Retirement Remix - Chapter 5: Remix Mindsets

In this chapter of the Retirement Remix, author Chip Munn explores how your expectations and desires influence your retirement plans.
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Your mindset is your vision of what the future could hold. It’s what you think is possible for yourself, your partner, and your family.

Stop and think for a moment. What do you envision yourself doing five years from now? Go ahead, take your current age and add ten years. If you’re fifty now, what will you be doing when you’re sixty?

Chip Munn

Chip Munn

Then add fifteen years, and even twenty. What will you be doing at age sixty-five and seventy?

How about looking ahead to the age of eighty? That’s thirty years from now! Imagine what you accomplished from birth to age thirty—everything you learned and all the experiences you had. There’s no reason why you can’t continue to learn and develop new skills, perhaps not at the astonishing pace of an infant, but still enough to change your life.

As you look ahead into your crystal ball to age seventy or more, you will probably envision one of these three scenarios:

1. Doing My Job and Loving It

If at age seventy you see yourself doing what you’re doing now, then: 1) you love your work, and 2) you’re in a profession or industry that will allow you to keep going past retirement age.

You may be self-employed as a creative person. Author Stephen King was born in 1947 and he’s long past the traditional retirement age. Yet he still writes books; his most recent novel, The Institute, was published in September 2019. A collection of stories entitled If It Bleeds is scheduled for publication in 2020. On an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, when asked if retirement was an upcoming option, King shared, “God will tell me when to retire…. This is the best job in the world because nobody can make you retire at a mandatory age. You can continue until you start to drivel… I think that for now I’m enjoying what I’m doing.”

You may own and run your own company. Born in 1930, investor Warren Buffett still goes to the office at his company, Berkshire Hathaway. He calls his work a “vacation every day,” eats McDonald’s fast food for breakfast, and guzzles Coca-Cola. The world’s third-richest man told The Financial Times he has no plans to retire; while his advancing age means he must wear a hearing aid and avoid driving at night, he still “jumps out of bed” to go to work. “I’m having more fun than any eighty-eight-year-old in the world,” he said. “I’m not bothered by the thought of my death.”

You don’t have to be a millionaire author or billionaire investor to love your work—you can be a National Park Service ranger! Born in 1921—when Warren G. Harding was president—Betty Reid Soskin is currently the oldest national park ranger serving the United States. At age ninety-eight, she conducts park tours and serves as an interpreter, explaining the park’s purpose, history, and museum collections to park visitors, with a special emphasis on the African-American wartime experience.

In 2015, commenting on her life at the age of ninety-three, she said, “Wish I’d had confidence when the young Betty needed it to navigate through the hazards of everyday life on the planet. But maybe I’m better able to benefit from having it now—when I have the maturity to value it and the audacity to wield it for those things held dear.”

It’s important to note that Betty Reid Soskin doesn’t just see her job as a paycheck. She’s on a mission to give voice to the African-American experience, and to ensure the stories don’t get lost. In her mind, she has a reason to get up in the morning, don her uniform, and talk to people. It’s what gives her life meaning and takes her beyond her everyday concerns.

These people are fortunate to have the choice to work as long as they’re able. But what if your company encourages your retirement? This could mean that when you reach a certain age, they’ll suggest that it’s time to go. Retirement is generally justified by the argument that certain occupations are either too dangerous (police officer) or require high levels of physical or mental skill (airline pilots, or air traffic controllers, for example). The belief, formed decades ago, is that after age sixty-five a worker’s productivity declines significantly. But since the age at which retirement is mandated is often arbitrary and not based upon an actual physical evaluation of an individual person, many view the practice as a form of age discrimination, or ageism.

In fact, with certain exceptions including pilots and air traffic controllers, forcing mandatory retirement is illegal in the United States. From the US Code of Federal Regulations discussing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act:

“One of the original purposes of this provision, namely, is that the exception does not authorize an employer to require or permit involuntary retirement of an employee within the protected age group on account of age…. An employer can no longer force retirement or otherwise discriminate on the basis of age against an individual because (s)he is 70 or older.

If you hate your job, you’ll love retirement, whether it’s mandatory or voluntary.

If you love your job, you won’t be happy if you have to stop doing it.

2. Pursuing My Dream

Let’s say that when you visualize your life at age seventy, you have a clear idea of what you want to be doing.

You see yourself:

  • Baking cookies for your grandchildren.
  • Climbing mountains in Nepal.
  • Building houses for poor people in Central America.
  • Running your own business.
  • Fishing in a stream in Alaska.
  • Mentoring young entrepreneurs.
  • All of the above!

You’re very fortunate because you have a vision for the future. You can look ahead and say, “That’s what I want to be doing ten or twenty years from now.” You believe the future holds much more promise and satisfaction than the present, and you’re looking to improve all areas of your life.

