The following is an excerpt from Lyndsay Green’s book, Ready to Retire?: What You and Your Spouse Need to Know About the Reality of Retirement, in which she looks at issues related to men as they think about the end of their careers or in the early years of retirement. The book, published this year, forms the basis for her interview with Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer.
When I told a retirement-aged man that I was working on a book about men’s retirement, he replied, “Ah, you’re writing about death.” His quip made us both laugh, but the response was more than glib cocktail banter. My research had been uncovering the sense of impending doom that can accompany discussions of retirement. A schoolteacher told me the following story to prepare me for some of the attitudes I would encounter. He had attended a pre-retirement seminar provided by his employer, and the instructor started with the following quiz. “When you retire you need to be prepared for the three Ds. Name them.” At this point in his story, the teacher asked me to fill in the blanks. All I could think of were non-D words like liberation, leisure, reinvention. I finally came up with dishes— making the assumption a retiree wasn’t used to pulling his weight at home. The D words he was looking for were drink, depression and divorce. And now my jester had given me a fourth D to add—death.
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I was trying to understand men’s retirement because I could see it was going to be a critical stage in the lives of the men I love—my husband, my brothers and my friends who were quickly closing in on 65. Having spent the past decade researching aging, I have seen the way our assumptions and expectations cloud reality. I found the gap between myth and reality to be particularly wide for the period of aging we have labelled retirement, especially when it comes to men. Given the captivating images that accompanied those “Freedom 55” television ads that ran in the 1980s, I assumed that men were chomping at the bit to sever their work chains to be free to run along the beach, roar around in their convertibles and hit the golf course. Instead, I found a great fear of retirement. Most of the male seniors I interviewed for You Could Live a Long Time: Are You Ready? advised me to forget about retiring and urged me to develop a work plan rather than a retirement plan. One of them warned me that if I stopped working I’d age rapidly, just as the people of Shangri-La did when they left their isolated mountain paradise in James Hilton’s book Lost Horizon. He told me some of his colleagues couldn’t wait to retire, and then went into decline as soon as they did.
But I also had the experience of my father to consider. He retired just before his 65th birthday after negotiating a satisfactory pension with his employer, the federal government, and left on mutually agreeable terms. He had worked hard throughout his career in both the private and public sectors, and had made a real contribution. When it was over, he walked out the door and never looked back. He lived another twenty-five years, and I don’t remember him ever saying that he missed his work. If he found retirement distressing, he never let on.
What I saw was a man who couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and tackle his “to-do” list. He was a civil engineer with an MBA who had worked in the oil and gas sector, and his retirement projects exercised all the skills he had accumulated. He had a steady stream of home renovation projects on the go and carried them out with obsessive precision. He tracked his investments religiously on elaborate spread sheets and used the output to mail his three children well-argued financial strategies. He maintained his professional interest in the vagaries of fossil fuels and sent us tips on switching our furnaces from oil to gas, or vice versa, and safety tips on the use of propane.
Genealogy became a passion, and we received meticulously researched family histories, sometimes in response to a request from a grandchild doing a class project. A visit from any of his seven grandchildren was the cause for an exhaustive tour of the local tourist hot spots, following to the letter a custom-prepared itinerary, often detailed down to the last quarter-hour. During family gatherings on frigid winter days, it was my father who hauled the visiting grandchildren out on the slopes to make sure they learned how to ski.
Another responsibility he took seriously was making his views known on the issues of the day—from submitting a twelve-page review of retirement pensions and savings plans to his Member of Parliament, to detailing the impact of a road-widening to his municipal councillor. And through all this, he kept up a personal regime of rigorous daily walking.
He was a busy guy. This was, no doubt, one of the reasons that my mother adapted pretty well to his retirement. That, and the fact that he continued to leave every morning for work—by walking downstairs to his basement office. It must be said that my mother was tormented by the length of time it took Dad to complete his home renovation projects. But there were few other major complaints, and my parents adjusted well to retirement—until the late-in-life arrival of another D word, dementia, that affected both of them.
We pictured a gorgeous buff man, who appeared to be a 35-year-old model with his hair dyed grey, lying on the beach.
But I wondered whether my father’s experience would bear any resemblance to the retirements of the boomer men like my husband, my brothers and my friends. For one thing, there are so many of them. As the huge baby boom demographic ages, men are retiring in unprecedented numbers. The transition from work to non-work is occurring across a broad age spectrum with some people leaving the workforce before age 65 and others continuing to work well past 65. At the time of the last Canadian census, over 1.7 million men were aged 60 to 69, and this group is merely the leading edge of the demographic bulge. Boomers as a generation are entering retirement healthier and with more resources than their predecessors, and with possibly a quarter to a third of their lives ahead of them. They’re used to throwing their weight around and trying to change the political, social and cultural environments to suit their needs. The expectation is that this generation will reinvent and “retire” the old concept of retirement.
