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What Makes for a Good Life After Working?

Reflections on My Recent Retirement

“It’s hardly premature,” I told my friends when I retired at the end of November. “I’m 87, after all.” Retirement for me meant closing my psychotherapy practice that had been my encore career. For the first time in fifty years, I no longer will be paid to work regularly.

Retirement is a major life transition no matter the age it happens. Work provides far more than a paycheck. For many, it gives a sense of purpose, a community, and a way to keep sharp. So why did I finally decide to retire? It was a difficult decision even at 87. From my first day of teaching at age 22, I have loved working. And I have taken great pleasure in being productive into my later years. But last summer, I realized I wanted a less-hurried life. Honestly, I still worry that I may be unhappy without the steadying demands and rewards of a paying job.

Elder feeling burnt out from working.
Image by © stokkete

My recent retirement got me thinking about how we organize our working years over our life span. Since Social Security was implemented in 1935, a year after I was born, our 60s have become the usual time to retire—yet our life expectancy is 78, and grows with each year we live. At 87, my life expectancy is 93. There are about 54 million people over 65 in the US today and 80% of them are not working, according to the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of them will live far into their eighties and nineties. Already there are eleven million people in the US who are in their eighties.

How as a society do we deal with the mismatch between retirement age and life expectancy?

Psychology professor Laura Carstensen and researchers at the Map of Life Project at the Center for Longevity at Stanford University provide an interesting answer. They have remapped human life into three stages: early life, adult life, and older life. The Project has found that work needs to be stretched out more evenly over the life span. People in their 30s 40s and 50s are usually way too busy and pressured. Then many people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s want to work but would prefer to work part-time. This idea of stretching the working years is surely the direction of the future.

Two generations working together on a common engineering project.
Image by © Budimir Jevtic

But what about those of us who are over age 65 right now?

Some people like Nancy Pelosi, Dr. Fauchi, and the Dalai Lama will continue to work full time into their later years. Some of us have stretched out our working years—I’ve been fortunate to have seven different occupations in my life, including 10 years out of the workforce raising my four sons. I was lucky to be able to stay on until age 74 as one of the managing partners in a diversity and management consulting firm. And then I was able to pivot back to part-time psychotherapy practice. More of us will choose to work especially if we can find flexible and part-time work that we really enjoy.

What makes for a good life after work?

Thanks to modern medicine, many of us in our 70s and 80s are healthy, and lucky to be physically able and mentally sharp. Although we are not working, we still feel life is expecting something of us. We hear of old people running marathons and skydiving, writing books that are masterpieces. The new research on the aging brain is reassuring that we can still learn and still create.

I believe that the key to the good life for us older people is finding a purpose that is uniquely right for us. I take inspiration from older people who are flourishing. At age 87, author and cook Julia Child launched a 22-part television cooking series with chef Jacques Pépin.

Left to right: Images by © rh2010, © Supachai, and © pikselstock

But, for most of us, purpose doesn’t have to involve work—it begins with identifying what you love to do and what you care about. You start there. For example, maybe you love cooking, singing, painting, woodworking, being with little kids, or learning new things. Maybe you care about stopping climate change or prison reform.

Each of these can translate into a project or can be the focus for how you spend your time. For older people, a good purpose, like a good job, needs to be flexible and pleasurable. All the better if it connects to the wider world like showing your paintings or advocating for reform. It makes us feel good when we contribute to others in some way. It means a lot of me to hear from readers that I’ve helped them.

Group of elders cleaning up trash on a local beach.
Images by © David Pereiras

Back to me and my retirement. How’s it going? I have felt sad, relieved. Also exhausted from moving out of my rented office and the paperwork involved in closing a practice. Far from feeling lost or bereft, I am busy enough. I’m occupied writing my blog and giving talks about aging well. Many studies suggest retirement is not good for your health so it’s beneficial to me that I’ll continue my mission to help people not fear aging. I have my purpose. I feel settled in my new reality.

But retirement spurred me to review my own guidelines for aging well and to revise them a bit.

Guidelines for Aging Well

1. Take control of what you can control in your life and accept what you can’t control.

2. Develop a routine for self-care, exercising, and staying healthy. Stick to it.

3. Schedule time for spontaneity and spur-of-the-moment activities.

4. Identify your purpose and make it a high priority.

5. Take time out to grieve when you experience the loss of a person you care about or other important personal losses.

6. It is okay to say “no” to roles and responsibilities that you do not enjoy.

7. Spend some time every day with people you care about.

8. Keep exploring what is possible for you. We underestimate ourselves too often.

9. Mindfulness is key. Meditate every day. Learn to meditate if you don’t meditate already.

Let me know what you think I have left out— and what you would change.

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