If that’s the case, then the only question is: How will you make your dream come true? How can you achieve your retirement remix?

The best way to do it is to start planning now, which we’ll get into much more in the pages ahead.

Also, remember that many people think of retirement as a bright dividing line you cross at a certain age, characterized by “before retirement” and “after retirement.” In other words, for the duration of your working life you’re on one trajectory: you work your job, make money, raise the family, save for retirement. Then you cross the magic line and voilà, you enter a new world, like Dorothy dropping into the Land of Oz. Now you’re “retired” and you’re ready to start the “next chapter of your life,” which may mean golf, launching a new business, sailing around the world—whatever you had dreamed of. Then, you live your second “retired” life until they ship you off to the Golden Years Assisted Living Facility, where you spoon your supper at five o’clock every afternoon and hope your kids will come visit once in a while.

In this scenario, your working life is devoted to producing and earning. Your retired life is devoted to consuming and spending. Your only goal is to slowly spend your money until you die at the same exact moment your bank account reaches zero. (Just kidding. You’ll need some extra cash to pass on to your kids so they won’t have to pay for your funeral.)

There is another path. A better path.

The retirement remix suggests that even if you have a regular job that is not your life’s dream (we cannot all be Stephen King), you can slowly transition into your “next life” and be able to enjoy some of the many benefits of retirement before you get too old to really appreciate them. This may mean that you have to adjust your thinking about what you want out of life, both today and tomorrow. It might mean making a bit less money now, but earning money for a greater number of years.

3. Drifting

If you try but can’t envision yourself at age seventy, and can’t see or imagine what you’ll be doing, this could mean either of two things:

1. You’re a free-spirited dreamer, and you live day to day, without planning ahead. You don’t want to be constrained by “the system,” and you trust your instincts to guide you from one adventure to the next.

This strategy may work when you’re twenty-five years old, fresh out of college, or don’t have bills to pay. In fact, at that stage of life it’s perfectly fine to try whatever life has to offer and learn from your failures. But as you get older, it may be more difficult to live day-to-day without a plan. You’re physically more vulnerable and likely to require more frequent medical care than when you were twenty-five. And let’s face it, it’s just less fun to “rough it” when you’re seventy years old!

If you want to leave yourself open to whatever adventure comes along, you need a very solid financial plan. You need a strong security blanket to keep you safe and secure, and if you don’t happen to have millions of dollars in the bank to fund your exploits, you’ll need to plan your financial future very carefully.

2. The other possibility is that you’re so wrapped up in your current job that you haven’t taken the time or the energy to develop what you want. You have no hobbies or interests that you want to continue after your paycheck career has ended.

If you don’t want to work at your current job for the rest of your life, and you’re definitely going to retire, then please start thinking about what you’re going to do for the twenty or thirty years after you leave your job. Sitting on the sofa and watching soap operas or sports on TV all day is not an option. As we discussed in chapter 3, becoming a passive consumer with no goal and no direction is a great way to ensure you’ll begin developing and feeling the impacts of long-term health struggles, both mental and physical.

Get out and try various activities. Get involved with a non-profit, like a museum or hospital. Learn a new skill or a new language. Think about places around the world you’d like to see. Build a life for yourself outside of work.

Either of these scenarios—you have wanderlust, or you have no idea—require that you make realistic financial plans for your future. Being eighty years old and having no money and no way of making money is not an ideal situation to be in. You can plan ahead for a comfortable, rewarding life at any age!

“Work-Life Balance”

You may have heard the expression “work-life balance.” Like retirement itself, the idea is of modern origin. First used in the US in the late 1980’s, work-life balance describes the equilibrium that a working individual needs between time allocated for work and other, presumably more pleasurable aspects of life, including personal interests, family, and social or leisure activities.

The concept is perhaps most acute for workers who have young children. New parents who want to care for their child often fear that asking for paid time off will lead to negative consequences professionally. If an employee seeks paid leave of absence for significant amounts of time, he or she could lose out on promotions, receive less training, or may not become a candidate for hiring into a new position. It’s a tough situation because new parents often feel great pressure to establish themselves in a career, and they may also carry the extra burdens of student loans or the mortgage on their first home.

On top of that, among most other industrialized nations, Americans work particularly long hours.

A Gallup report from 2014 estimated that the average, full-time worker in the United States worked 47 hours per week. This was one of the highest numbers in the world, and much higher than the number of hours people worked in Western Europe.

For example, in Europe, the Working Time Directive gives employees in the European Union the right to work no more than 48 hours per week. According to Cary Cooper, an American-born professor at Manchester Business School in the United Kingdom, in reality, employees in some countries, like Germany and Sweden, work closer to 35 hours per week.

