We live in a world that puts a premium on planning. It’s an impulse that pushes many of us to the brink of hysteria if we don’t know on Tuesday what we’re going to have for lunch on Thursday. And it’s particularly corrosive among aspiring retirees, many of whom believe that if they just work everything out in a certain way they’re going to be able to spend their golden years free of the need to plan at all. Just take each day as it comes.
I’ve ranted previously about the flaws in that assumption, but it remains a stubbornly appealing vision: Wake up every morning with nothing on your agenda, nowhere you need to go, nothing you need to do except think of something to do.
I would last about a week.
There are plenty of reasons to slow down as you approach retirement age, but achieving complete idleness is probably not the healthiest option. That’s what Georgia State University researchers concluded after analyzing data from a survey that tracked more than 13,000 people for nearly a quarter century. Those who stayed in the workforce — even part-time — or volunteered a couple of hours a week were less likely than their idle counterparts to see chronic health conditions erupt into the kind of full-blown disabilities that affect nearly 20 percent of men and 30 percent of women older than 65.
“What we’re arguing,” says lead study author Ben Kail, an assistant professor in GSU’s sociology department, “is that it’s important to have programs that incentivize people who are healthy enough to continue working and volunteering to do so because it can intervene in health processes.”
Social Security and Medicare encourage folks to drop out of the workforce, Kail argues, and there are few countervailing programs to encourage geezers to volunteer after retirement or to stay on the job and reap the physical and mental benefits of the 9-to-5 routine. “Some older people are leaving the labor force and not replacing it with anything,” he says. “If you’re not replacing work with a work-like activity, your retirement is radically different than how you spent most of your life and not necessarily radically better.”
For a lot of geezers like myself, the countervailing incentive to maintain gainful employment has less to do with those health benefits than with mortgage payments. A recent study found that nearly half of all Americans over 65 live on less than $24,000 a year. That is not a convincing argument for quitting my job at 65 or, I’m inclined to think, even 75.
I suppose I could’ve planned more carefully — bought a thousand shares of Apple stock back in 1985, when it was selling for $1.98, or abandoned the capitalist economic system altogether by settling on a communal farm in the ’70s and living off the land — but life doesn’t rewind. You make your choices and you live with them. And take each day as it comes.
Photo by Sharon Parker; courtesy of author.