Figuring Out Retirement

April 2016


retirement_road_signI spent two years thinking about retiring before I actually did retire. It wasn’t that I longed to retire but couldn’t afford to; I could have retired at any time during those two years.

I worked for a consulting firm, in their Environment and Resources division, whose main client was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As Republican intransigence and obstruction really hit its stride during the presidency of Barack Obama, EPA faced successive budget cuts. If some Republicans had had their way, I think they would have done away with EPA entirely. Unable to completely have their way, they instead tried to starve the agency of funds. Why spend federal dollars on protecting the environment and public health and welfare when you can instead spend them subsidizing the fossil fuel industry? Or something. EPA’s shrinking budget meant that it was harder to get work, let alone interesting work, from the agency.

So I thought about retiring. … and thought … and thought some more. But I didn’t actually retire … because I was afraid I might not like being retired. Maybe the aggravation of work was better than the vast emptiness of retirement. I’d read that some people find themselves at loose ends when they retire; they miss the structure of a job. I was worried I might be one of those people. I imagined myself sitting in the sunroom in my house, twiddling my thumbs, missing the days when I had a career – and a paycheck. Actually, I wasn’t really concerned about the lack of a paycheck. I was a little worried about the lack of structure. What, I wondered, would I do to fill my days?

And then there was the identity thing. When I worked, I was an environmental economist. What would I be when I retired? “Retiree” doesn’t sound as impressive or interesting as “environmental economist.” And even though during my career I was only a small “cog” in a large “machine,” it was a worthy machine trying to do good things for the country. Both my company and my clients at EPA valued my work. And it felt good to be valued.

Still, at a certain point I felt ready to “take the plunge” – an expression that conveys how I viewed it – and in December 2012, I officially retired. Sort of. Some colleagues asked if I’d be willing to work on a few projects, and I agreed. So I became a “temporary part-time” employee for a while, and then a consultant to the company I had worked for. So actually I eased myself into full retirement – a bit like those people who ease themselves into the swimming pool by first standing ankle-deep on the steps for a while, and then slooowly lowering themselves fully into the pool.

And here I am, sitting in the sunroom in my house. But I’m not twiddling my thumbs; I’m writing this essay. And I’m not missing the days when I had a career (although I do sort of miss the paycheck).

You might conclude that’s the end of the story – a happy ending! No more aggravation; no more getting up at 6:30 in the morning five days a week; no more working on proposals (my least favorite thing). And, of course, no more paycheck (well, nothing’s perfect).

But actually, it’s not the end of the story (or why would I be writing this essay). It turns out that for me retirement is a “work in progress.” I suppose you could say that about life in general – and retirement is just another stage of life, if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford to retire.

I don’t really know anyone who is unhappy (or who will admit to being unhappy) being retired. I’ve read that some people are, but I’m not finding them among my retired friends. Nor am I unhappy. In fact, on net, I think I’m happier now than when I was working. But it is on net – i.e., there are benefits and costs to being retired, and I find that the benefits are outweighing the costs. (When I worked, I worked on benefit-cost analyses for EPA, so now that’s the way I think.)

The biggest benefits are obvious. I have all this free time to do whatever I want to do! I can avoid doing aggravating things and choose to do only pleasurable things! Yay! Life is so much more relaxed than it was when I was working. No more setting the alarm for 6:30 in the morning; I can get up whenever I want! (In truth, I now sleep until about 7:00; my body apparently hasn’t gotten the memo that I can “sleep in” now.)

And I am indeed taking advantage of the opportunity to do pleasurable things. I am luxuriating in my freedom. I am cooking – I love to cook (and eating’s not too shabby either!). I am baking (ditto what I said about cooking). I’m getting together with friends. I’m taking long walks and riding my bike. I am perusing the Internet. I am doing what my husband Barry calls “lying fallow” – just existing “unplanted” for a while. In agriculture, this is good for the soil and the crops that are subsequently grown on it. In me, it’s good for my general sense of well-being – and although I cannot prove it, I suspect that it rejuvenates me for the times I’m not lying fallow.

Some of that time is devoted to writing essays – like this one. Actually, of all the things I’ve been doing since I retired (and even before I retired), I find writing essays to be one of the most satisfying. And now that my tech-savvy kids helped me set up a website, I’ve expanded my “readership” from three (that would be Barry and my kids) to more-than-three. It’s still very small by Internet standards, but large enough to make me feel I’m communicating to more people than my own family.

So you might think it’s all good. I have a life filled with nothing but doing pleasurable things. I’ve joined the “ladies who lunch.” Well, not quite.

