By DIANE PHILLIPS
Many of my friends are of retirement age. But they don’t, retire that is. Why would you choose to work when you could choose to not work, a question that assumes the choice is not based on a need for money, but is strictly a personal one? The question intrigued me so I began to a totally non-scientific study. I asked about ten people, ten being a large enough sample to provide a clue that would have one of two outcomes – reaffirm my guess or be such an eye-opener as to qualify for revelation status.
One answer after another from the incredibly simple exercise was the same when I posed the question, “Why are you still working? Why would you not retire?” The four-word answer was almost identical: “What would I do?” they said.
What they did not say was as powerful as what they did say. They did not say “Because I love what I do”, or “I would miss the people I work with”. No, it was an absence of something to fill the days and thoughts that kept Bahamians working long past the age when people in other places retire. That is a fascinating thought that defies retirement odds, but provides valuable insight that tells us that Bahamians are already living the dream others have for how they would live post-retirement.
Think about it this way. Someone living in Mt Washington, New Hampshire, which gets snow 118.5 days a year qualifying it for snowiest city in the US, may be dreaming of retirement when they shovel enough snow out of the drive and melt the ice on their windshield to get to work and pray they make it home safely. As they slosh their way through the slush, they may well dream they will retire one day and move to Florida where the sun shines year round. Millions brave the freezing temps for months on end, steely grey skies, lack of sunshine, the need to bundle up just to step outside.
Lancaster, New York, a few years ago got 74 inches of snow in a matter of days. That’s snow up to Buddy Hield’s shoulders. No wonder retirement hangs out there like the Promised Land. Imagine what you would be thinking as you were melting the ice on your windshield, shivering in the cold, ready to face another day in the office – “I can’t wait to hit 65 and retire, move to Florida where the sun shines and take holidays in The Bahamas”.
Bahamians already live where the sun shines every day unless there is a blip like a hurricane.
We don’t live in a place where our weather-related happiness depends on what kind of mood a groundhog is in. Will there be another six weeks of winter or will there be an early spring? We have probably never even met a groundhog. We live where others would dream of retiring. The bad news is the belief that there is little else to do to fill the void if we were to not work. Even those people who live in places like Lancaster and Mount Washington, and I am not casting aspersions on either – they are probably postcard beautiful bathed in snow – but residents must cling to the dream that there is life after work. If they do not move to Florida or a land of year-round warmth, they may enroll in a course at a university, take up pottery-making and sculpting or furniture building, or singing, or join Habitat for Humanity or engage in online currency trading (as apparently about 500 Bahamians are today).
They may travel extensively, packing belongings, food, supplies and even old-fashioned paper maps into an RV and hit the road. Our options are limited. If we hit the road, we would just sit in traffic and what would we do with an RV on this island anyway and it is not like you could drive to Inagua to see the flamingoes and the salt flats in your retirement. The smallness of our islands, in some ways, keeps us more loyal to our work, but the largeness of our daily lives is something most around the world would envy. We drive to that same work we do not want to give up with the sun beating through our car window. We pass spaces where we gaze out on to the water and noting whether it is flat calm or are there ripples. We look around us and everywhere we look we see greenery, we see palm trees and in season flaming Royal Poinciana or pink and white poi-poi trees.
We see breathtaking every day. We live breathtaking. It is our backdrop and it fills our senses to overflowing.
But while what we view and live is the envy of the planet, what we do with our lives in this environment of nature’s riches is worth pondering.
The question we need to consider is whether retirement is good for your health. You might think so. You are shedding all that stress, never having to face doing something you dread that someone is ordering you to do. You can sleep late, do whatever you want that day or nothing at all. Sounds like a freedom that would immediately be as good for your health as multi-vitamins on steroids. But hold on just a second.
There is actually no clear evidence people who retire are better off or healthier than those who continue to work longer years. In fact, many studies found the opposite and others conclude that it is not when you retire but how you retire that matters most.
According to a Harvard Health Blog, “Moving from work to no work comes with a boatload of changes.”
That’s hardly a surprise. Work gives us purpose, lacking purpose can cause more stress than the stress we have on our jobs. Work also gives up the opportunity to interact with people around us and non-work can take away that unplanned, unscheduled interaction with others. A study far more scientific than my sample of ten by the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK found retirement increases the chances of experiencing at least one diagnosed illness by 60 percent and chances of suffering from clinical depression by about 40 percent.
It sounds dramatic but retired folks are almost always older so it seems to me the depression part is the more stunning finding though understandable.
Loneliness in older folks is a major concern and continuing to work, especially for the non-married, whether divorced, widowed or never married, can be greater if the person is not engaging with others on a regular basis. Findings of the UK study were similar to a 2012 Harvard Health study of 5,422 individuals measuring rate of heart disease. That study discovered that retirees were 40 percent more likely to have had a heart attack than others their age still working.
The findings of another study in the US by the National Bureau of Economic Research provided very practical advice. Increases in physical maladies and decline in mental health were both abrogated (they did not use that word, hope that is what they meant) by certain other factors. Being happily married or at least getting along with your spouse so that going to work was not a means of escape, getting out of each other’s way, was one. Others included having a social support system or social life outside the workplace. Maintaining physical and mental activity were critical.
In summary, various studies while not in total agreement about the health benefits of retirement vs. working do give us very good advice about how to retire successfully.
The issue is that we hear financial advice from the time we are young. “Save for retirement.” What we don’t hear is what we need to know – that financial security is only a starting point.
If you are thinking about retiring, don’t do it suddenly, going to work one day and stopping work the next. That could be like falling off a cliff and most of us do not choose that as a voluntary exercise. Successful retirement takes what every successful venture takes, strategy. Retirement strategy is all about keeping your mental and physical self happily occupied, engaged and busy. It also helps if you are happily occupied, engaged and busy with a spouse who is equally happily occupied, engaged and busy. If you have lost a loved one or you are divorced and considering retirement, you may just want to work a little longer or alter your routine so that the loneliness does not become a threat to the happiness you might be enjoying.
Maybe the thought of retiring is good enough and work is not so bad after all. Or when retirement is on the horizon and the fish are biting, put out the Gone Fishing sign and really do it. Fish like you never fished before. Retirement is an absence of work schedule, no one ever said it was an absence of goals.