Imagining Retirement

By Stuart Mitchner

Samuel Johnson had it right when he said, “It is better to live rich than to die rich.”

Although I’m well past retirement age, I’d never given it much thought until I sat down to write this article. If you’ve been writing since you were 10 and intend to keep on doing so, whether or not you do it for a living, retiring simply isn’t an option. While I appreciate the virtues of planning ahead, “saving for a rainy day,” and so forth, the whole idea is alien to my sense of what makes life worth living.

Contrary to my idea that writers and artists never really retire, Philip Roth and Daniel Day-Lewis have both felt compelled to go public about it. So Roth will never write the 21st-century equivalent of The Tempest and Day-Lewis will never play King Lear. Shakespeare was in his forties when he wrote those plays, and he was only 47 when he left London and his life in the theatre to retire to Stratford. He could afford it, he had a sizeable annuity, but after creating wonders the world is still in awe of, he shut the door on his genius. 

While I can rationalize it on Johnsonian terms — Shakespeare lived rich and died rich — I prefer to think about saving toward retirement as saving a dream, and if money helps make it happen, so much the better. But what matters is that you’ve been storing up the possibility, sitting on it, ruminating on it, savoring it all the time you’ve been living out your everyday careerist existence. Comes the time to go for it and the dream is in play whether you decide to write poetry, invent something, create a new persona online, or become a sage wandering the nooks and crannies of India. The conventional golf course/cruise ship scenario for the second act — of which there are none in American life, if you believe F. Scott Fitzgerald — just doesn’t do it for me.

Think Renaissance

I like the way Forrest J. Wright pitches his book, Time for Wonderlust: Planning Your Retirement Renaissance (Real Leisure Press 2018), a title that circumvents the off-putting essence of the r-word, turning “wanderlust” to “wonderlust” and pairing “retirement” with “renaissance.” According to Kirkus Reviews, Wright has put together “an intriguing combination of economics, philosophy, history, and advice aimed at readers who wish to plan for a meaningful retirement.” As far as the nuts and bolts of saving goes, NAPFA financial planner Martha Kapouch says, “In this day and age of rapid change and many career changes, Forrest’s ideas about establishing financial freedom are even more relevant. He views retirement as an entry into a time of unrestricted personal achievement. Preparing for this event requires acquiring the appropriate mindset as well as accumulating the financial resources needed to support a comfortable retirement.”

Keep Moving

My instinct is to look for a title that lives and moves, not one that sinks snoozing into a La-Z-Boy recliner. For instance, Mike Drak and Jonathan Chevreau’s Victory Lap Retirement (M&M 2016) with its subtitle Work While You Play, Play While You Work — The Joy of Financial Independence . . . at Any Age and Drak’s playfully titled preface, “A Retirement Book about Not Retiring.” The book has 11 chapters, beginning with “Rethinking Your Retirement” and including sections like “Why Do the Media Sell the Wrong Version of Retirement?” and “Beware of Sudden Retirement Syndrome.” Another key chapter is titled “The Seven Eternal Truths of Financial Independence.”

One example of productive retirement the authors give concerns Professor Fred Kummerow, “the driving force behind the fight to get trans fats out of our diets.” After officially retiring at the age of 71, Kummerow, who was 101 when Victory Lap Retirement was published in 2016, maintained his lab at the University of Illinois, riding a bike to work every day well into his eighties. His project was to “show the link between poor diets and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Your Retirement Destiny

In Control Your Retirement Destiny: Achieving Financial Security Before the Big Transition (A Book’s Mind 2016), retirement expert Dana Anspach explains how to focus on the things you can control (like managing taxes and risk) rather than on those you can’t control (such as inflation or investment returns). The book covers all the major topics in retirement planning — investments, Social Security, annuities, taxes, healthcare, part-time work, and more — while providing examples of how planning decisions can result in a more secure outcome when they are coordinated.

Wild and Free?

According to Nancy Conroy of the Association of Retirement Planners, Ernie Zelinski’s best-selling (325,000 copies) How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free (Visions International 2009) “is optimistic, practical, humorous, and provocative AND comprehensively addresses the many issues impacting individuals as they think about their retirement.”

Zelinski’s book is garnished with quirky illustrations and pithy quotations like the one from Alexander Pope that serves as an epigraph for the preface: “Learn to live well, or fairly make your will;/You’ve played, and loved, and ate, and drunk your fill:/Walk sober off; before a sprightlier age/Comes tittering on, and shoves you from the stage.”

The opening chapter (“Perhaps It’s Time to Tell Your Boss ‘I’m Outta Here!’”) goes Pope one better, taking us back to the Bard with the song from Cymbeline:

“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,


Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,


Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.”

Note that Zelinski leaves out the last two lines:


“Golden lads and girls  all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust”

— the endgame reality most retirement books prefer not to confront beyond referencing such things as transcendence and spirituality. Victory Lap Retirement ends with “The Final Chapter: How Would You Like Yours to Read?” Time for Wonderlust is more ambitious, providing a lengthy appendix that includes discourses on existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre, Hamlet, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, quoting Private Joker, “The dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive.”

I’d rather end with the last three lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146:

“Within be fed, without be rich no more.

So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,

And, Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.”