I’ll say it again: yes, I’m still working. By choice? Partly. By necessity? Partly. To show off? Uh, maybe mostly.
This latter motivation has been fanned of late by the attitude of my age mates, and even those 10 years younger, who complain that my job is interfering with their social routines. Sorry, but no, I can’t join you for daytime classes at the Y, a Wednesday matinee or discount lunch at Bouley during restaurant week. And I certainly can’t drop everything to grab that really cheap airfare to Ecuador.
It feels odd to have to defend doing honest labor to those who seem to take pride in being at loose ends. Either it’s a smug email like: “Ho ho ho, it's really warm in Florida today and I see it's snowing up your way, poor dear.” Or patronizing: “I remember working. Such a drain on your energy.” Or “Wow, you really look corporate in that outfit. Is that the new work uniform?” (Sorry, I didn’t have time to change into my jeans before meeting you for dinner). They seem to resent the sense of self-importance that comes with having deadlines, meetings, stretch assignments and the wardrobe to handle them in. Does the only fun they’re having in retirement involve wearing sweat pants and scoffing at me and others who go to the office every day?
It reminds me of my experiences as a working mother in the 1980s, when the stay-home moms treated me with a similar mix of hostility and competition. I resented them right back for thinking they had a monopoly on doing motherhood right. Until, that is, I made local friends on both sides of the divide, and found we had a lot to offer each other — not the least of which was a different perspective.
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The bright side of being teased for still working is that it’s made me think hard about the view from each side of the fence. Here’s my short list of things both retired and working people really need in their lives.
Less time to fret. An advantage of spending 40-odd hours knuckling down in the office is that I don’t have endless time to think about my troubles, my possible future troubles, or what I should’ve or could’ve done about the troubles of yesteryear. And I don’t have much time to listen to other people’s tales of major and minor pains, ungrateful children and miscellaneous inconveniences and outrages. Is it just me, or do others dread these heart-to-hearts? At work we tend to chat each other up about the latest gadget, movie or political scandal. It’s not that working people don’t have minor and major aches and pains. We just don’t mention them so much. Retired or not, we all need major distractions from ourselves, and conversation that at least sometimes rises above the minutiae of our daily lives.
Bragging rights. One of the great benefits of working, I find, is the nod of respect I get when I tell people what I do. I’ve watched a number of friends bravely retire precious identities as Expert Pooh Bah or Owner-in-Chief, only to find their self-esteem collapsing when someone asks them what they do for a living. “Mostly errands,” might be their answer. Or a really long tale about what they used to do and how they wouldn’t mind doing a little bit of it now, either, if you happened to know of anyone who needs a professional who hasn’t worked in five years. My conclusion is that working or not, everyone needs to write themselves a new “elevator line” every so often — a two-sentence upbeat response to the inevitable question: “What’s new and interesting with you?”
(More: The Good News About Women Working After 60)
Time with family and friends. Here’s where my mixed feelings about retirement really come into play. Yes, I would like to emulate a friend who takes her granddaughter to toddler art class twice a week, or the one who never has to jump off the phone with his elderly parents, saying, “I’m late for a meeting.” Many of my retired friends seem to get this right, so I’ve taken inspiration from them. In recent years I’ve been booking my evenings and weekends less tightly so I can more often say yes to spontaneous visits or last-minute requests for help from family and friends.
Energy for growth. My retired friends really soar when they’re learning something new. They get engrossed for days decoding the latest electronic device or return revved up from classes in ballroom dancing, oil painting or infant CPR. And when they’re in that mode, any residual jealousy about my job vanishes in the delight with their own lives. Inspired by this, I took my first class this fall — an eight-week online university course (paid for by my company, thank you very much) — and was quite amazed at how exhilarating, and difficult, it was. “To make the best use of free time, one needs to devote as much ingenuity and attention to it as one would to one’s job,” according psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmiha, author of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” This makes me feel that retirement, and the need to create the best use for all my time, might actually be challenging enough to suit me when I let go of my job. Some day.
Retired or not, we need to remember that many of us are still on a life journey to become more interested and interesting. So perhaps we can make a deal. If you promise not to be smug because you're retired, I'll try not to be smug about still working.
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