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.