Vol. 13, no. 2. August/août 2004

RETIREMENT: WHAT FOR? by Bérengère Gaudet

When I took early retirement at 59, there were only six months to go between my decision and the date of my departure. I was not prepared for it. I had not been able to plan, let alone dream about, what I would do when I retired - as other retirees could dream of painting, writing a novel, travelling, playing golf, etc. - during that period. I was terrified at the idea of no longer working, as if I were going to fall into empty space. Adapting to this new situation was painful, and about two years elapsed before I could recover my usual serenity.
During that difficult period, I got to understand that retirement, like any major change in one's life, often involves a personal crisis that calls into question a person's values. As retirees, we are somewhat at odds with the values held by the mainstream of society. What values? First, the "glamourizing" of work and productivity and, accordingly, the respect society bestows on someone on the sole basis of that person's standing in the labour market, i.e. his or her job, title and salary. What if you no longer have a job, a title and a salary? Clearly, the retirees are not "with it". The glamour of work has disappeared, we have become "unproductive", therefore we hardly exist, except perhaps as taxpayers and consumers. When I happen to mention to a person who is working that I am retired, I sometimes notice a patronizing smile on his or her part, with perhaps a little contempt. Of course, people in the workforce would never go so far as saying they envy us!
A second value dearly held in the workplace is the need to perform and be highly competitive - not only in the business world, but almost everywhere. As a result, a person's value as a human being is assessed according to his or her capacity to perform in an outstanding way, regardless of the personality flaws they may have. The overachievers are today's heroes. A number of people have defined themselves throughout their lives by their performance and achievements, so that when they finally retire - if they ever do - they cannot stop performing, as if to prove they are still the best and the busiest. Please don't get me wrong. I value excellence. To strive for excellence is something extremely positive, which I admire. But to base one's self-esteem exclusively on the capacity to perform and win can lead to bitter disappointments when a new situaion makes these qualities largely irrelevant.
Thirdly, our society, as do many other Western societies, tends to idolize youth and youthfulness. Everyone must be young, beautiful, fit and slim: mandatory youthfulness. You have to keep looking young well into your fifties and after. Hence so many people's obsession with wrinkles and other signs of ageing and the constant concern about one's weight - all carefully fostered, of course, by the billion-dollar industries of diets and cosmetics. And yet, it is possible to remain healthy and still be attractive at 60, 70 or 80, without obsessing about it. Could it be that the "fear" of retirement is related, consciously or not, to the fear of ageing, and even more so, to how difficult it is to accept the limitations that go with ageing? In any event, that is certainly how I felt.
We have thus experienced, as future retirees will likely experience, this personal crisis. What is at stake, in trying to overcome it successfully, is nothing less than our emotional balance and what I would call our aptitude for happiness. In order to survive, we must learn to accept a few things. To accept that our life has changed irrevocably; that we are no longer "productive" within the meaning ascribed to this word by society; to accept the reality of ageing, not as something dreadful, but simply as another stage in life; to try and live our lives as fully and as happily as possible. In my view, retirement is about the willingness to stop running and competing, and to create a new way of life based on different values.
In order to "age well" and enjoy retirement, I believe that it is important to define ourselves not by what we do, but by what we are. And what are we, then? We are the sum of our knowledge, our culture, our life experiences - the good ones and the painful - and our acquired wisdom, which should give us resources the young do not have. Another important attitude: no regrets, no looking back to the past. Life is too short.
On a personal level, I started appreciating retirement when I finally freed myself from the tyranny of self-discipline and perfectionism; I have ceased to be so hard on myself. I don't miss my professional life. Neither do I believe that I am less an interesting a person just because I no longer have a title and a senior position. I don't do anything spectacular or glamorous. I am quite content to do things that people in the workplace would probably find silly, and certainly unproductive! I read a lot (history, biographies, mystery novels); I write; I travel with my husband; I research my family genealogy; I also enjoy playing bridge, going to concerts, chatting over lunch with my friends; and I can still marvel at the beauty of flowers or the smile of a child. I can tell you honestly that I have not been bored for a minute. I even wonder at all those misgivings I had about retirement a few years ago.
I am now looking forward to many more years that might well be some of the happiest in my life. I wish you a serene, active and happy retirement, with all the best that life can offer.