Thoughts on Retirement and Purpose

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I’m 70 years old. So when my new neighbor across the street noticed that I was around most of the day and assumed I was retired, that wasn’t any kind of a problem for me. In fact, I had an answer ready.

“I’m a writer,” I told him. “Writers don’t retire.”

In fact, for most of history, nobody retired. Retirement is a 20th-century invention and not an especially good one. There are a number of studies that seem to indicate that if you retire, you’re more likely to die soon. I’m talking about the kind of retirement that’s described in those TV ads: pure, undiluted leisure.

Most of the people who opt for that kind of retirement don’t do in on Golden Pond. They wind up sitting in front of the garage in lawn chairs watching the world go by. I want none of that, thank you. I’m my mother’s son.

She succumbed to cancer after 14 years, with a set of airline tickets in her purse for her next trip to Budapest. She used to refer to those people in lawn chairs as “sitting in God’s waiting room.” That wasn’t her. She always had a purpose and one more thing to do.

Purpose Is a Life Force

Martin Luther said, “When I rest, I rust.” That’s true for most of us, but it’s not just being in motion and acting that’s important. You have to have some kind of purpose. Here is a look at a few friends of mine and how they made purpose work after they “retired.”

Get “Always Wanted to” Out of The Way

Al worked really hard for more than 30 years. In that time, he and his wife sacrificed a lot in terms of time together and recreational activities. He vowed and swore that when he retired they’d make that all up.

He imagined that they’d buy an RV and go visit all their kids in different states. Then they’d tour the United States. When they got back, Al was going to play golf every day except when he went fishing. Fishing trips would be into the mountains, where he could catch a special kind of trout.

Al did all of that. They bought the RV. They visited the kids. They toured the country. He played every golf course within easy driving range, most of them more than once. He fished a lot.

About eight months after his retirement dinner, I got a call. Al said that he’d done all the things he wanted to do, but he still wanted to live a while longer and he wasn’t going to do it golfing and fishing. He’d taken a job teaching at a local college.

Retire Over and Over and Over

My father was a Lutheran pastor, and he retired early so that he could travel with my mother in the years they had left together after she was diagnosed with cancer. They did that and after she died, he tried to retire in the “traditional” way. It didn’t take.

Fortunately, there was a congregation nearby that needed an interim pastor while they found a new permanent one. Dad signed on for the job. When the church found a pastor, he went to sea on a cruise as a chaplain. That way he got to work a little and cruise for free.

After he came home, there was another interim assignment. Then there was a little time off which he used for a trip to Germany to visit friends. Then he took another interim assignment. In all, he retired four times.

My dad loved to read, but reading was not enough to fill the day. Besides, it didn’t have much of a purpose. He thought he wanted to write, but he found it didn’t engage him the way people did. He needed something to do with people. So he kept taking temporary assignments and doing special things in between them.

Start Something New

Vic was a millwright. If there was something you needed built or fixed, Vic could do it. He hated working for large corporations and being bossed around by people half his age who, in his words, “thought you needed a theory to run a turret lathe.” Even so, he gave every assignment his best shot, “because otherwise I let the bastards beat me.”

When Vic retired, he did something different, but still the same. He started a business as a cabinet maker. His wonderful skills and attention to details made him a success. In the beginning, he worked long hours. Afterwards, he cut back a bit. But he always woke up thinking about what project he was going to work on that day. That’s what purpose is about, waking up thinking about what you’re going to do in the day ahead.

Where There Is a Project, There Is Life

Jack’s been retired for a very long time. He took early retirement because he was financially able to do so. Now he’s in his 80s. Unlike the other people I’ve talked about, Jack has a more “traditional” retirement. He hasn’t taken another job like Al, or gone from one temporary assignment to another like my dad, or started a new business like Vic. Instead, he’s played a lot of golf and traveled a lot, and moved from one project to another.

The projects vary a lot. Sometimes they’re helping his children or grandchildren. Sometimes they’re projects around his own house. Sometimes he helps out with something in the community. Whatever he does, when he wakes up in the morning, that’s what he’s thinking about.

