As I ponder whether and when to retire, I find my mind turning to the larger existential questions. This fact has taken me by surprise.
Really, the decision to retire, at first blush, seems like not a big deal at all. A person works throughout life to earn a paycheque and and support herself and her family. Work, in every case, takes the most precious thing we have away from us – time. Some have argued that time is all we have in life, that life is time, and that when we are out of time our life ends. Straightforward, no? Therefore it makes perfect sense that as soon as there is no longer a financial necessity to work for that paycheque, a person should retire and take their time back.
When I think of it this way, I want to retire right now. I want to paint those pictures, write those poems and novels, hike those trails, and travel to those interesting places. I want to do all of the things that I have been trying to fit into the little leftover corners of time that work and daily life affords me. And I want to spend more time with the people I care about – Rob, my friends, my kids and grandkids, and other family members.
But wait a minute. I have worked very hard most of the years of my life, and I haven't done it just for the paycheque. Work has been an important part of my life. It has engaged me intellectually, creatively, and socially. Life isn't just time. It's also what one does with the time. In most ways, my work has been an integral and satisfying component of my life for all my adult years. It has been an interesting and important way for me to spend the time I have been granted, and also I have been able to contribute to my workplaces and to society in useful ways, which in itself is satisfying.
When I think about it this way, I feel a great wave of fear. No, I can't retire! Not yet. Work is my life. Not all of my life, but a very big part of it. Am I really ready to walk away from it, this endeavour that has intrigued me, engaged me, and had me in its clutches since I was sixteen?
But, I argue with myself, work doesn't have to be all or nothing. I have the good fortune to work in education, and to have the choice in my place of work to reduce to part-time or to transition gradually to retirement over a three year period. Also, in my workplace, I have quite a bit of choice over the types of work assignments I take. Theoretically, in a full-time role, I also have the choice to work long hours or more reasonable hours (but, being an A-type high achiever, so far I have never managed to cut back to the number of hours in most people’s normal work week, so I'm not holding out hope for a sudden self-transformation). Also, if I were to quit, I could take on contract work (if I missed my work too much), or carry on with my intellectual work independent of an employer and paycheque. Finally, I could take on volunteer work, or serve on boards or committees. I don't have to stay where I am, working full time, and feeling the obligation that comes with a full time job and a paycheque.
Another interesting notion has occurred to me as I prepare to step down from my current role as administrator. As I begin to plan my transition out of the role and a move to a different smaller office, I wonder what I am going to do with all of the files I have accumulated during my four years in this job. There is an over-stuffed four-drawer filing cabinet, and most of a bookcase full of files that pertain to the position I am leaving. Then there are the thousands, or maybe hundreds of thousands of electronic files. Do I just pitch them? Will they be of any use to anyone?
This is the material manifestation of the problem. But the real problem is that a great deal of the knowledge is in my head. As I walk out of the job, that knowledge goes with me. The new person, my replacement, will have to do their own learning, identify their own priorities, and invent their own way of working. Just like that, pfffffft, all that I have strived so hard to learn and do just disappears and becomes only a memory. And memories are ephemeral. I guess the exception to this is that those bits of my work that have been reified within a system, program, or someone else's practice or thinking will not be completely lost. There will be a small trace.
This is also the problem of our lives. When we die, all that we have learned, all of our knowledge and skills, die with us. I hadn't really thought about this much before. It makes me wonder, why have I tried so hard to amass knowledge and to perfect skills? Just like material goods, we can't take it with us. And what's in our heads isn't even left for others. It all disappears.