'Well, I guess I'm living Freedom 92," grumbled a friend of mine recently when the subject of retirement investments (or rather, the lack of them) came up in conversation. The father of two, in his late 40s, had gone through a divorce, which led to a significant loss in his net worth, and then the economy turned his life upside down too. All ideas about how his future would unfold went up in smoke. And who hasn't felt that, living in this economy with dwindling pensions (if you're lucky enough to have one) and money stretched as tight as cellophane over last night's leftovers?
"It's RRSP time again!" chirped an unwelcome advertisement that arrived in my e-mail box the other day. Are they mocking me? I thought. Time to remember you have no extra money to put away for retirement! Fantastic! Have a great day!
But then I decided that my unease about retirement wasn't all my fault. It was the fault of the culture at large. (Yes, it can help not to think small when you're feeling rebuked.) Wouldn't it be better if we were socialized to think that we would work for a very long time, well past 65?
Could it be that we feel we should be able to retire at a designated age only because someone told us we should? (Don't forget: Freedom 55 is an advertising slogan, designed to manipulate your emotions.) It's like those insidious cultural messages we subconsciously (and consciously) receive about marriage - that if we don't sail down the aisle by a certain age, then somehow you've missed out or there's something wrong with your life plan.
It's the script we're meant to follow: Start working, keep working, retire as soon as you can, then play golf all day, every day. The general assumption is that if you're still working through the latter half of your 60s or, god forbid, into your 70s and beyond, then it's an unfortunate turn of events, laden with judgment. You must a) be a spendthrift, b) be a workaholic who doesn't know how to have fun, c) be in age denial, d) have too many children from too many marriages to still support, or e) all of the above. Of course, we all want the choice of when to stop working. And not everyone has a job they like, let alone love. Some can't do their work physically as they age. But what if someone sees employment as his engagement with the world? What if every time he looks at those broadly smiling retirees on the golf course in their pink shorts and plaid trousers, he assumes they're also talking about their bowel habits? (There is truth in the observation that once you start acting old, you're old, buddy.)
A woman I know has continued a long, productive career in the advertising business into her late 60s, and part of why she keeps on working is that she loves the energy of being around her younger co-workers. "They keep me young because they're so creative," she told me once. (That said, she refuses to divulge her exact age. "They would be horrified about the idea of working with someone my age!")
What if - and this is most important - someone was brought up not to see work as something he had to do to pay the bills (although there is that too) but as a five-decade-long adventure? Would there be so much concern about "making it" by the time you hit 40? Would there be as much angst about taking a sabbatical or time off to spend time at home with the children for five years, a decade even?
It's not so scary if you know you're going to be working for another 20 years after they've grown up. And a respite, however long, can be beneficial. Many fiftysomething women I know who pulled back on their careers (or gave them up) when their children were small have returned to the work force with renewed vigour now that their nests have emptied. A friend is planning to go back to school for another postgraduate degree at the age of 55 with a plan of returning to her career full-throttle. "I'm not done," she says. "I actually think the next 15 years or so will be my most productive."
An appreciation for work as a lifelong endeavour, like exercise, may encourage people to take a few more risks - switch careers at 40 if they're not content with the one they have, for example.
Work is an organizing principle of our daily lives. It gets us up out of bed. It makes us comb our hair and put on a clean shirt. It gives us a purpose - or a "function" as writer Farley Mowat once described the need for all living things to have something to do. Yet we spend so much time thinking about what we would do if we didn't have to do it that we do not see its value or its possibilities.
Freedom 55? Forget it.