My Situation

I’m a pretty lucky fellow. I get to make a living doing something I love to do and pretty much having control of how I spend my days. That’s what most people want from retirement. They want to do something they love to do and have control of their days. So, I ask you, “What would I retire to?”

What about you? What do you think “retirement” will be for you?

Join The Conversation

What People Are Saying

Kenneth Shrader   |   17 Oct 2016   |   Reply

Can identify with much of this article…unfortunately!
After retiring from a type “A” workaholic lifestyle and extremely active sports life have experienced injuries curtailing athletics
and becoming disenchanted with Corp & government corruption (seeing it first hand) find self searching for that purpose. Sure it’s out there but ???. Sill searching.

Wally Bock   |   17 Oct 2016   |   Reply

Thanks for adding that, Kenneth. I think what’s significant about the four people I profiled is that they discovered purpose because just sitting around wasn’t for them. Al tried the life of leisure. My Dad originally thought he would write a history of the Chaplains in the German Army during WW II, but it didn’t engage him the way he thought it would. Vic had always made furniture along with everything else he did with his hands, it didn’t really turn into an activity of the heart until he started his business. For Jack, it’s been a hundred little projects. But none of them planned the life they lived after “retirement.”

Gayle Wells   |   18 Oct 2016   |   Reply

Thanks for this purposeful conversation. I’m ready to start the next chapter entitled retirement and have my sights set on the spring of 2018. In the past, I remember thinking why would you retire? What would you do with your time? Now I’m ready. Not sure when it started but I thing about it a lot. I’ve been fortunate to travel and would like to visit a few more places on my bucket list to see the treasures of the world. As an artist I put my passion on hold while making a living. Now it’s my time to create when and where I want. Maybe teach a studio class on a college campus. Maybe landscape design would give my inner gardener an outlet. So much possibility lies ahead. Your article reminded me that a purposeful life is about discovery. Yes, I’m ready.

Melinda Scarso   |   18 Oct 2016   |   Reply


Cynthia newman   |   19 Oct 2016   |   Reply

At 68 and in good health I work full time and have a part time private practice. I love what I do and look forward to going to work – my young staff are lots of fun, keeping up on journals, conferences and am sometimes the presenter…can’t imagine not doing what I still have a passion for and love and am pretty good at. I enjoy mini vacations, sometimes working from home, theatre blitz weekends and working in my garden…

Why would I retire when i am at the top of my Game? Just saying …

Sue Newcombe   |   01 Nov 2016   |   Reply

Very interesting post – I enjoyed reading it and gave me some food for thought. I don’t like the word ‘retirement’ at all – and while it adequately describes my situation – it doesn’t sit well with me as a ‘lifestyle’. At 62 I handed in my notice at work early this year and let my boss know I would be finishing not only my HR Manager role with him but giving up HR work altogether. I felt I had had enough and really wanted to move on, and I didn’t need the six figure salary any more or felt the need to be defined by a manager job title or a link to a big name organisation.

I know what you mean about purpose for sure. I have decided for now that my purpose is to be successful at living without having to earn a living and I am consciously working through that and am open to discovery. At those times when I think of work (deadlines, incessant emails, budgets, plans, people issues, travel, long hours etc) I remind myself I have been there, done that. I’m sure there is lots and lots to discover and lots to give. I like writing, I like keeping fit, I like my own company as well as the company of others. I look forward to reading more of your blog and more of similar articles like this. Thanks. Sue

Wally Bock   |   02 Nov 2016   |   Reply

Hi Sue. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and kind words. I think that purpose is an emergent property of life if you’ve done something for a long while and then changed. Most of the people I’ve seen who discover purpose after a lifetime of doing something else, didn’t find it after a search. Usually they stumbled into it. If you do things that interest you and hang out with people you care about, you may just wake up one morning and think, “I can’t wait to …” and realize that you’ve found a purpose. Thanks for adding to the conversation.