A recent headline caught my attention immediately:
What is the ideal age to retire?
It’s a question I’ve been giving more and more thought to, now that I’m getting, well, you know…
I was hoping the article was going to reveal that the ideal age was sooner than I thought, which would mean I was that much closer to retiring.
But then I read the subtitle:
Never, according to a neuroscientist
Wait – you mean I’m meant to work my entire life?
Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy what I do. I’ve been doing it for 34 years.
But at some point, I thought I would reach that magical age when it would be time to say goodbye to my colleagues, and ride into the sunset. Never having to grade a test again.
So of course, I had to keep reading the article. It was, after all, posted at Ideas.Ted.com, where they explore ideas worth spreading. The article was written by Daniel J. Levitin PhD, a neuroscientist, cognitive psychologist, and bestselling author. He is the founding dean of arts and humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI in San Francisco and professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University.
The article was an excerpt from Levitin’s newest book Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of our Lives.
Levitin notes that as we age, we need to stay busy, but not with busy work or trivial pursuits, but with meaningful activities. Too much time spent with no purpose is associated with unhappiness.
Levitin seems to suggest that the best place to find such meaning is in the workplace. He also argues for changes in the way our societies see older adults, particularly how they see them in the workforce.
I agree that older workers need to be treated with respect, but I don’t think the workplace is the only place that older people can find respect.
Levitin interviewed a number of people between the ages of seventy and one hundred in order to better understand what contributes to life satisfaction. Every single one of them has continued working. Some, like musicians Donald Fagen of Steely Dan (age seventy-one) and Judy Collins (age eighty), have increased their workload. Others, like George Shultz (age ninety-nine) and the Dalai Lama (age eighty-four), have modified their work schedules to accommodate age-related slowing, but in the partial days they work, they accomplish more than most of their younger counterparts.
I get the point he is trying to make, that there are many people who continue to work into their 80s and beyond, and they thrive as a result of such engagement. But I also wonder if he used a biased sample. Did he purposely just interview elderly people who continued working? Did he not bother to talk to anyone who has retired and was “not working”? If so, it seems to hurt the credibility of his arguments.
I agree 100% that no matter our age, we need to find meaning in our lives. But I don’t think that such meaning can only come from work, or that it is the best source of finding meaning. In fact, I think that would be kind of sad if it did.
Levitin finally does note that If continuing to work in your job isn’t possible after a certain age, and if new employers aren’t willing to hire older workers, there are still ways to stay actively engaged in meaningful work. In the US, there’s the Head Start program, an organization that allows volunteers to come in and read to underprivileged children. The AARP Foundation has a program called Experience Corps, which matches older adults as tutors in public schools for economically disadvantaged children.
To me, I think this is the better way to go, or at least as viable a way of finding meaning as working. Plan for an eventual retirement from your job, but then be ready to do something that will bring new meaning into your life; volunteering seems like a great opportunity to do so.
In one study, volunteers felt a greater sense of accomplishment than a group of control participants. This was particularly true of male volunteers, who showed a reversal of three years of aging over two years of volunteering.
Levitin himself notes that there is a transformative effect in helping others, noting opportunities such as volunteering in a hospital or church; asking your local YMCA or church what they need; working in a soup kitchen.
He also recommends you continue to learn, and recommends taking classes online, such as from Coursera or Khan Academy, being sure to actively participate in class discussions, since learning in isolation can only go so far in keeping your mind active. He also suggests activities such as joining (or hosting) a book club or current events discussion group.
So by the time I finished the article, I felt much better than what the headline seemed to be originally suggesting.
I think there are a number of people who love the work they are doing, and they continue to find joy and meaning in such work, perhaps for the rest of their lives. More power to them.
However, there are many people, myself included, who have reached a stage in their life when they are ready to step away from the demands of the workplace and want to find new and different ways to share their talents and passions with the world. Many times, this may involve volunteering, which would seem to be a win-win for both organizations and people looking for volunteers as well as for the volunteers themselves.
So what is the ideal age to retire?
I’m still not sure, but I do know I won’t be grading tests when I’m 100 years old…
*image from JAEO Finance