I Don’t Want to Retire

My maternal grandmother is somewhere north of 90 (or as she rationalizes, she’s just been an 18-year-old for 70 some years), and she still works full-time as a sales rep for a resort and hotel. She’s brilliant, hilarious, and tends to be the one asking the questions, so when I finally worked up the courage to ask why she still works, her kind-yet-abrupt answer caught me off guard.

“I don’t play bridge, so I’d get bored if I stopped. You think I want to sit around with old people and play bridge? Here, have some more mashed potatoes.”

For all the studies about how work extends lifespans and keeps our older population fulfilled, I don’t think I’ll come across a better rationalization than Grandma’s. Mostly because the one thing that scares me more than death is deathly boredom.

I don’t want to retire. Ever. I spend a lot more time thinking about how I’ll keep working than what I’d hypothetically do if I stopped (and with time to go until I hit the quarter century mark, I probably shouldn’t be spending too much time on either). I like work, but I’ve also been lucky when it comes to work: I’m young, unmarried, and able to pick up and move for a job without worrying about uprooting a life other than my own. If and when I “settle down,” work will remain a productive outlet unlike anything I’ll get in the home. And if I find myself in a job I no longer enjoy, I hope I’ll be able to use that as motivation to wiggle into a new career. I don’t want to lose all that because I’ve racked up too many birthdays.

My situation is familiar to many of today’s young folks, but it’s a luxury often unthinkable to even the previous two or three generations. Our grandparents and even parents had arguably less freedom in choosing their professions, since financial independence was a requirement much earlier in life for a larger percentage of the population. Did they like the first jobs they took? Many, of course, did not, but putting in your 40 years and building toward a pension was what one often had to do. Before the age of telecommuting and “exploring yourself for a few years” after school, there was work in much plainer and simpler terms than today. And with new opportunities and unprecedented career flexibility, our generation is reframing the concept of retirement, just as many Baby Boomers shook up the notion that one couldn’t go back to school or switch careers mid-stream. If you truly love your craft, there’s less of an incentive to stop.

Retirement is a terrifying word for young people today because it holds a sense of finality, as if there’s a predetermined age when you’re forced to change from a normal person into greater society’s helpless, aging ward. There are enough young-at-heart seniors bungee jumping and Internet surfing to keep the blue hair stereotypes at bay, but even the “retired” label carries a connotation many of us would rather just avoid. To some, the word itself implies a person apart from purpose, someone with an identity defined by an absence of doing. A lot of “retired” folks do some pretty awesome things, and it’s a shame that label makes us think “golfs all day” ahead of “runs a philanthropic organization and coaches granddaughter’s softball team.”

But I’m no philologist, and beyond the above, there’s obviously a financial incentive to keep working. For many people, it’s a necessity, and a lifetime of hard work doesn’t guarantee us a comfortable nest egg into the golden years, especially since Social Security won’t fill a spittoon by the time we start getting senior discounts. Even for those who don’t want to work past a certain age — and I don’t disparage them in the slightest—packing up the desk might simply not be an option, and living on a fixed income could become even less of a possibility in future decades.

Of course, continuing a career doesn’t mean saving is a terrible idea, and the two will compliment each other ad infinitum, or at least until the banks burn down. Saving for later in life will still always be a fantastic idea. On top of creating a financial cushion to rest your conscious on, “retirement” savings will come in handy in the event that your relative income falls or you move to a lower-paying gig — one that pays less, sure, but lets you pursue that ceramics passion you’ve secretly harbored for six decades. And while I’m still a long way off from being a greying patriarch, there’s got to be boatloads of satisfaction in being able to leave something behind for family and favorite charities (on second thought, it’s probably a lot more fun to make it rain good fortune while you’re still alive and kicking…).

While I pray my desire for work will never decline, my ability to work likely will, unless science gets this whole “aging” think figured out pretty soon. That’s something to expect and prepare for, both financially and emotionally. And I’m sure future grandpa me will want to cut back hours in order to spend more time with the younger generation. But whether my later years means working a little less, switching careers late-stride, or even having to bow out of the workforce entirely, I sincerely hope I never willingly accept the proverbial golden watch and “you’ve been here too long” stares. If all else fails, I’ll spend my last few decades in a hilarious attempt to fashion myself into a nursing home crafts magnate. Just don’t call me retired.


David Thomas Tao is an editor and writer living in New York City (though his native Kentucky accent still slips out from time to time). He’s also the chief research officer at Greatist.


