When Do You Plan (Hope?) To Stop Working?

Obadiah Sedgwick (1600?-1658), puritan clergyman
A Puritan clergyman. Do you really need to follow his lead? Image via Wikipedia

Now here’s a seriously depressing idea, working into your 80s.

A recent New York Times op-ed argues this is not only likely necessary for millions of Americans but — seriously? –– a terrific new development:

Retirement seems out of the question for increasing numbers of Americans who are saddled with debt and whose savings evaporated during the recent bust. Today’s workers should expect to labor longer, and companies should expect to employ more older workers.

The numbers supply a vivid picture of America’s graying work force. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of working Americans over 65 years old jumped 16 percent; the number of under-65’s in the labor force shrank. The trend started before the current downturn: the number of Americans over 65 in the labor force increased from 10.8 percent in 1985 to 12.1 percent in 1995 to 15.1 percent in 2005 to 17.4 percent in 2010. Until 2001, most workers age 65 and older had part-time jobs; since 2001, full-time work has been far more common….

Nearly 40 percent of 55- to 64-year-old Americans don’t have retirement accounts. Less than a quarter of this group owns a single stock or savings bond. The median net worth of 55- to 64-year-old Americans has declined during the last years and is now $254,000 (including housing), down from $273,000 just three years ago. American households saved less than 4 percent of their incomes for every year between 1999 and 2008; during this time, thrifty Germans were saving about one-tenth of their earnings. A nation that prefers spending to saving is going to find it difficult to enjoy a comfortable retirement.

Call me lazy, unmotivated, un-American. The thought of working into my 80s — instead of (I hope) being able to wind this thing down in the next decade or so, in my mid 60s — is appalling. I’ve been working for pay since I was 14 and started life-guarding.

Enough already!

Here’s a wild notion: Live low(er). Save more. Focus your goals not on the next set of paychecks, but when and how to extricate yourself from the hamster wheel of working for pay.

Read this powerful book on the “value” of income versus time.

Unlike some other nations, for whom the endless drama of “work-life balance” is less difficult to achieve (paid maternity leave for months, for example), Americans are heavily socialized and rewarded (no paid sick leave, short vacations) for working all the time.

Those who seriously value other non-work -related activities — quiet time alone, traveling, volunteer work, spending time with our loved ones or pets, learning or perfecting new skills for the pure pleasure of it — are derided as bohemians or, worse, hippies. Time spent un-tethered to commercial production is considered deeply suspicious.

Don’t you want to workworkworkworkworkwork?!

Don’t you want to keep buying more/bigger/faster/newer stuff?

Jose and I are fortunate, still working steadily in fields we enjoy, to be earning enough for our needs. We save and invest  and keep a careful eye on those funds. We have retirement savings, (40 percent of people in our age group have none),  and are also lucky enough to likely (just) to be able to collect Social Security payments and a company pension.

Nor do we have children, grandchildren or parents whose financial needs compete with ours, as so many people do.

But I disagree that:

1) paid work is the best use of our very limited time on this earth;

2) saving money is too hard.

I’ve had years, plural and sequential, in which all I was able to do was pay my bills and do almost nothing else, hanging onto my home (which I own) with a white-knuckled death grip. I know it’s terrifying to not have a lot of (or any) spare cash. I’ve dipped into my IRAs more than once.

But I have IRAs because I deliberately save money every year, usually 10-25% of my income. Anything less makes me feel ill. Nothing is worth not having savings accumulating. Nothing I could own, see, do, listen to, eat, hear, wear or otherwise consume, is worth that to me.

In lean years, I buy little, and it’s from consignment shops or only on sale. I use and wear items that are 10, 15 even 20 years old, well-cared for, that don’t look it. Our one car is 11 years old. We have every form of insurance possible to protect what we’ve worked hard to accumulate.

It’s a choice.

Do you want to keep working that long?

Will you have to?

What compromises are you willing, or able, to make to avoid this?

15 thoughts on “When Do You Plan (Hope?) To Stop Working?

  1. We’ve just had an election in New Zealand where one of the issues was whether to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67. Curiously, when Otto von Bismarck brought in the world’s first state pension systems to Germany in the late nineteenth century, he picked 65 because it was in the upper end of the age-curve. Three score years and ten was very much the norm. Today – well, things are a little different, and I think the reality in New Zealand and elsewhere is that individuals are going to have to take responsibility for themselves, and from an early age (the age where individuals don’t usually think about it…)

    Time – time is the key. Best use of time. I think forward planning – and by that I mean decades-long forward planning – must by nature pay dividends. It’s responsible. Not just to the people doing it and their dependents, but generally. However, it’s not in the nature of us to do that. Society pressures us to spend; we’ve just been through 30 years of the ‘me’ generation, the ‘I’ generation, the generations wanting instant gratification. We’ve spent the income of the future, which is why there’s a debt crisis. Did those doing it never think the debts might be called in? Hmmn…

    Me? I’d like to get the chance to ‘retire’ in the sense of not having to do the stuff I need to do in order to pay the bills. I’d like to be able to write the stuff I’d like to write – commercially dismal but fun things that have been stacking up on the ‘I must do this’ list for a long time. And other things that will occur to me. I wouldn’t call it ‘retirement’ in the sense of stopping work, sitting in a chair and watching TV. There is too much to do in life to waste time like that. Always.

