How Do You Define Retirement?

If you are contemplating retirement, you should ask two legends of Hollywood how they manage it. And that’s what Steve Lopez did when he interviewed Norman Lear and Mel Brooks, both in their nineties. Lear, who recently turned 100, is still active and advised Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, to keep doing what he was doing because his work mattered. 

Mel Brooks said something similar, advising Steve to find ways to explore new ideas by working less in his regular job as a columnist. As Lopez told me in an interview, “Mel Brooks is the guy who became sort of my life coach because I followed his advice. What he said was, ‘Look, what I’m hearing you say is [that] you love what you do.You feel lucky to be able to go out into the world.’”

The interview recounted a new book, Independence Day: What I Learned about Retirement from Some Who’ve Done It and Some Who Never Will. The lesson is preparation, not merely financially but mentally. Lopez advises folks, even Millennials, to think about how they want to spend the last quarter of their life. 

Planning ahead

Planning, according to Lopez, involves at least two concepts. First, find structure. If you suddenly find yourself not going to work, how will you spend your time? Lopez found many folks deepened their existing interests. For example, one woman who loved art became a museum docent. Others pursue their leisure activities more vigorously. “People who did things during their working life that they enjoyed found ways to continue that enjoyment with a deeper commitment that they found very fulfilling,” says Lopez.

Second, deal with ambiguity. The certainty of occupation is gone, and so there is a void you need to feel. Lopez says, “You embrace ambiguity in, in retirement, because it’s never gonna be exactly clear what you need to do next.” And in retirement, just as in life, you will have surprises, you will have disappointments, you will have a loss, and you will have days when you’ve got a big smile on your face.” So be prepared for the unexpected; it might be something challenging, such as a health crisis, or something rewarding, like the birth of a new grandchild, meeting a new group of people, or even the opportunity to work again.

Spousal connection is critical. People who have lived together but worked apart are now in the same house at the same time. The pandemic gave many a glimpse of the future, including Steve and his wife, Alison Shore, a writer herself. He credits her with the best line in his book, “If [the pandemic] is a preview, I do not want to see the movie.” 

Ask yourself what matters.

Putting what Lopez has written in context with many folks in my age group, let me offer a few key questions to consider:

What gets you up in the morning? Yes, this question is often related to work activities, but it may be all the more important in retirement. You may need to reinvent your purpose. Find the passion you have for what is important to you. Family and friends, yes. But what about hobbies?

How will you adapt to new challenges? Health is not a given. How will you adjust to physical limitations?

How do you want to be remembered? There is still time to pursue something new and different. It could be employment, but for many, it somehow gives back somehow.

Lopez noted that what is important is finding out how you matter to others. Sometimes that sense of relevance can be as big as serving on board of a nonprofit or as simple as walking your dog who depends upon you. Meaning is how we define it. Big or small.

Not all retirements are joyful. Lopez relates the story of a man who retired very early, then, during a fiscal crisis, lost most of his savings and had to start applying for jobs in his sixties. Lopez caught up with him in his mid-seventies. He was working in a big box store near Disneyland, a happy place for many, but not for this fellow who was down on his luck at the end of his life.

Of course, many like Norman Lear and Mel Brooks mentioned above will always remain. Their work is their life; it is their source of joy. Lopez related the story of Father Greg Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program in the world. Boyle and Lopez are about the same age, and when asked about retirement, Father Greg quipped that “Jesuit priests retire in the graveyard.” Working with disenfranchised young men and women gives Father Greg a connection to God and the community he seeks and needs. It’s not work; it is love in action.