16 Comments / Post A Comment

chic noir (#713)

I don’t plan on retiring either. I see my retirement savings as more of a “if I become too infirm to work fund”. I really don’t trust the bankers to not have had screwed up again just as I am about to retire.

Derbel McDillet (#1,241)

Planning for infirmity just makes sense. Most of us will die after long chronic illnesses, as opposed to going suddenly from healthy to dead. Working in our last years may not be an option.

@Derbel McDillet I’m liking this not because it sounds good, but because it is so true. People these days die after long, expensive, slowly degenerating chronic illnesses that generally require multiple hospital stays and time in a nursing home. I’ve given up on the idea of having something to leave my children; I’m just hoping to save enough to be able to afford the slightly less appalling nursing home and not beggar said future children as I break down. I’ve seen so many people forced into retirement even if they intended to work into their 70s or 80s (whether from illness or lack of available jobs), and then they hit downhill slides that just get worse and worse.


Derbel McDillet (#1,241)

@bowtiesarecool I’m in and out of nursing homes and making home visits with older adults a lot for my internship and WORD. Our lifespans may be extending, but our healthspans aren’t necessarily keeping pace.

chic noir (#713)

Oh and I would miss my income tax refund :)

sintaxis (#2,363)

Does nobody have hobbies or volunteer work or family anymore? I get satisfaction from my job but it’s not the only thing! I just can’t imagine the kind of life where one needs a job to not be bored.

sea ermine (#122)

@sintaxis I think it’s a structure thing? I have hobbies and friends and volunteer work and all that stuff, but if that’s all I was doing I would end up floundering and not knowing what to do with myself because I need the structure of a 9-5 job. I could see maybe working part time after say, age 70 or 75 and using Monday-Wednesday-Friday for a regular job and the other days for hobbies/friends/family/etc.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

“nursing home crafts magnate” – someone needs to hook this guy up with the artisinal chops dude.

One career that even the most infirm old person is capable of continuing: blogging!

The internet is going to be pretty awesome in 2045.

Mae (#1,769)

OK, I get that you have had jobs you find very fulfilling and can imagine doing for the rest of your life. How nice for you. However, it’s thoughtless to generalize your experiences to your whole generation. Most people, even young people (actually, wait, especially young people) don’t have creative, fulfilling work. Most people who continue to work past retirement age do so out of financial necessity, not because working in your 70s is super fun.

Also, it would have been nice if the article had acknowledged the vast difference between working into one’s old age as a writer/editor or other creative professional and working into one’s old age as a cashier or construction worker.

This gets me riled up because there are serious political implications to upper and upper middle class professional workers going around saying that work is life, and that it’s fine (even great!) not to retire, to work long hours, etc. (I’m looking at you, Marissa Mayer). That may be OK for some small groups of workers, but it’s not for the vast majority of people who have little autonomy and protection in their jobs. The more people in privileged positions forget that, the harder it is for workers’ rights to gain any traction in this country.

themegnapkin (#444)

@Mae also, this guy isn’t even 25. You can certainly have perspectives on your future employment plan when you’re that young, but assuming employment in some form since 14 (I think this is the minimum age for official employment in the US?), he’s still only been working max 11 years. I must be feeling especially cynical right now, because I want to tell him to check back 20 years down the line and let us know if he still feels this way.

Mae (#1,769)

@themegnapkin Exactly.

pilcrow (#1,713)

@themegnapkin You don’t even have to be cynical about it – your priorities can change as you get older. I think about retirement (that I may never be able to afford) as perchance a time to do all the fun things my kids prevent me from doing now. My mom will retire soon and wants to spend a lot of time grandmothering, for example.

cmcm (#267)

I can’t really imagine why I’d want to retire. But then, I’m in academia which is sort of by definition filled with people who are REALLY REALLY interested in what they do (otherwise, why would you bother?) and thus retiring seems like giving up your life, basically.

deepomega (#22)

@cmcm And heaven forbid more academic positions opened up for younger would-be professors!

aperson (#3,112)

I would like to work until 65 or 70, but in the end it may not be up to me. My greatest fear is being laid off or let go in my fifties and not being able to find another job. I’m in tech, and there’s always someone younger, cheaper, and more up to date to take your place. I can try to combat this by keeping my knowledge current and staying relevant, but to assume that I will always be able to work should I so desire is naive.

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