Andy Rooney had the right idea about retirement

This article was originally published by the Globe and Mail on November 8th, 2011. To go to the the Globe and Mail website, please click here

Andy Rooney was the oldest man on TV. He had no use for retirement. The prospect horrified him. He vowed he would work until he died, and so he did. He expired at the ripe old age of 92, a mere month after signing off. How good is that?

In Canada, we have a different attitude about retirement. It seems to be our primary goal in life. People envy public-sector workers because they can retire at 55. The personal finance advice dispensed by experts features real-life stories that begin: “Ralph is 37 and his wife is 35, and their aim is to retire by the time they’re 50.” Nobody is interested in getting filthy rich, or finding work they truly love, or making a difference in the world. Nor do these people seem all that concerned about how they’ll pass the time for the next 30 or 40 years. All they want is to stop working as soon as possible.

I used to think retirement might be kind of fun. But the older I get, the worse the whole idea seems. After you go Elderhostelling around the world, take some art lessons and clean the cupboards, then what? I hate golf, and I’m no good at bridge. To tell the truth, I’m not that eager for my husband to retire, either. I’m afraid he’d just be underfoot.

The retirement fantasies we’re peddled are a crock. Typically, they feature attractive older people who seem to spend their days in endless rounds of play, and their nights sipping champagne in their adult-lifestyle condos. Retirement living is depicted as a sort of resort vacation that goes on until you die. No wonder Andy Rooney hated it. His idea of the good life was to get up, read the newspapers, go to work, come home, read some more, watch a bit of TV, and do it all again the next day. That seems like a decent formula for happiness to me.

Fortunately, our ideas about retirement are changing fast, not only because they have to but because we want them to. Early retirement no longer has the cachet it used to have. I used to look at people who’d retired by their early 60s and think, “How lucky they are.” Now I look at them and think, “Poor guys. Nobody wants them.” Nothing is worse than being superannuated before your time. I knew one man who was an amateur woodworker. After he’d been involuntarily retired, he festooned every surface in his house with ornate wooden curlicues. And then he drank himself to death.

One day soon, the end of age discrimination, combined with labour shortages and the devastation of public finances, will put an end to our dreams of Freedom 55. That day can’t come soon enough. Human beings aren’t programmed to be idle. We’re programmed to be useful and productive. Retirement is an artificial construct, invented at a time when hardly anyone lived long enough to experience it. When public pensions were introduced in Germany in the 1880s, they didn’t cost much because few people made it to 70. When the United States introduced Social Security during the Depression, the average lifespan was 61.7. No one contemplated a time when 70-year-olds would be running marathons because they needed something to do.

Like Andy Rooney, I’m starting to think I’d like not to retire at all. Fortunately, I’m a writer, which means I won’t have to. Even when I’m hooked off the stage by my chin whiskers, I’ll be able to carry on one way or another. Of course, it also helps to be irate. Andy Rooney was good at that, too.

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