On a visit to the picturesque seaside town of Kennebunkport, Maine, in August, I found myself sitting on a public bench in town. Now I was the lone male member in our group of five on this trip, which saw the four women browsing about the many shops, while I sought comfort and solitude at a well-shaded bench (I wasn’t being anti-social, I’m just not into shopping).
I wasn’t alone. A parade of several men came – all retired – stayed a bit, then left in an ongoing rotation. They probably sought the same refuge from shopping I did.
I tend to be a talker by nature, but I have moments where I prefer to just sit, listen, and take in what’s going on around me. I chose to listen carefully to the conversations of the retirees. Maybe this is painting with a broad brush, but I found their conversations to be repetitive and lacking in substance. The faces changed regularly, but the conversations were noticeably similar.
Kennebunkport tends to draw in people of means – which begs the question, what the heck was I doing there?. It was clear these retired men weren’t struggling, at least not financially.
Yet despite their prosperity, these men seem to be completely bored. I don’t mean bored as in where they were or what they were doing, but bored in general.
That’s what made me ask the question, do you really need to retire, or just to create an easier life? Just listening to these guys for a while made me question the real value of retirement. And it raised another more provocative question, can it even be a self-imposed hell?
The Current Retirement Obsession – Does it Really Create an Easier Life?
This is a topic I’ve covered before in Why are Americans So Obsessed with Retirement?. Largely in an effort to keep people in the investment game, the financial industry has pulled out all the stops in painting retirement as the ultimate financial goal. As an industry, once you create urgency, selling your product or service is pretty easy.
It seems to be working. There’s even an entire cottage industry, referred to as the “FIRE” movement. FIRE is a moniker for financial independence, retire early. The object is for people in their 20s and early 30s scrimp and save outsized percentages of their incomes to be able to retire at 40, 45, or even 35.
It’s a worthwhile goal, IF you have a six-figure income, and IF you’re able to defer gratification by living on only a small percentage of it, and IF you’re willing to forgo most of the trappings and benefits that typically go with that income level.
But obviously that lifestyle is not for everyone. And obviously the vast majority of people don’t make anywhere near six figures. In fact, according to the Federal Reserve, median personal income was just over $31,000 in 2016. Even if we bump that up to couple thousand for the passage of three years, it still doesn’t approach six figures. Even median household income, which came in at $61,400 in 2017 disqualifies the vast majority of Americans.
An even harder reality is that the majority of Americans will rely on Social Security for most of their retirement income. Yet the dream of retiring to blessed nothingness is still imprinted on our minds.
But is that what we really want, or simply a byproduct of mass marketing?
Retirement – And Then What?
So let me get back to my public bench experience in Kennebunkport. The men I saw, most of whom were certainly among the retirement elites, financially speaking – and their blessed nothingness – seemed to be doing little more than treading water in life.
I know it may be a generalization to draw conclusions about how people live based on short conversations. But it’s also a fact that what people talk about provides real insight into what’s really happening.
Sure, there was plenty of talk about health conditions and medical treatments. That’s standard fare among many of the elderly. But it was the other topics that concerned me more.
There is the trip here and another trip there. A bit of chatter about the children and grandchildren they rarely see. And the standard banter about sports and politics.
But that was it. None of them seemed to have a story to tell that seemed the least bit interesting. Maybe that’s what happens after you’ve been retired for several years.
On some level I get that. But it all seemed to center around a life without real purpose.
Maybe it’s just me, but that’s not the kind of life I want to live. Yes, a lot of jobs are boring. Many today are incredibly stressful. But we often fail to realize how much our work gives our lives purpose.
For better or worse, the average person’s life revolves around work. It’s not just how we earn a living, either. It also largely defines who we are, what we’re about, what we do, and perhaps most important – what our contribution to our fellow human beings is.
It seems to me that’s an overlooked aspect of the retirement regime. Is retiring to do nothing the goal? Should it be?
Do You Really Need to Retire – Or Just to Create an Easier Life?
So let’s get back to the basic question, which is the title of this post. It seems to me the goal in the retirement years should mostly be about creating an easier life. And let’s not stop there either. We should be working to create an easier life throughout our lives, and not just at the end stage.
Yes, it is true that many people need to retire for health reasons. It’s equally true that as we get older, we slow down.
But that doesn’t mean we become useless either. Every one of us spends at least half a lifetime developing certain skills and acquiring experiences that add value to our lives and to those of people around us.
Should that be so easily abandoned in favor of nothingness? WebMD reports that depression is common among the elderly. Health conditions, particularly heart disease, are cited as a major cause. But it also cites loss of social support systems as a major driver. Much of that is caused by retirement itself.
How much of the loss of social support is the result of disconnecting from the world. That includes retirement itself. When you retire, you not only stop working, but you also terminate the connection work brings with other people and with the world in general. And perhaps even more significant, is the sudden end of a sense of purpose.
Having a sense of purpose is more important than most of us realize. Even if your main purpose during your working life is to retire – and I’ve seen that with more than a few people – that goal, that purpose, that thing that motivated you for decades – it’s suddenly gone when you retire.
Then what? Should that be the end goal in life?
Now About that Create an Easier Life Thing
There’s no one definition of an easy life. That’s really the point, life really isn’t easy – except on TV and the Internet. But it can be easier, and I’d like to offer that maybe that should be the goal, rather than retiring to do nothing.
At its core, the whole concept of retirement is a desire to join the idle rich. That seems more like an indulgent fantasy than living an interesting and worthwhile life.
Rather than retiring then, maybe the goal should really be about downshifting. That may not look like traditional definitions of retirement. But it can provide many of the same benefits, while including a sense of purpose, and removing the isolation that often comes with full retirement.
