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What Does Retirement Look Like?


We joke in my family about how my dad will never retire. It's not that he's not old enough. It's not that he isn't financially able to retire. It's not that he doesn't have enough wits about him to retire. It’s that my dad doesn't know HOW to retire.

In the States (with apologies, I don't know enough about other countries' cultures to comment), there's this cultural plan for everyone: you go to school, you graduate, you work at a number of jobs, you retire, you stop actively earning income. Not everyone follows this plan. Not everyone needs to follow this plan. Not everyone can follow this plan. The last step typically happens late in life, around 65, maybe 70 years old.

When I ask people what retiring means, I usually hear, "No boss!" That's often followed by, "Freedom!" and "Sleeping in!" and "Doing what I want!"

Which suggests to me I'm asking the wrong question. Their answers tell me they are thinking of a restriction-free future, rather than building a life they want to have now.

As near as I can tell, most people's view of retirement is the book version of a segment of life no longer spent working. "Book version" means you have the highlights of the main characters' actions, but you don't know anything about the details: the aches, the boring hours spent waiting for something to happen, the time spent in the bathroom, the laundry washing, the food preparation and subsequent cleanup, or the bathing.

The better question to ask is: "How are you going to fill your days?"

I think about this better question when I encourage my dad to retire. I don't know what my dad would do, and this saddens me. I don’t know how he would fill his days; his days are currently filled with his job and sleeping.

I, on the other hand, could fill up another lifetime with activities. I would build websites. I would go on hikes. I would finish the design of the locking mechanism I've been working on for years. I would visit friends in different cities, explore their areas with them. I would make new friends. I would set odd goals like "eat at every restaurant along this stretch of busy road" or "meet every person I follow on twitter." I would finally swim in every ocean.

When these thoughts come up, and I wonder how would I fill my days, I realize the answer is often, "More of what I do now," which means I’m doing something right. I mean, why wait for that mythical time to come along? Why not start doing some of those things now?

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