t be surprised if you are; if the thought of the barren steppes of retirement seem as vacant as the moon: capitalism has groomed you to be this way.
“I’m going to live a long time.” This is superficially the dumbest reason of all, but it’s actually complicated. The argument that you’re going to live a long time, so you should spend more of that time being exploited, speaks for itself on the scale of stupid. But more deeply, it’s the quantum vote to focus on a remote time of death rather than the momentum of health. To deconstruct the deeper fallacy, you have to think about what mortality really means and understand that it’s no more compelling a reason to do anything than its converse, which is immortality.
If a long life were a reason to keep working, then it of course it’s also a valid reason to quit working because all work is exploitative. But the same thing can be said for immortality: I’m going to live forever (Elon Musk), so I’m going to repeat this boring activity forever. It seems counterintuitive, that immortality would be an invitation to eternal boredom, but if you’ve ever read “Jitterbug Perfume” by Tom Robbins, you quickly grasp that death serves the ultimate purpose of existence in that it provides variety. Once you’re dead you finally get to quit doing the same old shit. In “Jitterbug Perfume,” the protagonist found that nothing was more unendurably boring than living forever. If you think it’s hard to fill your spare time on a long weekend or for a few years after retiring, how hard do you think it’s going to be filling your free time FOREVER?
This notion has been around for a long time, that eternity sucks. Mark Twain pilloried it in his satire on the afterlife, and no one who’s had to listen to a boring speech or watch 3-year-olds play soccer can possibly imagine that the longer you live, the more exciting things get. The contrary is true. The longer you live, the more imperative it becomes to stop doing boring shit now, and start engaging the spectrum of your mind-body asap.
“I want to provide for the kids.” I can’t help you here except to say that no, actually, you don’t. Because if you’re in your 50’s, have financial stability, and still haven’t given your grown children the resources they need to make it on their own, it’s because you were dicking off in your 20’s and 30’s and 40’s. Here’s another fun fact: your kids are going to be fine without your money. If all you have to give them is cash, they hate you anyway. And if you retire and are able to give them the intangibles of time and love and physical presence, they won’t give two shits about your supposed money.
And no, unless they’re childless, you don’t owe your grandkids one goddamned thing. That’s their parents’ job. The idea that you’re supposed to keep sucking ass at a miserable job so that you can die three years after you retire simply because the littl’uns need more Legos is insane. As with grown kids, if you have anything to give them at all it’s called “love,” and it’s not transmogrifiable into dollars.
Most pathetic of all is the supposed altruism of this false rationale, as if you want to suffer even more for your darling children. No one believes it, not even you, because if their financial security was of such paramount importance, you’d have bought them the house and you’d be the one renting a studio in San Bernardino. The time to provide for your children was before they turned five. After that it’s all either post-haste flimflam to make up for a job badly done, or enjoying the fruits of your labor.
“I need to wait until the market comes back.” Did it go somewhere? I don’t think so. And the market never “comes back.” It’s been growing on average since 1929, and that trend will continue. Yes, you’ve lost a lot due to the recession and the end of quantitative money printing, but you still have the minimum in assets to get the hell out of this shitshow and start focusing on momentum rather than position.
“Later retirement means bigger Social Security benefits.” This is one point all the fearmongers agree on. Don’t quit at 62. $1,200 a month isn’t even enough to pay for Internet + beer + rent. Don’t do it.
Of all the fallacious reasons to keep slaving away, this is the best one. In fact, I met a guy outside Ventura last year in this exact predicament. He’d retired as a bus driver at 62 and now couldn’t make ends meet. He tried to get back on part-time with the bus company but flunked a drug test. Now he’s living with his girlfriend and her kids, who all hate him, and he spends his time playing guitar for change. Clearly he could have planned things better.
Or could he? He was rail thin, didn’t drink, smoked a bit of weed, and was in great shape. What the fuck was he doing in in Ventura County? That little oasis has exploded in rents and cost of living; Ted Danson retired there, for fuck’s sake. Don’t tell me $1,200 a month won’t go a hell of a lot farther south of the border, or in Namibia, or most anywhere more than stinking Southern California. When I told him that on my bikepacking trips I was able to live on $16 a day, he got so excited that I thought he was going to go buy a bike on the spot.
The big picture is that if you have zero savings and are poor, you’re fucked, and this blog can’t un-fuck you. But for people with financial stability and the outline of a healthy body, putting off retirement for a few lousy Social Security dollars is as dumb, and no different from, continuing work to earn more money. Moreover, if your SS benefits are that big a concern, if you’ve been working for the last 30 years your full credits have likely already vested and the only thing that matters is not how much more you work, but when you choose to claim the benefits. If you have minimum assets, you can quit whenever you want and simply wait til 70 to start receiving benefits. The SSA has a web site that lets you calculate, roughly, what they’ll be. Just because you quit working doesn’t mean you have to begin receiving SS.