Now that I have all this free time, I have ever so much time to notice how the world is careening towards total catastrophe (read: climate change) and how many of our politicians are shamefully – SHAMEFULLY – denying the crisis and doing nothing about it. And don’t forget our growing plutocracy and our dying democracy! (See how relaxed I am in retirement?) I cannot “kick off my shoes” and fully relax until I first save the world. And there’s a whole lot of saving to do! I get exhausted and overwhelmed just thinking about it.

Which is to say that I haven’t retired from the world, just from my job. I suspect other people might be better at “relaxed” than I will ever be. Perhaps if I were still working, I’d have less time to obsess about the world’s impending catastrophe or the country’s growing plutocracy – although, if I recall correctly, I somehow found the time to obsess about these things back then too.

So psychologically, I’m not all that relaxed. I am relaxed about my own personal life. But I seem to have successfully transferred any anxieties I felt about my own life when I was working to anxieties about the country and the world now that I’m retired. You might say I now have more “bandwidth” to focus my anxiety on “bigger game.”

But I don’t really spend all my time obsessing about these things (although I’m embarrassed to say how much time I do spend that way). I spend some time actually working to try to make things better. I’ve engaged with the anti-racism movement in a variety of ways. And I’ve joined a local climate change group, 350 Montgomery County, MD ( ), affiliated with Bill McKibben’s international organization, I wouldn’t say I’ve plunged myself into the world of activism. I’d say I’m “standing ankle-deep on the steps” of activism.

Retirement can be revealing. When you give people wide-open opportunity, they are faced with the decision of what to do with it. Some people unhesitatingly throw themselves into those things they’ve always wanted to do more of but didn’t have the time for – gardening or traveling or some creative pursuit. Some don’t “throw themselves” into anything, but rather dabble at things. And some stare at all that newly free time as at a vast empty space that they must somehow fill. Which is to say that all the free time can be a challenge. Too much choice can be stressful.

For me, being retired is, so far, a mixture of “wonderful” and “challenging.” It’s wonderful because I really do enjoy the lack of aggravation that came with my job, especially in the last couple of years of working. And I really do enjoy having lots of time to do whatever I choose to do – that mixture of creative pursuits, social engagement, activism, travel, and just “lying fallow.”

The challenge is selecting a good mix of things and a good balance among them. There are so many possible things to do! So many ways to be creative! So many worthy causes that need activists! So many things to volunteer for! So many places to travel!

I wrote elsewhere (see here) about how “decisionally challenged” I am when it comes to travel:

Economists talk about utility functions and regret functions – people make choices so as to maximize their utility (i.e., their “general satisfaction”) or they make choices so as to minimize their regret (i.e., regretting that they didn’t make a better choice). I seem to have developed a rather powerful regret function. I don’t know when or how this happened …

 At some point I went from ‘What if I don’t like my vacation in X?’ to ‘What if I would have liked a vacation in Y better?’ So it wasn’t about just avoiding a vacation spot I would end up not liking; it was about failing to pick the best vacation spot.’ This is crazy; I know.”

Figuring out what to do in my retirement hasn’t reached that level of craziness, but there are shades of that. What if I don’t choose the right set of things to do in retirement? What if an alternative set of things would have been more optimal, in some unspecified way?

Am I missing wonderful opportunities? I should be out traveling while I still have my health! I should take advantage of the fact that I can afford to travel! Not everyone can do that! But what about my carbon footprint? If I travel too much, I’ll contribute beyond “my share” to the problem of climate change!

And is it just too much about me? Am I doing enough for others? Am I doing too much just for myself? Am I spending too much time “lying fallow”? It’s as if someone has handed me a magic wand, but cautioned, “Use it wisely.” Am I doing it wisely enough?

I’m well aware, of course, that these are the questions and anxieties of a first-world – perhaps 0th world – person. Many people can never afford to retire, or if they do their options are much more limited.

Perhaps the bit of angst I’m feeling is because I think that how I fashion my retirement says something about me – about who I am and whether I’m sufficiently fill-in-the-blank (e.g., adventurous or altruistic or creative or centered). It’s making me realize that, even well into my sixties, I’m a work in progress too. And I’d like to do it “right,” whatever that means. That seems like a tall – and intimidating – order. I think I need to go lie fallow for a while.




3 comments on “Figuring Out Retirement

  1. Rachel Alexander says:

    I think that you are “doing it right” if you are being mindful about how you do it. Which, clearly, you are. And, for what its worth, I suspect you are doing it right. (period. full stop.)

  2. Leslie Wharton says:

    Ellen — This is marvelous! I love your thought processes and have already forwarded to a bunch of my friends involved with climate change. As soon as the ECA newsletter comes out, I will forward it to you (have you joined the distribution list for Elders Climate Action?). Leslie


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