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The Discontent of Our Age

"Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save." –Will Rogers

In an observatory mood, I’ve been attempting to judge how we boomers transition from being essential to non-essential. From vital and relevant to struggling with purpose. From worker bees to full-time idlers. From the gainfully employed to retirees.

Time is the same for everyone. The second, the minute, and the hour have been identical ever since the big bang gave us Big Ben- or was it a feature of original sin? Even the celestial is measured by time. Gaze across the midnight sky for the Northern Star, and you’ll be dazzled by something that shared its illumination before Christ was born, which was just a tad over a billion minutes ago.

But we live in the immediate. To those not yet ‘retired,’ tomorrow just brings us closer to that big day unless we refuse to play the game. I’m happy to tell you that some are never planning to retire. They will work till they drop. But should they?

Well, literally working till you drop might be a bit excessive- even dangerous. I don’t mean an old house painter should climb ladders and only quit when he falls off one. Or dour Ms. Daisy only gives up driving the school bus after she backs it into a ditch. Or shaky Dr. Clifferly, who only hangs up the stethoscope after he attempts a prostate exam through the belly button. Of course, age diminishes some of our capabilities… but not all of them.

From a historical context, retirement is a new phenomenon. Even as late as the agrarian age, aging farmers worked alongside the next generation till they could work no more. The hay wagon became the ambulance. Because humans died at a younger age, many never made it to retirement- they literally worked till they dropped.

Modern notions of retirement were intended to let us fade into the sunset with no or little obligation to work. We were told that we had worked hard and now deserved to do nothing. To ‘rest.’ And since the financial fairies have taken a little money out of each paycheck, here’s a little monthly check to help you get by. Cradle to grave, they said.

Depending on your career, some jobs are so physical that only the fittest of people can do them. A police officer, for example, needs to have the physical ability to chase down and disable dangerous people. A roofer needs to climb ladders and straddle roof joists with great balance, all while carrying a bundle that can weigh a hundred pounds.

Some, particularly the young, will argue that the retirement class suffers from some cognitive decline. I vigorously disagree. I attempt to prove them wrong by using the most multi-syllable words I know while balancing on one leg. “That’s a preposterous notion!” I retort. “That prejudice is called… oh, what is that word again… it’s just three syllables… it was just on the tip of my tongue… oh, you know what I mean.”

The Pandemic of 2021/2022 left us different. It had us rethink many things, including what work is. Safe from being considered ‘non-essential,’ well-paid government bureaucrats decided which jobs were ‘essential’ and which were not. Someone could sell me a bag of nuts at a big box home improvement store but not an espresso at the local coffee shop. A golf pro at the local manicured pasture was considered more essential than someone who repaired leaky roofs (a prior essay). Eventually, those who desired to keep their job and the financial security it provided were given a choice- get a vaccine jab or lose your job.

The pandemic tipped the balance for many nearing retirement age, and they retired. Millions. The upheaval caused by the pandemic suggested to some that perhaps their job was not considered important. So why work? Many walked out and into retirement when told to get the jab or lose their job. Some grew tired and despondent of the various and often disparate rules companies were forced to comply with to conduct business- airline employees were forced to become mask police. Police officers were told to track down, tackle if necessary, unmasked park joggers.

Judging from this graph, a bunch of you are tired of being retired. Good for you. Whether it’s because you needed the money or you found retirement less than a panacea you once thought, you’ve gone back to work. I’ve talked to some of you, and you tell me you’re just happier when you work. You have considered the alternatives and rejoined the rat race.

From my observations, it appears that ‘retirement’ means many different things. My father-in-law, close to entering his ninth decade, still goes to work every day selling others insurance against disaster and even death. Another honorary boomer (not technically a boomer), just 85 years old, plays golf daily. A bit hunched and one leg apparently longer than the other, he can still launch the ball toward heaven without grimacing. And when not swinging, he’s snuggling up to the beverage cart hottie, calling her ‘dear’ while asking for a beer. For a brief moment, I vow to be just like him when I grow up.

My doc won’t touch retirement. He keeps his latex gloves nearby and knows exactly where to put them. Another doctor I know retired to his four-bay garage and turned it into an elaborate scale train station complete with switches, cabooses, and trestles. He and his model railroad enthusiast buddies spend their retirement designing the next route the locomotive will take. Choo Choo!

A dear friend runs a dairy when he’s not flying around the world. To use his words, “he ain’t gonna go moldy in some stinking 55-plus community.” We all have our favorite smells. He dreams of exiting the farm pulled by a tractor with a chain around his ankles. All he asks is for the cows to bow their heads in respect.

Despite being told of all the benefits of retirement or those our imagination conjured up, many struggle with this phase of life. Men, in far greater numbers than women, choose to exit prematurely. The number of elderly men who commit suicide is startling and growing faster than any other demographic.

Understanding those who choose suicide is complex because of the multiplicity of reasons. Certainly, loneliness, isolation, and perhaps a difficult, painful diagnosis can be contributors. Some find depression in losing a spouse to death or disappointment in their relationships. I suspect that diminished abilities and the loss of relevance can bring a great sense of hopelessness.

As we march toward another Christmas season, a season suggesting great hope for tomorrow, we can all be observant and look for those who are suffering from despair and depression. The promise of peace and tranquility in our leisure years is not the reality for far too many.

I just thought of that word I couldn’t earlier- ageism.

Have a great weekend!

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