Nearly a third of American employees are on the job 45 or more hours each week, with about 10 million clocking in 60 hours or more. Americans of prime working age now work 7.8 percent more hours than they did four decades ago. Annually, the average American employee works 1,800 hours, which is more than any other wealthy country, even Japan.

It wasn’t always that way. In 1979—just forty years ago—Americans worked about the same number of hours per year as the French or the British, and many fewer than the Japanese. Since then, employees in other countries have held on to their leisure and family time, while in the United States we’ve been working longer hours. We also work more often during the evenings and on weekends. There’s no rest for the weary!

Why the difference? There are many reasons, but many analysts believe it boils down to the differences in labor laws. European nations tend to have many more laws governing the number of hours an employer can ask an employee to work. For example, in Europe, the employment contract, derived from common law, is the basis of all employer-employee relations. Because of the contract, when attempting to terminate an employee, the employer is required to follow due process. If they fail to do so, they can be liable for wrongful termination. In contrast, in America, most employment is on an at-will basis, meaning that the employer can terminate the working relationship at any time, as long as the reasons are lawful. There is no requirement for an explicit contract of employment.

As for number of hours worked, Federal employment laws in the United States place no limitations on the working hours for employees. A worker can put in a double shift without any worries about the Department of Labor raising the alarm. In the European Union, in member states such as Germany, legislation limits weekly working time to 35 hours.

As you get older, these tensions should ease. The kids grow up, the house gets paid off, the salary goes up. But then new tensions surface: the imperative to save for retirement, as well as rising medical costs that accompany getting older.

In the “work-life balance,” the formulation assumes that “work” and “life” are mutually exclusive, and that one is inherently less pleasurable than the other. In fact, it’s a false distinction. There are many people who love their work and are bored when they’re not working! It’s more a matter of ensuring that your life has enough variety. The human mind and spirit thrive when they alternate between two modes: focusing on achieving a singular goal and absorbing new experiences and information.

When you’re focused on a goal, your attention is narrow, and you only accept information relevant to reaching that goal. For example, if you’re a software developer and you’re trying to write a piece of code, you’ll ignore anything around you that does not support your effort. You’re concentrating. The ability to remain attentive for a long time to a problem needing to be solved or to a project needing to be completed, is a feature of the human mind that has helped us achieve great things.

But if you stay focused for too long, you lose perspective, and the mind and spirit become dull. To work at its best, your brain needs constant stimulation—new sights, new sounds, new ideas. It needs to step away from the task and get recharged. You could call this the “life” part of the equation, but that’s not really accurate. Both the “work” part and the “life” part could be productive activities. There’s no law that says “life” needs to be passive and unproductive.

For example, let’s say you work in a bank. This is your “productive” job, for which you get paid. Then, on weekends you’re an artist. You paint landscapes of various places. This is “life.” But if you take your painting seriously, are you not also being productive? By its very definition, you’re producing something of value. Let’s say you show your work, and you sell a painting. Now you’ve made some money! If you devote more time and energy to your art, you might be able to generate some meaningful income. Now you’re “working” at it!

Consider Anna Mary Robertson. Born in 1860 in Greenwich, New York, at age twelve she left home and went to work for a wealthy neighboring family, performing chores on their farm. For fifteen years she kept house, cooked, and sewed for wealthy families. Then, she married Thomas Salmon Moses, a “hired man,” and they moved to Staunton, Virginia, where they both worked on local farms. In 1905, the family moved to a farm in Eagle Bridge, New York. In 1927, Thomas Moses died of a heart attack.

Nine years later, Anna retired to her daughter’s farm. She was seventy-six years old.

You might say, “Okay, this is interesting, but what’s the point?”

You’ll see.

Anna had always been creative, but she developed arthritis in her hands, which made embroidery painful. Her sister Celestia suggested that painting would be easier for her, and this idea spurred Anna to begin painting landscape scenes. Soon, her paintings began to sell for a few dollars each. In 1939, three of her paintings were included in a New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition entitled, “Contemporary Unknown American Painters.” The following year, her first solo exhibition, entitled “What a Farm Wife Painted,” opened in the same city.

Her stature as an artist continued to grow. By the 1950s, when Anna was in her nineties, she had become one of the most popular artists in America. The 1950 documentary of her life was nominated for an Academy Award. When she passed away in 1961 at the age of 101, President John F. Kennedy said, “The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene. Both her work and her life helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recall its roots in the countryside and on the frontier. All Americans mourn her loss.”

This was the artist we now know as Grandma Moses. She was extremely fortunate that throughout her life she enjoyed her work, but when retirement came, she found a vocation that blurred the lines between “work” and “life”—and she ended up earning a fortune as well!

The above article originally appeared as a chapter in The Retirement Remix and is reprinted with permission from the author Chip Munn. No parts of this article may be reproduced without correct attribution to the author of this book.

You can find the full book here.