Last July, my wife and I spent several days with a couple of her old friends from college. At the age of 70, both of them recently retired from successful careers in scientific research and university teaching. Both loved their work and have been honored for it. Both are still healthy and fit and they could have carried on what they were doing for a while longer.
I didn’t push them on their reasons for retiring.
“It was just time, you know?”
More to the point, I had three responses to their decision to retire. I felt great respect for their decision. I felt apprehension for them in the short term. And I trust they will ultimately make it just fine.
Let’s parse those three responses out, because each one says a lot about retirement.
First, there’s plain respect for the decision they made to retire. Both of them probably still feel at the top of their game, like I did when i retired at 70 — but they’re not. And I was not. A lot of research has been done on what is called “professional decline." Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research looked at a wide variety of jobs and found significant degrees of age-related decline in performance right across the range of occupations.
The decline tends to come earliest in jobs that require what Arthur C. Brooks calls “fluid intelligence." In his article titled, “Your professional decline is coming (much) sooner than you think,” (The Atlantic, July 2019), Brooks cites psychologist Raymond Cattell who describes fluid intelligence as “the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems — what we normally think of as raw intellectual horsepower.”
Innovators, high-creativity people, have it. Peaking in young adulthood, it starts to decline in our 30s and 40s — sooner than we think.
For older adults, the good news is that the other kind, called “crystallized intelligence”, tends to increase in our 40s and hold strong until later in life. Crystallized intelligence is the ability to use knowledge that we’ve gained in the past — as though we possess a library in our heads and know how to use it. Having such intelligence may even contribute to wisdom, says Brooks.
Some people who start off in high-creativity occupations shift gradually to kinds of work that rely more on managing knowledge — teaching, for example. Eventually crystallized intelligence slows down too.
Our friends in North Carolina earned my respect by acknowledging that they were just not doing the job like they used to, and it was time to make way for younger, well-educated professionals who were waiting their turn at the plate. They got out before they stagnated.
Second, I had some apprehension how they would handle retirement in the short term. When you get used to the action, it’s hard to give it up. Many of us link our self-esteem to whatever success we’ve achieved. Success can be in business, public life, child-raising, a profession, welding, making money. What happens when we step away and stop achieving?
We all know what happens: Our self-worth bottoms out. We’ve said it before: Our work not only gives us something to do, it gives us someone to be.
Arthur Brooks goes further to report that people who have achieved the highest levels in their work are the ones most likely to end up feeling like failures. They don’t seem able to rest on their laurels. Why not? In a word, irrelevance. When a man or woman gets emotionally attached to the prestige of success, the end of a successful career can mean the end of the line. And that means irrelevance — no longer a player. All of us retirees probably feel that way to some extent.
But there’s good news, too. Some people get happier after 70! What makes the difference?
That question brings me back to our friends and my confidence — this is the third point — that they will ultimately make it just fine.
Wisely, they uncoupled their sense of self-worth from their professional success enough to retire in time to do other things. (They actually began that uncoupling process years ago.) The life of science is what they’ve known; they may want to stay in that track with more reliance on their “crystallized intelligence." That would mean activities like mentoring students, working with advisory committees, environmental activism, or consulting with programs abroad or in areas of thin educational resources. Reading stories to grandchildren counts, too!
Keeping activities like those going as we age does another critical thing that contributes to happiness. It makes people feel useful. Is that the key? You can’t feel irrelevant when you’re being useful.
And notice one other thing they did that’s promising for a happy future. They reached out.
Our friends invited us to spend a few days with them. What I remember is how much we laughed.
Happiness walks hand in hand with relationship. Many have made the discovery: The secret to managing the decline of those powers we used back in the day to achieve success — the secret is friendship.
We don’t lose the power of connecting. Deep friendships, casual ones, useful ones, revived ones, new ones, family ones, fun ones. Developing connections, that is, that let us practice the interior qualities of trust, caring, joy, thinking of others and not being preoccupied with ourselves.
Brooks ends his wise and informative article on a personal note. “The secret to bearing my decline — to enjoying it — is to become more conscious of the roots linking me to others. If I have properly developed the bonds of love among my family and friends, my own withering will be more than offset by blooming in others.”
That’s not a platitude. That’s an aging man, honest with himself, in the process of becoming an Elder.