The bigger big picture is that life expectancy of US males is 73. If you’ve got the assets, even if they’re not that impressive, relocating to a super cheap locale and taking SS benefits at 62 is way smarter than working another miserable decade, taking the benefits at 70, and kicking the bucket at 73. But of course you’re not going to die at 73. That’s what average people do. Right?
“I’d get bored.” Oddly, this is the single best reason to never, ever stop working, along with “Work is my social life,” so I’ll lump them together. Of all the terrible reasons to keep working, these are by far the least terrible because they comport, more or less inflexibly, with reality, and the reality is this: you have nothing interesting/engaging/stimulating to do that can be sustained for more than a few hours a week.
Believe me, this is a mortal blow to retirement, early or not, and there’s not really a way to fix it. By the time you reach the age when you can stop working, you’ve internalized the regimens of work and more importantly the releases from the regimens of work so fundamentally that it’s impossible for most people to ever alter them. When I say the “releases” from the regimens of work of course I mean the TeeVee, the alcohols, the dumb phone, and #socmed. I’ll refer to them as TVADPSM.
Existence for most people who reach age 50 is a series of binary states, the state of at work and the state of TVADPSM. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, we might also throw in “X” for exercise. But essentially those activities are placeholders for the working state, and when the working state goes away, those placeholders are boring, empty, and meaningless beyond belief. It’s easy to understand why, because they were all those things before retirement, only without work to provide an interlude, they are now crushingly so.
How unendurable is TVADPSM + X? It drives retirees back to the workforce in droves, cf. Wal-Mart and Home Depot greeters, not to mention aerospace managers who now freelance as consultants. And no matter how hard you try, without some pre-existing crazypants obsession or the intervention of a spouse/SO who can put you on the path to engagement, boredom will essentially drown out any of the health benefits of retirement. It’s easy to see which people are the ones headed for re-employment. They’re the ones who quit work with a huge #socmed splash and take that amazing trip to unheard of places like Paris, Amalfi, and for the more adventurous, Amsterdam. Or maybe they sally forth in the ol’ RV to explore this great country’s “open roads.”
Whatever, they’re the ones who are masking a lifetime built with no real engagement by bragging about their pedestrian consumption of boring, expensive, and stupid canned tourism. A better bet are the people who’ve got a basement filled with awful oil paintings that they’ve worked on their entire lives, or a basement filled with taxidermy projects. Even so, as “Jitterbug Perfume” demonstrates, eternity lasts forever and it’s boring af with or without the taxidermy.
What’s a girl to do?
This means that there really is a good reason to keep working even if you have enough money, and the reason is boredom. Yet there are people who manage to engage with the momentum of their lives even after decades spent calculating the moment of death. It’s difficult but doable, but then, the exercise of free will always is. What slavery lacks in glamor and happiness, it makes up for in creature comforts.
The retired cyclist, Part 1: But I’m not even tired
August 12, 2022 Comments Off on The retired cyclist, Part 1: But I’m not even tired
Well, there it is. You’re in your late 50’s, maybe your 60’s, dog forbid your 70’s, and you’ve decided to retire. What does that even mean?
Broadly speaking, retirement means no longer earning a paycheck and therefore no longer having to do what a customer, client, boss, or shareholder tells you to do in exchange for money. Although the definition seems simple, it’s not.
Retirement has two pieces, a physical piece and an emotional one, and they’re intimately related.
The physical element of retirement is the simplest of the two pieces, but it’s complicated. Generally, retirement begins when you quit working with no intention of ever working again–even if circumstances eventually bring you back into the workforce. With retirement, the physical sale of your labor ceases. Each minute of your time becomes wholly yours, to use as you see fit. Retirement differs from disability in that it’s voluntary, though some professions like airline pilots and the military have mandatory quitting ages.
Retirement also differs from the common South Bay phenomenon of 30-something cyclist-surfer-bum working part-time or not at all but still living in his childhood bedroom. It differs because retirement includes the aspect of “I worked and paid my dues and now I get to rest” combined with “I have no more hope of anything besides death.”
The couch denizen, unlike the retiree, still has hopes and dreams, some real, most delusional. The main dream of the part-timer living with mom while working at the bike shop is his dream that one day mom will die and the house will be his. Although he’s not actively working towards her demise (we hope), he has a purpose in life, the purpose of inheritance. This and his near-total absence of a full-time working life mean that he will never retire. Rather, he will continue living as he always did, and living as you always did isn’t retirement. That’s why children, whether small or grown up, can’t retire.
Despite differences in means, the very wealthy never retire, either. Great, or even very significant wealth, means that you will continue to trade your time and labor in order to monitor and grow your moneys. I know a guy who was a failure in his chosen field but a smashing success in the field of inheritance. His father died young and left him a real estate empire in the Bay Area. His days are spent, and will always be spent, monitoring, growing, and obsessing over his fortune. When your labor is exchanged for money, you’re working, and since the rich almost always stay that way, especially if they are older, they never retire, and crucially, since the love of money is inexhaustible, they never want to.
