The Impossibility of Retirement

For me, at least. 

A couple of months ago, at the age of sixty-three, my mother retired from her job as an accounts receivable clerk at a large utilities company in Alabama. When she told me about it, I told her I thought it was a bad idea. She certainly deserved a break from years of working, but what was she going to do with her time? My mother lives by herself, and the free time she has now is spent attending church activities, hanging out with her friends, visiting my grandmother, and watching TV. These are all enjoyable activities, but were they going to occupy enough time to fill the forty-hour-a-week hole that deciding not to work anymore would create? I imagined her sitting by herself in her house, dusting her shelved knick-knacks for the fortieth time and going insane for lack of things to do.

If you’re really serious about retirement, I said, I think you should make some plans so you’re not sitting around wondering what to do with yourself. Maybe you should take piano lessons, I suggested. My mom played the piano when she was younger and had always wanted to pick it back up. The unsolicited advice continued: You could take cooking classes? (Not that your cooking isn’t wonderful, mind you.) I’d even suggest yoga, but yoga doesn’t exist in our part of Alabama. How about aerobics?

She humored me and promised to look into piano lessons, but the reality is, I shouldn’t have been worried. So far she’s had plenty to do, and much of it is an extension of what she was already doing when she had less free time: socializing, relaxing with a book or good movie, exercising more. My maternal grandmother is approaching her mid-eighties and has a busier social schedule than I do, so it’s not as if there are no models in my family for not working and managing to retain one’s sanity.

The truth is, I was projecting my own anxieties about not working onto Ma Spiers because I can’t imagine ever retiring myself. The idea of waking up one day with zero professional obligations and thinking, “Okay, now what?” is surreal. Just think: I will never walk into an office again with the specific purpose of doing work. I will never have another meeting—about anything. (Admittedly, I would welcome the no-meetings aspect of retirement. I hate meetings.)

On a practical level, I’m not sure retirement will ever be financially viable for me. I’m certainly not counting on Social Security, and I don’t anticipate any Lotto wins in the future. But my primary concern isn’t that. It’s that much of what I do, I’d continue to do even if I didn’t need to get paid for it.

Just to be clear about what that is: I’m a writer. I launch websites. I work on editorial and business projects. I’m not doing anything that would be difficult to continue doing after the age of sixty-five. (My dad, sixty-five, is also retired, but he was a local lineman for the same utilities company that employed my mom, and at some point, you really do have to stop climbing electrical poles.)

Perhaps it’s self-evident that if you do creative work, you expect to continue to do creative work until you’re dead. But that hasn’t been the case. Acclaimed short writer Alice Munro, who is eighty-one, recently announced that she was going to stop writing so that she could pay attention to other aspects of her life that were important to her. “What I feel now is that I don’t have the energy anymore,” she told the New York Times. And she isn’t the only writer to give up writing professionally. Philip Roth, at the age of seventy-nine, retired in November of last year. “I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration…” he said. “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”

I sympathize with Roth’s frustrations: For me, writing is a deeply satisfying activity, but I wouldn’t call it fun. If I’m doing it well and properly, it’s anything but relaxing. It’s not the sort of thing you do to unwind. Per Roth, it can be deeply frustrating, and all consuming in ways you’d rather it not be. If I’m working on a problematic article or story, I sometimes have dreams about restructuring it, complete with visions of putting actual words on the page—though I remember very little of the text when I wake up. I can’t even escape writing during sleep.

Writing is compulsory for me. I can walk away from specific pieces of writing for long periods of time, but I can’t walk away from the act itself. It has become a habit, and not one I could quit easily. It’s stimulating; it helps me process and clarify my own thoughts; and it provides the intense gratification that is the product of having created something. It allows me to tell stories in order to understand larger truths. So it’s difficult to imagine stopping because I’ve reached a certain agethat seems arbitrary.

I also have a mild paranoia that my brain will go soft if I don’t do the work of problem solving and rigorous thinking that writing inherently entails. There are probably other things that could replace that—perhaps I could sign up for piano lessons—but I have trouble imagining anything that would stimulate me in the same way.

To be fair to both Roth and Munro, I’m thirty-six years old and have no idea what it would be like to still be doing this in my late seventies/early eighties. Chalk it up in part to the inability of the young (or youngish person approaching mid-life, in my case) to ever fully imagine the realities of advanced age. Maybe creative work will be too exhausting. And as both Roth and Munro point out, there are plenty of new things in the world to explore—in Roth’s case, the admittedly banal task of mastering the use of his iPhone, and in Munro’s, having friends over now that she no longer has to shoo them away because she’s working on her next book.

So I won’t discount the possibility that at eighty-one, should I make it that far, I’d prefer to be having cocktails with my friends, mastering whatever the new must-have gadget is in 2058, or fulfilling my newfound ambition to remake myself as an elderly female Glenn Gould. But if I had to bet, I imagine that I’ll still be scribbling away in notebooks, albeit with even worse handwriting and very thick reading glasses. And whether I’m still getting paid for it will be irrelevant.

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