The Retirement Bookshelf: Two Uppers and a Downer

Approach something new and unfamiliar…my knee-jerk response is research.  Gather, read, process, and because it’s usually some aspect of history, write about it to understand it, put it in context, and file it with the familiar and known.    Retirement has kicked this approach into gear.  And I am building the retirement bookshelf – the books and articles that will help me make sense of life without the department and the office (and the paycheck).  In the past few weeks I’ve picked up three additions, each viewing retirement and aging with a different lens, but each with useful messages about managing the late years of life.

Finances, as many earlier posts attest, scare me.  So I am always on the lookout for helpful guides to 403(b)’s, Social Security, and other assorted post-paycheck income sources. (The bookshelf contains more than one “Dummies” book on the subject). How to Make Your Money Last by Jane Bryant Quinn is a godsend.  A clear explanation of finances for folks like me…with retirement savings (but definitely not wealth) and a terror of having to organize and spend it.

Quinn begins where many finance books do, with advice to make a budget and gather records of all income sources.  It’s a dose of realism…most of us will likely have to reduce some items on the budget debits list to live within our new means.  Her recommendations, however, go beyond the platitudes that tell me I will no longer need “professional clothes” and I won’t have the expense of a daily commute.  (I teach at a school where jeans can occasionally be professional attire and the commute is 2.5 miles one way.  Not likely the changes here will be cost-saving.)  And her advice does not foster the fear that bubbles up whenever someone mentions downsizing.  Instead Quinn talks about “rightsizing,” a word that captures positive changes to address myriad needs – health, family, lifestyle, and yes, the budget.  Rightsizing requires some imagination; it also asks me to prioritize needs and wants.  Rightsizing lets me entertain the idea of moving from house to smaller unit, shedding maintenance expenses and taxes.

Along with “rightsizing,” “simplify” is the second word that shapes Quinn’s approach to retirement.  Collapse, consolidate, make it easy to see where the money is in order to create a familiar paycheck-like structure for taking money from retirement funds.  Thanks to Quinn’s clear explanations words like “annuity,” “reallocation,” and “RMD” make sense. Having absorbed her discussion of “bucket” investing, for example, I think I now understand the relationship between stocks and bonds and the place of each in my “retirement portfolio.”  (You can grasp here just how truly ignorant of the finance world this near-retiree is.) Picture my retirement stash in 3 buckets – one with liquid assets for emergencies, one with stocks, one with bonds.  Her explanation of how to decide from which bucket to make annual withdrawals was for me worth the price of the book!   Given my Pennsylvania Dutch farmer ancestry, I can understand buckets.

Quinn isn’t talking off the top of her head; her advice comes from years of writing about finance (her columns appear in AARP publications among other venues) and she builds her advice on the work of other researchers. There’s much more in this book than I’ve described here, and it is likely one I will go back to often in the next few years.

My second read was recommended by an acquaintance met at a talk I gave to psychiatric personnel at the Salem Veterans Administration Hospital.  This woman, about to retire herself, told me to check out How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free by Ernie J. Zelinski.  Zelinksi says his book provides “retirement wisdom that you won’t get from your financial advisor.”  And it is certainly retirement for a different perspective! His message:  retirement is the last chance I will have to “remake” myself, and deciding in advance what that identity will be is crucial to creating a retirement with a “purpose” but one that is free of the workplace-generated “need to achieve.”  The upbeat motivational approach to the “active retirement” can be a bit over the top at times, and Zelinski has aimed his advice for folks whose retirement age seems to be far younger than my own.  Nonetheless, his suggestions for list-making resonate with this academic’s approach to making order from chaos,  my need to prioritize activities and choose which activities to prioritize!  Zelinski identifies “boredom” as the number one enemy of a happy, wild, and free retirement – the retiree must not allow retirement leisure to be defined by “the couch, the TV, and the fridge.”   Not much here that can’t be found in many other guides to surviving the transition from work to retirement.

