RETIREMENT

Despite what many working people think, retirement is not just a never ending vacation. Neither is it necessarily a fearful period of inevitable decline, dependence and death. Although retirement may include both those phases it is much more complicated.

Retirement can be viewed as the third major period in our life. From this view, the first period is when we are growing up and getting a formal education. The second is when we are working for money and/or raising a family. The third phase is when we have left our paid work and living on our savings. Our time is our own and we must decide how to spend it. Although these three periods of life do not happen for everyone, they are the life pattern for most of us. In fact, many of us will spend longer being retired than we spent either as children and teenagers (getting a formal education) or as adults (making a living and or raising our children.)

This means that we need to think as seriously about our retirement as about the other periods in our life. What we did during our working period may have little impact on what we do in retirement. Our identity as a person in a particular profession slips away more quickly than most working people realize. "So what if you used to be the boss. You aren't now." Of course the financial decisions we make while working have a huge impact on what we do and who we are in retirement. What will you do after work? It is a huge question.

PREPARATION

Everyone expects teenagers to have challenges adapting to the changes that are happening in their lives. Likewise we all recognize how much having a new baby, a new job or a promotion can stress us out. We tend not to think much about the challenges of adapting to retirement. But retirement can be as much of a challenge - and just as we get used to one phase of retirement, another starts up.

Obviously the most important preparation for retirement begins years before when we are working and making money. We have to put some money aside for the future. This can be very difficult when we are barely making enough to make ends meet - but it has to be done. We may simply have to adjust our "ends." Amanda Lang of the CBC says working people must put aside as much money as they spend. For example, if you go to a movie when you're working, put aside the same amount to go to a movie when you retire. She's undoubtedly correct - especially since retirement may last longer than work and inflation will always be with us. However, if money is invested wisely for the long term, even with today's ridiculously low bond rates and returns on investment, your money will grow. You might think of it as deferred pleasure - but really it is survival in the future.

We were lucky enough to work in jobs that forced us to save for retirement. There was no choice. We had to contribute to our organizations' pension plans every month - like it or not. Our pension plans sucked a huge amount out of our take-home pay. But when we retired and stopped contributing to our pensions our pension income - though half what we had earned before we retired - was almost identical to what our take home pay had been while we were working. This allowed us to do a lot of wonderful things - including travelling and learning to paint - that we had not been able to afford before.

I support government initiatives to force working people to save for their retirement. The current government pension is so small, that anyone relying on it alone will have to drastically change their lifestyle. Of course it is possible to live a frugal but full and happy retirement. If that's what you are planning, why not start while you are working, so you know what it's like.

OPPORTUNITY

Retirement is an opportunity to reinvent yourself. In fact you have very little choice. Most of the things that defined you when you were working disappear. You no longer have work you have to do each day. You no longer have a place you have to go. Your former workmates are not around to socialize with. Even if you finances are in good shape and you continue to have good health, you have to change into someone else. That can be very hard - especially if you liked who you were before. But - just like a teenager - you have to decide who'll you be and just do it.

Fortunately retirement can be an opportunity to do things that will benefit ourselves and our society. But it takes a lot of reflection to figure out what that is.

HALCYON YEARS

My parents both had excellent retirements - for the first 30 years - learning and travelling and enjoying life. My dad called that their "halcyon years."

Ultimately their halcyon years came to end. Although they had done everything right, they both developed dementia and became wheelchair-bound. They both died when they were in their 90s. I still miss them and look back on those difficult last years with disbelief.

THE FUTURE

It's not easy to get out of retirement. You might decide to go back to work. I actually taught an online course for the first few years and loved it. But the bottom line is that at the end of life - whether you are retired or not - everyone dies. It has to happen despite what futurist Ray Kurzweil says about downloading our brains and living forever. The reason - we are part of a vast ecosystem that renews itself through new life - not by people staying around forever no matter how much they might like to. New people, like new plants and animals, need their own time and a place. That's how it works and always has.

Being a grandparent helps. You suddenly realize that, despite all your other great and small achievements, passing on your genes and caring for your children and grandchildren is the most important thing you have done. If you're not a parent or grandparent, taking care of others is just as important.

We need to look to the future and leave our descendants a planet that will sustain them. That is the end of retirement.