Retirement and identity

Semi-retired Harvard Business School professor Theresa Ambile interviewed 120 newly retired professionals on retirement and emerged with an appreciation for the impact years in the workplace has on all of us. For most folks, work doesn’t just become what they do, it becomes who they are.

She found that the single biggest challenge with retirement was bridging someone’s identity from what they did to how they wanted to see themselves in retirement. And, she also found that the things that made them happiest in retirement were not using an alarm clock, not needing to commute, the ability to pursue a hobby, and the flexibility to spend time with family.

2 reflections – first, “Retire early” is a fantasy for a non-trivial section of the workforce. But, as Theresa’s research re-affirms, it isn’t a catch-all solution to all the problems we get rid of at work.

And, second, imagine if we structured our work such that we got the sleep we needed, lived close to work, had the time to pursue a hobby, and spend more time with family? Would we have the best of both worlds?

As our life spans become longer, understanding how to deal with the concept of retirement will be increasingly important. Such research is a great start to doing that.

Retirement and cognitive decline

A close friend of my late grandfather passed way recently. The pattern of his decline prior to his death, however, was unerringly similar.

My grandfather, till the age of 67, was admired for his relative youth. He went for a swim everyday at the community pool near our home, ran a cost accounting business with a partner, read a lot, and was active. At 67, however, he decided (with his partner) to shut down their business and “retire.”

Every year, for the next ten years, he aged at the rate of three years for every one. The average amount of television he watched per day went up during this period from one hour to ten hours. His physical decline during this period was the hardest for us to stomach. He went from walking and swimming a lot to barely being able to move. His last years were tough on him.

The fable of the frog in boiling water may not be real but its implications for human behavior are definitely true. We were caught unawares by this gradual transformation. And, before we realized something was very wrong, it was too late.

This close friend’s story was similar – his cognitive decline after “retirement” was swift.

The world’s population is ageing. Combine that with advances in medicine and we have a generation that is also going to live longer than any other. As we all learn to deal with our ageing grandparents, parents, and eventually, ourselves, it is worth remembering that the enemy is cognitive decline. There is a lot of truth the phrase “its all in the mind.” Physical decline follows cognitive decline (while this was our observation, it may be that there’s a feedback loop that accelerates both).

My lesson from this experience was – Don’t allow your loved ones to “retire.” Find ways to keep them mentally engaged and away from excessive television.

Death is a natural part of the life experience – but, severe cognitive and physical decline needn’t be.