I can recommend, however, two take-aways from this one:  the “Get-a-Life Tree” and Road Scholar.  Why have I not heard of Road Scholar: Education Travel and Learning Vacations? For someone who has always said “travel and explore” would be part of retirement…and quaked at the thought of how to make it happen…this program might be a solution.   It is definitely on my list of necessary retirement information to gather sooner rather than later.  The “Get-A-Life Tree” is a mind mapping exercise to identify and draw my attention to interests that somehow got lost as I was creating the historian’s career, interests that can be rediscovered once the “career building/maintaining” demands have been put aside.   At the center of the map – a box labeled “options for retirement” with lines branching out for:  current activities I want to continue;  activities that “turned me on in the past” but haven’t had a place in my life recently; and new activities I’ve thought about doing but haven’t tried yet.   Zelinski recommends putting at least 50 leaves/activities on these three branches.   It’s an engaging exercise for my pre-retirement stage—helps to visualize (and organize!) the swirling mass of thoughts about how I want to shape living after work.   And has very much made me aware of how much I have allowed the demands of work to narrow choices and possibilities.

If Quinn and Zelinski construct “retirement” as something to pursue, something to embrace, and definitely not something to fear, Susan Jacoby provides the reality check to their optimism.  In Never Say Die; the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age she reminds me that while retirement is a social and political construct, this stage of life is also bounded by the physical experiences of growing old.  Advertisements and commercials have created a model for “successful aging.”  Actors are vibrant, fit, active, often look far younger than the age group they supposedly represent.   It is a concept sold in many guises, and I’m guessing that includes books like Zelinski’s.  And while our “success” is dependent on a marketable product, nonetheless, these ads tell what our “senior” years will look like. As Jacoby interprets the ads and the advice, however, successful aging “means only that a person has managed to put on a happy face for the rest of the world” smiling through the physical aches and pains, hiding memory loss, and demonstrating “a consistent willingness to try anything new.” To age successfully we must never “voice any fear about future dependency,” or show too much need for companionship (just as we must never be content to be alone), and we must not display strong emotions, passion being a privilege of youth (xii-xiii).

This book shows how our emphasis on successful aging  is reinforcing an untenable image of “old age” as a single stage of life (an image equally promoted by the idea of “retirement years” I might add).  A stage that marks only the first years of being “old.”  It is preventing us, individually and as a society, from addressing directly and creatively the problems of “old” old age, or even acknowledging that they are painfully real.   “The reality” she writes, “is that we are all capable of aging successfully – until we aren’t” (xii).   There is a time between this new-style successful aging (“young” old age) and death when a retirement of independence, leisure, and a need to counter boredom will likely become a period of frailty and dependency when physical care trump other needs. “As a people,” Jacoby admonishes us, “we need to face reality and base both our individual planning and social policy on the assumption that by the time men and women reach their eighties and nineties, not the best, but the worst years of their lives generally lie ahead” (5).

As I processed Jacoby’s sobering chapters (and there’s much more to the book than recounted here), this baby-boomer, about-to-retire, still physically fit reader really needed the soothing tones struck by Quinn and Zelinski.  But wishing it weren’t so only works in fairy tales, and so as I create my 3 retirement finance buckets, and draw my “Get a Life Tree” I will remember the difficulties faced by my parents and my neighbors in “old old age,” berate myself for being less understanding than I could have been, and hope that Jacoby’s optimistic prediction has merit:  that as we grow older, we baby boomers (raised in a spirit of social activism) who are now coming into young old age will demand a political response to  the problems attending those who have reached  “old” old age, the problems that face us in the future.

The Bookshelf:

  • Jane Bryant Quinn. How to Make Your Money Last;  The Indispensable Retirement Guide.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.
  • Ernie J. Zelinski. How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free. Edmonton: Visions International Publishing, 2015.
  • Susan Jacoby. Never Say Die; the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.