Chapter 5: Beware! Retirement Can Kill You

The best way to keep going is to keep going.

Recently, I attended the National Association of Television Program Executives 2010 Market and Conference in Las Vegas with the aim of introducing ZoomerMedia (and the Zoomer agenda) to the television industry. Because it was my first time in a while and because my previous interest had revolved largely around Youth Media and Culture, my presence created quite a stir; especially when I gave people my new business card, which lists all the many Zoomer and CARP projects in which I’m involved. “Gosh, you’ve been busy,” was the general response. “When did you have the time to do all of this?” To which I got a kick out of replying: “If I weren’t retired, I wouldn’t have the time to do everything I’m doing now.”

This generally got a laugh. More important, it crystallized my attitude toward retirement, which happens to be diametrically opposed to the view that held when I was growing up. Retirement back then was seen as a kind of vague, blue time and place where nothing much, and certainly nothing bad, happened; when people who had been chained to an assembly line or a bureaucratic desk could finally escape to their basements and live happily ever after building model airplanes.

Well, far from heaven, that’s my idea of hell! In fact, far from being a time to cease work, retirement strikes me as a unique opportunity to change the direction, intensity and scope of our work. The thing we shouldn’t forget in retirement is the satisfaction that meaningful, indeed passionate, work can bring. Hence, my new personal slogan is The Best Way to Keep Going is to Keep Going. The obverse is Beware! Retirement (specifically, the wrong kind of retirement) Can Kill You.

Now, I don’t mean to give short shrift to those would-be retirees who would rather stop but who must instead keep working for financial reasons. (Studies show that this group accounts for roughly 40 percent of retirement-aged Canadians today.) But these people may be luckier than they know. Because other research shows that retirement can jeopardize a person’s health dramatically, both psychologically and physically. People who stop working experience an across-the-board increase in their body mass index, the most important mea- sure of excess weight, which is a risk factor for many cardiovascular diseases. This may seem like common sense, but a recent British study further suggests that retirement also “significantly increases the risk of being diagnosed with a chronic condition … in particular … cardiovascular disease and cancer.” These diseases, cancer included, can be triggered by stress — yet retirement (or so the myth goes) is supposedly a time when we shed the stress of our previous lives and relax. It’s stress, we’ve been conditioned to believe, that kills.

The thing is that not all stress is created equal. On the one hand, there’s the kind of stress that grinds you down: the stress of hopeless poverty or racial prejudice or of living with a severe handicap or illness for which there is no cure. But there is also what some psychologists call good stressors (“eustress” as opposed to “distress”) and what I call the “stress we live for.” This is often found in meaningful work. Throughout my working life, the most stressed people I’ve met are those without fulfilling stress in their lives. These were people who felt their talents weren’t being utilized. Absent the challenging stress  that brings out their best, they felt robbed of achievement and that life was passing them by.

It’s no surprise. The human body responds to pressure; bones and muscles strengthen when forced to exercise and atrophy when that weight is removed. (It’s no accident that weight training has become one of the Big New Ideas for elder health.) Our brains and even our spirits can similarly shrink when nothing is calling us to do something creative or active with them. All of this salutary pressure can disappear without work. Often, the result is anonymous retired people suddenly without social purpose or status who, for the first time in their lives, have no idea what to do with themselves. Compounding the dilemma is the fact that today we’re all living longer. Thus the question becomes not only how are we going to finance that extra time (58 per cent of Canadians today say they intend to pursue some kind of remunerated activity after work) but how are we going to fill it? Remove engagement in the hurly-burly of the world, and the results are often not pretty. Retirement done wrong can kill — not only the body but the soul.

In fact, a large number of aging Canadians are already following my dictum of keeping going by keeping going. Countless “retired” Canadians from upper management positions — CEOs, professionals, high-school principals — are returning to work in the fields they know well but in a consulting or bridging capacity. In a recent study on happiness in retirement, one senior  employee who had returned to his former company to coach others on a part-time basis, with less pay and less authority than before, said: “Happiness is working at a job you enjoy for which you are vastly overqualified.” This is retirement done right.