If you think about it, retirement virtually moves you into a subculture. The vast majority of people who lead interesting and meaningful lives are doing something productive. When you stop working completely, you essentially cut yourself off from that segment of the population. Because you no longer work, there’s simply no common ground.
I’ve been to a number of senior citizens homes and retirement communities, and I’ve come to think of them as something more like ghettos for the elderly. It’s as if the suburban conformists have relocated into enclaves where they can conform on a different level.
People in such facilities and communities may be enjoying retirement life somehow. But they’re cut off from young people, and from the people in life who are making a difference. There’s a pronounced lack of the very dynamics that create and maintain civilization.
I can’t imagine myself living in such a community, let alone having no substantial purpose in life.
Downshifting Without Retiring to Nothingness – Create an Easier Life Instead
Perhaps the major problem here is that most people spend their lives working in occupations they don’t like. I spent enough time doing the same in my life to know how numbing that can be.
Maybe the real purpose should be finding that occupation that best suits your talents, preferences, and lifestyle. Would retirement be an absolute necessity if you did such work?
Now I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t save and invest money for your later years. You absolutely should. But that’s also something you should be doing throughout your life.
Having money saved and invested is a big part of creating an easier life. Money works as an insulator against the hardships of life, and also opens up options.
But if you save and invest money with creating an easier life as the goal, the need to reach a certain dollar threshold is no longer valid.
Retirement planners are now saying you need to have $1 million, or even $2 million, saved for retirement to live a comfortable life. Financial guru Suze Orman has even gone on record as saying you need $5 million – at least! To my thinking, that disqualifies all but the top 1% or 2% of the population from ever retiring.
That’s only necessary if your desire is to live the life of the idle rich. And when did that become a prerequisite of retirement?
What’s wrong with just slowing down to a more comfortable lifestyle?
Is it any wonder there’s so much insecurity surrounding retirement? The person who has only a small nest egg – or even none at all – is essentially declared a hopeless case, a failure at the game of life. Is there any hope?
A Roadmap to Create an Easier Life
Millions of people are wasting valuable time and mental energy fretting about not having enough money to retire. But maybe that time and energy would be far better spent developing a plan to simply live an easier life. You don’t even need to wait for retirement to do that. It’s desirable at any stage of the game.
What might that look like?
Let’s start with shifting into an occupation that’s more agreeable
Maybe you hate the job you’re in right now, or the one you had before you retired. Fine. Is there another occupation that would work better for you? If you’re retired already, you can start building it now. If you’re not, you can decide what that occupation will be, then get it rolling so you’ll have it fully up and running by the time you retire.
We often forget the whole concept retirement for the middle class isn’t even 100 years old. It really only became a thing after World War II. And for my own part, I don’t think we were created to do nothing. In Ephesians 2:10 we’re told:
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
And that was written at a time when people did much more physically demanding work than they do now. And a couple thousand years before retirement was even a dream.
Get out of debt
Debt is one of the biggest sources of stress in life. And it’s becoming a rising burden among retirees. Simply by getting out of it will make your life easier. It’s even more important if you don’t have a lot of retirement savings.
Keep your lifestyle simple and inexpensive
This is admittedly easier said than done with today’s cost of living. Yet, there’s actually a lot of potential. For example, you can create a cohousing arrangement to save on housing costs. If you can create a home-based business, you may be able to move away from a high cost metropolitan area. And if you live in an urban area well served by public transportation, you may want to consider doing without a car.
Radical suggestions yes, but worth considering if you won’t be able to retire rich.
Save and invest as much money as you can
Once again, you don’t need a million-dollar retirement plan. The vast majority of people entering retirement don’t have one, but somehow many seem to be doing fine anyway. Yes, having a big retirement portfolio is better than not having one. But it shouldn’t be the end of the world if you don’t. If you can accumulate $50,000 or $100,000 or more, it will at least insulate you from unexpected expenses, or a temporary reduction in income.
I realize that kind of retirement savings scenario doesn’t fit within the conventional wisdom. But if there’s no chance of having the kind of retirement savings that will give you the life of the idle rich, you’ve got to do the next best thing. And your life isn’t a failure if that’s “all you can do”.
Remember that your life has value apart from your financial situation. Embrace that reality and vow to live your life for all it’s worth, no matter how much or how little you have.
A Glimpse of an Easier Life, Rather than Full Retirement
Let’s put all the above together, and see what it looks like. Let’s assume you’re 65 years old and about to retire, and you’ve got the following working in your life:
- You’ve left a job that didn’t agree with you, and began a new occupation, perhaps a business, that you actually like doing.
- By continuing to work, you’re able to interact with people from all walks of life. You enjoy a life of meaning and relevance.
- You work something less than 40 hours per week.
- You’re collecting Social Security for additional income.
- You downsize your home to something smaller and less expensive, or even live in a cohousing arrangement.
- You’ve managed to save $75,000, and you’ve got it invested conservatively. You’ll never retire on it, but it enables you to sleep well and to live a life with relatively little worry.
- You’re completely debt-free. All your income is your own.
- You can’t afford to move to a retirement community or to travel the world, but you learn to appreciate and enjoy the life you have each day, without relying on expensive entertainment – or expensive friends.
Despite not having a million-dollar retirement portfolio, I’m betting your life will be pretty easy and comfortable.
If you’re on your way to accumulating a seven-figure retirement portfolio, good for you! But if not, it may help to lower your expectations and focus on working to create an easier life. It may not be retirement in the traditional sense, but if it keeps you comfortable financially, gives your life meaning, and allows you to live a lifestyle of your choosing, it could even turn out to be better than retirement.
If you won’t be a millionaire in retirement, do you think working to create an easier life is a goal worth pursuing?