    Matthew Wright

    1. Interesting historical perspective — thanks for that. But wouldn’t the corollary now be that we live to our 80s or beyond and therefore “should” retire later? I think not!

      I agree that doing nothing is not attractive, but I don’t think everyone wants to keep punching a clock or slogging into some fluorescent-lit cubicle forever. In the U.S., so many people who even have a job are unhappy in their worklife.

      I want more free time with my husband. We have many interests and too little time; he leaves the house at 8:00 a.m. and does not return til 7:00 p.m. It frustrates us both.

  2. Sadly, while we have over spent our way into not having enough to retire, this is not the case for everyone.
    I have never earned enough to be able to put away 10-25% of my income, and I am earning less, relative to my needs than I was in the past. Retirement savings got cashed out when there was no work to be had and I had to eat. Not a great loss, there wasn’t much there.
    I do not consume much at all. Haven’t owned a car of any kind in 17 years, and have had exactly 3 vacations in my 25 years of work, (I include a 5 day camping trip a couple of hours from home as a real vacation.) I cut my own hair, new clothes? I’m not even sure where to buy those. I also don’t own my home, but I can dream.
    I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life working in dead-end jobs, but for now that seems to be all there is, and many I know have it worse.
    I think we should be careful when judging those who cannot retire as having been irresponsible or somehow deficient. I’m not sure how someone who pays more than %50 of there income to rent can be expected to put away enough to retire.
    What we need to be looking at, is both how we spend our money, and also, if we are being paid enough. We have a lot to be concerned about when that much of the population cannot stop working. It is a problem that will have adverse affects on everyone, even if we are not suffering!

    1. I don’t mean to suggest that…it’s very clear that many people are badly hurt by this economy and stagnant or falling wages, let alone un(der)employment.

      I write about this as often as I can and “Malled” is in many ways a manifesto. I’m appalled by corporate greed and want workers to be much better paid but feel powerless — short of writing about it — to make any changes.

  3. Please don’t underestimate writing. Yours, nor anyone else. What you do is no small contribution and does not lack power.
    The more we write about it and talk about it and share our complaints as well as our potential solutions, we generate more power.
    Write On!

  4. Great article – and I’ve been reading a lot lately on this very subject. My wife is close to retirement as an educator – maybe this year, or next. I do have retirement savings but plan to wait until I’m seventy for my social security. You get a bunch more if you can manage to wait. The work I do as a glass artisan is rewarding, I can see gearing down on certain more physical aspects of the craft. Health insurance, dental, vision – those are all perks of the teaching profession in my wife’s district, and will be hard to do without. We had a windfall recently (my wife did) and she was able to pay off all debts, including here car. I’m still in deep shit. but manageable. Every household i know of has their very own unique economy – our’s is no exception.

    1. I hope to spend at least part of my time in retirement (should I live that long, and healthily) in France or Canada, both of which have good (free) medical care. I am very grateful for my Canadian passport. I hope Jose gets his pension. That will help.

      I agree that each household faces its own challenges.

  5. What if I said I hope I can work until I’m 80? My job of outside sales provides total freedom to come and go as I please. It’s not physical in nature and allows me to attend many social events.

    I already do plenty of volunteer work; my hobbies are fitness, golf, tennis, running, blogging and seem to be able to do as much as I want in those areas already.

    If we want to travel we can pretty much do that at any time as well.

    As long as I’m productive, enjoy what I do and mentoring others I’m not sure I would want to retire just because of a certain age deadline.

    I’m sure that is unusual and maybe they will run me off at 65 (although I am one of the owners). Who knows, maybe 10, 15 yrs from now I’m singing a different tune. Good thing this is the internet and nobody can see it so you won’t hold me to it, right?

  6. I agree with you. I would rather live frugally and be able to retire in the hopes of enjoying the later years of my life than buy a lot of stuff (with the exception of books). Besides, more stuff, bigger house=more time spent on cleaning and maintenance instead of doing things I enjoy. I’m doing everything I can possibly think of to pay off student loan debts and save for a house and retirement. Sadly, there are vast discrepancies in financial management skills and income. It is difficult to say if or when I’ll actually be able to retire, but it’s definitely something I look forward to.

  7. My husband and I set a “retirement goal” when we both first began our careers. We saved a significant portion of our salaries over the years and we still live in the first house we bought. We were never high consumers of stuff and never felt the need to keep up with the Joneses. Hence, my husband retired in his 40’s and I retired at 52. Our lives are so full we wonder how we ever had the time to work!

  8. I am just about to write a post about my uneasy truce with work. I would love to retire (I have so much I want to do with my time), but have another 15 years of work before I do. The best I can hope for is to earn from things I love doing like writing and photography. Still figuring out how to do that, though!

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