Nor is it necessary for fulfilling retirement work to be a paying gig. An increasing percentage of the activities boomers, seniors and elders undertake today are unremunerated; many involve pro bono giving back. Social entrepreneurship and volunteerism are the philanthropic signposts of our generation. Now, I’m sure I’ll be accused — as I have been regarding our revitalized approach to CARP and to this re-charged magazine — of projecting a “retired” world of wealth, with which most people can’t identify. Not true! I’m simply objecting to the cliché that most people “of a certain age” are broken-down burdens- in-waiting living in bare subsistence, one inch or one cheque away from the precipice. To the contrary, recent figures compiled from our own research reveal that CARP members earn more than the national average — not extravagantly more but enough that our demographic is able to make an unpaid contribution to society, which is as dramatic as it is unsung. It’s been estimated that in Canada alone, the monetary value of the contribution volunteers make to the Gross Domestic Product is more than that of either the agricultural or the automotive industries.

(A UN estimate of global volunteerism puts the contribution at $400 billion annually.) “Retired” people comprise the lion’s share by far of this volunteer army. Remove their efforts and you don’t simply miss magazines distributed in hospitals; you have a black hole in the planet’s workforce.

Which brings me to yet another reason for promoting the continuation of some form of work in age: the world needs us to continue working. Because the boomer generation was massive and because the generations that followed are comparatively smaller, in the very near future, the flood of retiring boomers is going to create a similar flood of jobs unfilled. This contention may sound peculiar today, what with the serious downturn in the economy. But as soon as the economy bounces back, labour shortages are going to become significant. In 1981, there were five workers in Canada for every retired person. By 2031, that ratio will have fallen to only two. Historically, immigration has been one way to fill vacant jobs, but Canada already takes more immigrants, proportionally, than just about any other country in the West; and large-scale immigration in a ondensed period of time can be a tension-filled exercise, with prospects for considerable turmoil.

The only alternative is to tap our older workforce, to take advantage of its knowledge and dependability. But to entice us to stay in the workplace, changes will have to be made, perhaps by letting us work fewer days, with more flexible time-schedules. The writing is already on the wall. In 2009, Nova Scotia became the last province to end the practice of mandatory retirement. With the exception of the federal government and federally regulated industries, forced retirement no longer exists in Canada. When StatsCan reports that within 10 years, 20 per cent of the work-force will be aged 55 to 64, people throw up their hands in despair. Why? They should heed the words of Maggie Kuhn, the American anti-ageism activist who founded the Gray Panthers movement in 1971 after being forced into retirement by her then employer, the Presbyterian Church: “Men and women approaching retirement age should be recycled for public service work. We can no longer afford to scrap pile people.”

Amen. This is not to say that there aren’t people who eagerly look forward to their retirement and heartily enjoy it. (Actually, Canadians happen to be particularly positive about retirement. Statistically, Canada is the nation with the most voluntary early retirements.) Nor am I unmindful of the fact that there’s a luck-of-the-draw division here between people who are fortunate enough to love their work and those who are less thrilled about it. It’s easier for me to say “retirement can kill you” than it is for the guy working the ticket booth in the subway station. But you’d be hard- pressed to find anyone, in any walk of life, who does not have a dream, and dreams almost always entail work that doesn’t feel like work. Retirement is, paradoxically, the perfect time to find (if you haven’t already) the work of your dreams.

In the end, the problem may be the label. In 2007, SmartMoney magazine ran a contest looking for a word to replace retirement. The prize was a $100,000 retirement annuity. The winning entry turned out to be eminently forgettable, but the non-winners were remarkably revealing about people’s true feelings vis-à-vis the end of their labouring lives: poorification, pasture, indefinite leave, unwork. My own candidate is rehirement. Retirement should be a time when we rehire ourselves out for work that isn’t diminished but different, not less but more relevant to ourselves and the people around us.

I’ve rehired myself more times than I can count. Or consider this: type the phrase “I can’t wait to retire” into Google, and you get eight million entries. Type the phrase “I will never retire” and you get 28 million.

I rest my case. But that’s all I’ll be resting. In the Zoomer future, I predict there’s going to be a whole lot of going on going on.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.