Another reason that couch potatoes and real estate heirs can’t retire is because the idea of retirement is inextricably linked with scarcity. Will I have enough money not to die in poverty? How much can I spend each year and still have a quality of life that is meaningful to me? Do I need to take a part-time job? Is my health savings account adequate?
There’s another class of person who can never truly be described as a retiree. It’s the person who quits one full-time paying occupation and exchanges it for another. Some call it “unretirement” to make it sound edgy, clever, and a choice, rather than what the economy calls it, which is “employment.” You cannot be retired and mostly employed because once you are working again, your time is no longer your own.
When I biked to Texas in 2020, I met a man and his wife who’d been RV-ing for twelve years. He was in his late 70’s. After retiring, he’d bought the RV and then discovered that it’s just as expensive to drive your house as it is to live in it parked on a lot. To cover costs, he and his wife would drive to a place, find seasonal work, and when it finished, move to another location. They did this nine months out of the year. He insisted that he was retired. I’m insisting that he wasn’t: Nine months of full-time work a year is what teachers do.
But whether you’re 99% retired and just doing a tiny bit of work on the side, or working 40 hours a week as a greeter at Wal-Mart, one of the key elements of physical retirement is that it is a kind final, punishing reality check. You spent your life doing x, and you thought that someday you’d get to do y and z, but when the time comes, there’s really not enough money to do either to the extent you’d like, especially if you plan to live into your 80’s.
This scarcity is not as income-dependent as you’d think. People barely surviving on Social Security experience the same sense of scarcity and desperation that many well-planned retirees do simply because the well-planned retiree has to scale back, reduce, downsize, and face the physical fact that there’s no more monthly paycheck to float his schemes and fancies. Some adapt to it better than others.
Scarcity and the cessation of almost all work define part of the physical side to retirement, but there is a part to the physical picture that is perhaps more important: Old age. Retirement coincides with a rapidly degrading body and mind. It’s this final physical reality, manifested through illness, immobility, and cognitive decline that the retiree understands that the conclusion of retirement is death. Death underlies all true retirement. It’s the fulcrum around which all decisions are made. The true retiree knows that whether he dies at 75, 85, or 95, he’s got precious little time left, which coincides with the awful retiree paradox of “WHAT DO I DO WITH ALL THIS TIME?”
The true retiree experiences the scarcity of money and the scarcity of health as things keep breaking down. Old age grinds and grinds and grinds. No one who starts retirement with a bad neck, bad knees, a bad back, and swollen ankles finds himself fantastically healthy and feeling great ten years in.
I suppose another part of the physical element of retirement is that it marks a major life transition, though this is part of the emotional side of retirement as well. The physical rupture with coworkers, the physical rupture with the office you worked in and the commute if you had one, the physical rupture of computer communications with customers/clients/supervisors/colleagues, the rupture of mundane often hated routines like meetings, conferences, filling up the car on the way to work, shopping for business attire, and what is often the biggest physical rupture of all, moving to a different place, all result in one sudden and massive pile-up of physical changes.
A guy I know recently retired from the aerospace industry. He’d been involved with over twenty space launches. His going away gift? A bottle of whiskey with the dates of each launch inscribed on it. That’s the only physical thing that remained from a lifetime of work: A bottle of whiskey that cost, maybe, $50. Every other physical aspect of his work life vanished on the day he retired.
As a cyclist, you will know that the body does not well tolerate massive physical shock, let alone a concatenation of them. The physical changes in your daily routine alone can be devastating, however well-prepared you are for retirement. Joe Aerospace, like many, repeatedly delayed his retirement though he could have quit several years earlier with no meaningful financial consequences. My guess is that after the obligatory spurt of travel and RV-ing, within five years he’ll be working again as a consultant. But whether he does or not, his demotion from rocketman to RV pilot is a massive change.
The physical shock of retirement is often unplanned, wholly. One guy I know retired in his late 50’s because his company folded and his art skills were stuck in the 20th Century. Rather than learn new skills, he moved in with his successful girlfriend, dabbled in freelancing, and for the most part called the working world quits. Unplanned retirement can be even more physically brutal than the planned withdrawal. Not everyone has a successful girlfriend willing to put up with a mostly-unemployed dude in his late 50’s with a negligible to nonexistent retirement portfolio. For lots of people, early termination leaves them old, broke, unable to compete, and bereft of the aggressive, bounceback attitude they might have had in their 30’s or even 40’s. How many of those Wal-Mart greeters are working to “stay sharp” and “enjoy being part of a community” versus those who are working to pay the electric bill? More than you might think, that’s my guess.
As I said, retirement is physical, but it’s emotional, too.
More on that later.