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Aging for Amateurs: When is it the right time to retire?

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Some elders choose to retire to make more time for themselves. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The other day I had lunch with a friend in his late 60s and we talked about retirement.

“I don’t have to keep working,” he said, “but I don't have to stop either. Now I’ve got a choice to make.”

Lots of people don’t have that choice: The time they retire is settled for them. You reach the mandatory age, or get laid off or have health issues, you’re gone. But many women and men do have that choice, and the discussion of “when should I retire?” is an interesting and far reaching one. Of course, it will be different for each person because circumstances are never the same.

But in general terms, the discussion could play out like this. 

Some good reasons to keep working

Let’s think in terms of 65 as “normal” retirement age (the average age people retire in South Carolina is actually 62; eligibility for full Social Security benefits is now 66 for most people).

One reason to keep working for a large number of people over 65 is that they simply can’t afford to retire. A full 25 percent of us have saved less than $1,000 for retirement when we reach 65, and a lot more can’t live comfortably on their Social Security and 401(k).

A steadily increasing number of older people need to keep working past 65, at least part time, to pay the bills. Finances and health may dictate retirement age.

Another good reason many people postpone retirement is that they love their job and feel called to keep doing their work. Their work means a lot to them and they aren’t ready to stop. Some employers encourage older employees to continue working by scaling back hours per week or creating special categories for experienced mentors.

In my profession, retired clergy often take interim or “transitional” positions in churches currently without a minister.

Or special circumstances may delay retirement. The housekeeper and mother who labored long to raise her children may be needed to help with the next generation. Someone who excelled in a line of work may consult in the field or share expertise by serving on a board or committee.

Some bad reasons to keep working

One spectacularly bad reason not to retire is that you feel indispensable. Co-workers may flatter you into thinking that way. Don’t fall for it. In your private life, where you are spouse or friend, parent or grandparent, you are unique and can’t be “replaced.” But in your public life, such as the role you play at work or in the community, you can be replaced and will be, sooner or later.

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You may do your job with a unique flair, but your successor will have hers too.

A second bad reason to keep working is that you are scared of retirement. Giving up your job means losing your identity, friends, respect, standing, which are all linked with what you do. Retirement looks like a void and that’s frightening. I know because I’ve been there.

In his book "Transitions," Robert Bridges says that when difficult changes are made in life, and that includes retirement, the real difficulty comes not from the changes but “from the underlying and more difficult process of letting go of the person you used to be and then finding the new person you need to become in the new situation.” Make no mistake: That’s a big deal.

But it is part of growing up, like all the earlier transitions you have made, struggled with and grown from.

Some good reasons to retire

One good reason to retire is to discover “my time,” time to pursue other interests, answer other callings, or just declare a sabbath and take a good rest. Some aging “amateurs” (lovers of life, beyond scripting and job requirements) will find the discovery of “my time” welcome and relish the idea of a new venture in life, even an unmapped life stage ahead. Others may find unscripted time daunting but trust themselves to find or build their path.

Either way, retirement offers the opportunity to live out previously unlived dimensions of your life, and that is ample reason to choose it.

A second reason for choosing retirement is less “good” but honest: You recognize that you’re slowing down, missing some cues, not taking initiatives like you used to, feeling weary or bored.

When you’re not doing as good a job as you used to, that may be the signal that it’s time to make a change. That change could be full retirement, or it could be modifying one’s work responsibilities or schedule to accommodate for limitations.

A third reason to retire is sometimes called “stepping aside,” to make room for people coming along behind you and give them a chance like you had. "Oldsters" who keep on working may block younger colleagues from advancing into senior positions. Sometimes people are praised for working well beyond their time, but it can be a selfish act to cling tenaciously to a senior position. Stepping aside may be more gracious.

So, to retire or not to retire?

You decide when that time comes! Whatever you do, though, one thing should be made clear. The decision to retire is different from the decision to become an elder. That is a deeper call, less focused on what you will do than on who you will be.

Some elders are active in the work force in vital ways; some elders retire from their occupation and find new ways to make a life. Being an elder is about standing in relation to your commitments and also to change, owning your limitations that, because you have owned them, become a source of light and hard-won maturity.

Bert Keller and Bill Simpson write the occasional column, “Aging for Amateurs.” Keller, a retired minister and bioethicist, wrote this installment.

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