By Joel Savishinsky (Ithaca College)
Being contradictory in modern America is no longer a monopoly of the young. While older people commonly like to be thought of as wise, for example, some take a perverse pride in openly questioning their own wisdom. Alan Freudenberg liked to tease himself, and others, with this kind of humor. He had spent much of his adult life teaching government and civics at the local high-school, and devoted years of after-school hours to the planning board of his villages Common Council. He advocated learning from the past, assessing the present and managing the future. But when it came to preparing for his own retirement, he reflected on what he called the fallacy of mis-placed prudence, proclaiming that life is what happens while youre out making plans.
Novel Stage of Life top of page
At the age of 63, Alan became one of 26 participants in a longitudinal study of retirement that my students and I have been conducting in Shelby, a rural community in upstate New York. Using methods of participant-observation, semi-structured interviews and life-story analysis, we are following a group of 13 women and 13 men as they anticipate and experience the early stages of this period of life. We began to work with these people 6 to 8 months before their formal retirement, first interviewing them about what they expected their lives to be like after leaving full-time work, then participating in and observing their retirement rituals. We now meet periodically to follow the changes in their lives.
Underlying this research is a view of retirement as a process rather than single event. The magnitude of this human experience is also rooted in the fact that retirement itself--as a novel stage of life --has created a new American model of the life course. Furthermore, because our society lacks norms for structuring the transition into this later phase of maturity, people end up making the passage in different ways. One critical variable is the extent to which individuals plan, or believe in planning for, their transition out of the work force. We found contrasting approaches to this process. Some retirees, the Zen Masters, emphasize an attitude of unscheduled openness and unformulated expectations to what the future might bring; while others, the Master Planners, stress a carefully thought-out agenda of activities, resources and priorities around which to organize retired life.
Master Planners top of page
The first time I met Ed Trayvor was in the comfort of his study. As his wife Harriet served tea, Ed tried to serve up answers to my questions about what he expected from his forthcoming retirement. He started several answers, but dropped each in mid-sentence, and then said, Wait. Ill show you. He left the room, and returned with a long legal pad, which he placed in my lap. On it were 4 pages of neat, densely packed handwritten notes that comprised a detailed list of all the things Ed did (and did not) want to do when he left work the following month. Intending to avoid boring meetings and equally boring people, and abjuring the dry professional literature from his career as a lawyer and fund-raiser, the positive part of Eds ledger mentioned: devoting more energy to public service, getting involved in community education, spending more time with grandchildren, and refitting the sailboat. You need to have a plan, he emphasized, using the same word that other retirees have invoked, otherwise life gets away from you. You wake up, and hours, days, a whole week is gone. . . and you don t know what happened to them. Ive waited too long to do too many things to let that happen.
This proclamation was not couched in the form of a complaint. At 64, Ed acknowledged a good life so far, but because he felt he had deferred a number of gratifications, he had taken great pleasure compiling a list of what he hoped to enjoy next. It had made the last 12 months of work go quickly.
A year later, when we took stock of the first phase of retired life, Ed took pride in his progress report. Pulling out the pad again, he spoke about his recent election to the local school board, the tedious (and indecisive) people he no longer had to sit across from in professional meetings, and the summer weekends spent on the lake. Look, he confessed, there are still lots of things I havent gotten to, I know. But its a start. Were under way. What made Ed happy was not some claim that the list had been completed, but that the plan itself was working.
Zen Masters top of page
For other people, the prospect of retirement yields a radically different picture, one that is clear but empty, list-less but not pointless. Close to finishing a long phase of adult life characterized by work, schedules, family commitments or other domestic and community responsibilities, these individuals do not want retirement to be filled in--before it has barely begun--with scripts, agendas or padfulls of priorities crowded with other peoples figures and dutiful details. They have decided to plan not to plan.
One who embraced this approach was Sandra Golecki, a retired 68 year-old music educator who spoke of the excitement of emptiness. Settled into the comfort of a Bach cantata and her living room couch one morning, Sandra reached to a shelf behind her, and pulled down a large artists sketchbook. Instead of another detailed list, she turned back the cover and proudly displayed a completely white surface. Fanning her fingers over the vacant paper she said, retiring was an unexpected invitation, something akin to the childhood dream of walking through a hidden door and stepping into. . . what?. . . some strange, magical land.
Sandra did not have a lot of support for taking the step into retirement in that spirit of wonderment. Her co-workers did not question her decision to retire, but they were puzzled--some to the point of disbelief--that in leaving work she was also effectively leaving music. It was not that she disliked music, but she was tired of building her life around it. In recent years, teaching had turned predictable and repetitious, the educational bureaucracy increasingly petty and irritating, and too many of her colleagues wrapped up in committees, gossip and their small triumphs and defeats. As she approached the decision to retire, Sandra recalls saying to herself: Yes. Music is wonderful. But there has to be more to life than this.
The thoroughly unmusical and unacademic nature of what Sandra got engrossed in surprised even her: instead of creativity, pedagogy and performance, she got hooked on polo and politics. Both developments emerged within the first few months. A neighbor invited her to a polo match, where Sandra quickly became fascinated and soon found herself engrossed and engaged in a part of life, and a social circle, she had never dreamed of stepping foot in before.
Politics surfaced when she suddenly remembered a promise she had once made, that when the time and opportunity came, she would try to understand her own political past. By the one-year mark of her retirement, she had attended a convention and was giving serious thought to getting involved in the next years election. If youre open to life, she reflected, this is the kind of thing that happens.
Method in the Madness top of page
The point of these two tales is not so much the merit or purpose of polo or politics, community service or sailing, or whether peoples pursuits are new, resurrected, deferred or newly discovered forms of gratification. Rather, it is the realization that the method in the madness for some people lies in not planning, whereas for others the satisfaction lies in knowing that the route and itinerary are clearly laid out, that there are known and worthwhile goals to be pursued.
The distinct strategies that Sandra and Ed represent are, admittedly, those of middle-class people who have given retirement a good deal of thought. They have made conscious, albeit different decisions, about how to handle it. But their positive experiences indicate that these alternative approaches work equally well for different people, given the distinct kinds of values, work histories, role models and family circumstances that they bring to this new stage of life. As a sizable body of research has now shown, most Americans do not engage in extensive preparations for retirement, and yet they find this transition to be relatively untraumatic. As the retirees of Shelby suggest, all roads may or may not lead to Rome, but there are several that lead into retirement.
[Joel Savishinsky is the Charles A Dana Professor in the Social Sciences at Ithaca College, where he teaches in the Department of Anthropology and the Gerontology Institute. His most recent book, The Ends of Time: Life and Work in A Nursing Home (1991), won the Gerontological Society of America s Kalish Award for Innovative Publishing. This article is based on research funded by a grant to the Gerontology Institute at Ithaca College and by a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Other aspects of this project have been described in his publications: The Unbearable Lightness of Retirement: Ritual and Support in A Modern Life Passage, Research on Aging (17,3,1995); and At Work, At Home, At Large: The Sense of Person and Place in Retirement, North American Dialogue (3,1,1998). Savishin@Ithaca.edu.]
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