So retirement has become a bit of a dirty word, and the retirement industry, seminar leaders and authors struggle to come up with new labels to avoid the negative connotations. The euphemisms abound such as the Third Age, the Third Act and the Third Quarter. CARP and AARP, the national organizations that speak for retirees, used to be proudly known as the Canadian Association of Retired People and the American Association of Retired People, respectively. Now they rely on their acronyms with no reference to the words that used to underlie them.
Those “Freedom 55” ads introduced men to one version of the new retirement. When I canvassed my friends for their memories of these ads, we recall them setting the bar very high. We pictured a gorgeous buff man, who appeared to be a 35-year-old model with his hair dyed grey, lying on the beach next to an equally attractive and similarly contrived woman. We thought we had watched him beat some youngsters in a rousing game of beach volleyball. At least that was the vitality he exuded. If we were to add the current pressure for reinvention to the storyline, our hero would rinse the sand off his sculpted body and head off to a meeting about the new business he has started that will both make money and save the world. Not long after the Freedom 55 advertisement flooded TV channels, a weakened economy eroded retirement savings and comedians revised the slogan to “Freedom 95.”
Negative stereotypes and contradictory cultural messages add to the complexity of the retirement picture presented to men. We say someone has been “put out to pasture” or “eased out the door.” We are told, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and “After retirement life is a downhill slide.” When I asked a friend how he and his buddies describe retirement he said, “There are is’s and was’s and now I’m a was.” When we hear the phrase “old man,” it’s often coupled with the adjective “grumpy.” Men are warned that they will become their fathers—for better or worse. Then there are the difficulties facing retired men on the home front. The one-liners abound: “A retired husband is often a wife’s full-time job.” “With retirement you get twice as much husband for half the income.” “I married you for life but not for lunch.”
And men are facing retirement at a time when other parts of their lives are changing. They may no longer be able to beat their younger partners at squash and need to work harder at keeping in shape. They may have more significant health challenges. Sexual performance is changing, and it may alter their interest in intimacy. They might be supporting elderly parents, unwell partners, adult children who are finding it hard to launch, and/or young late-in-life families. They may have become grandparents. Alternatively, they may find themselves alone.
These physical, psychological and social changes are taking place in an era when the very concept of what it is to be a man is under attack. Bestselling books have the titles Are Men Necessary? and The End of Men. The Munk Debates, the public policy forum that focuses on urgent global issues, chose “Are Men Obsolete?” as its topic in 2013. The resolution was: “Be it resolved: men are obsolete.” Before the debate, 82 per cent of the audience voted against the resolution. After the debate, this number dropped to 56 per cent. So 44 per cent of those who heard the discussion agreed that men are now obsolete.
I wondered what the impact of this charged atmosphere was on my nearest and dearest, and all the other retirement- aged men out there. Although I’d grown up with two brothers and a very present father, and I’ve lived with the same man for the past four decades, I must admit that I didn’t know men very well. Growing up as a young feminist, I had focused almost exclusively on women’s issues, women writers and women’s culture, and this bias was further rein- forced by raising two daughters. I guess, if I’d thought about it, I would have said that the dominant culture was male, so by default I understood men. I found a very apt description of my attitude in Gail Sheehy’s book Understanding Men’s Passages: Discovering the New Map of Men’s Lives. Sheehy has been chronicling social trends for both sexes for decades and this book was the first time she’d singled out men. She says she “faced a humbling admission: Men don’t understand women, but at least they know it. Women don’t understand men, but they don’t know it.” Sheehy says we presume that we know what’s wrong with our men and they could fix it if only they would listen to us. “But do many women really know what it’s like for a man today?” she asks.
So to figure out how our men are doing with retirement, I would need to set aside my stereotypes and preconceptions. And I would need to get men to tell me what they were really thinking about their lives at this stage. Clinging to my biases, I assumed this would not be easy. After all, didn’t men have difficulty talking about their emotions? And, since men are from Mars and women are from Venus, would I be able to understand them even if they did speak candidly? In what became an eye-opening voyage, I was to discover that this stereotype, and so many others, just didn’t hold up.
Excerpt from Ready to Retire? by Lyndsay Green ©2016. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.