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.