Six years ago, I stopped being a minister who led a church. I had done that for 27 years. I left because I was tired of going to meetings. That and I’d had some success with a couple books I’d written. One result of the books was that people invited me to come and talk to their groups, and they were willing to pay me to do it.
So I’ve pretty much been doing that for six years now, speaking, teaching, and writing. Along the way, I’ve written a half-dozen more books, taught at a couple seminaries and colleges, and traveled from Thunder Bay to Tampa, from Santa Fe to Saratoga Springs to speak at conferences and to congregations, to ministers and for students.
But about once a week I bump into someone at the grocery store, in a restaurant, or at the Y, who asks, “How’s retirement?” I find it irritating. Of course, it is a perfectly reasonable question and certainly no one intends any offense. But it rankles me. I usually say, “Well, I’m not exactly retired. I speak and write . . . do some consulting.” I can tell that explanation doesn’t quite cut it. No job title, no place or position, no institutional umbrella to shelter under. Not a real job. You’re retired.
My wife says, “Don’t fight it, just say, ‘It’s great, having a super time. I do what I want.’” I know there’s ego involved in my irritation with the repeated query, “How’s retirement?” Maybe more than ego, fear. Fear of that nebulous netherworld dubbed "retirement." But there’s something else too. I’m not retired. I’m just not employed in the usual way. So what’s that?
I visited a friend in Wisconsin not long ago who made a similar transition from being senior minister of a large church to doing other things. He works part-time as a workplace chaplain for the area’s extensive Goodwill operations, where he had once been the chairman of the board. He’s also a chaplain in a nursing home. He loves old people. And he finds working with people who have dementia to be a kind of spiritual practice. “You have to be in the moment with these folks — that’s all there is.”
He’s as fully engaged in what he’s doing as I am in my various pursuits. He gets the same question, “How’s retirement?” A third friend, in a similar limbo, hit the nail on the head when he asked my Wisconsin buddy the wry question, "How do you like being invisible?"
Not working in the usual way or fitting the usual categories, you begin to feel like a ghost. You’re here, only not really. Beholding your apparition, people ask, “How’s retirement?”
I raise and report all this because a whole bunch of us are in some stage of transition in relation to work, and because I suspect that for this generation there will be a lot of re-defining, even re-inventing, of “retirement.” For our parents’ generation, as with so many other things, it seemed clearer. You worked until you were 65, then retired. But they weren’t looking at 20, even 30 more years of life. They were thinking five or 10. I’m not saying retirement was easy then. But it was more clearly defined. And the pensions and medical benefits were often way better too.
Now, it’s fuzzy. My hunch is that while there are some folks who are perfectly happy to embrace traditional retirement, there are a huge number who aren’t or won‘t be (or can’t). Some may need the money or the benefits that come with work. It‘s equally likely that likely we need the intangibles: meaning, a sense of purpose, and the relationships that are also important aspects of work.
There’s a new term being bantered about among sociologists and gerontologists, “bridge employment.” It means work you do that draws on skills and interests you’ve had, but you don’t necessarily do it full-time. It’s a bridge between full-time work and retirement. That seems like a useful term, but it doesn’t quite describe what I see myself doing or what I imagine others trying to work out. Neither have I “changed careers.”
There’s tons of stuff that I, and others of my age or any age, want to do. We just don’t want to go to the meetings. Or at least as many meetings. Or “meetings” as a metaphor for the soul-draining parts of work.
My hunch is that something new is emerging that is neither traditional work nor standard retirement. It seems less like bridge work than life work. Work that is at the core of who you are. Those who take it up probably don’t make as much money as they used to. The trade off is greater freedom. You pick and choose the work, the projects, you want to do. You don’t mind not having the corner office or your name on the letterhead. But still you’d just as soon not be invisible.
Who knows? Maybe it’s just another post-modern thing. After all, POMO is all about transgressing boundaries, blurring lines. Modernity was big on boxes and lines. Lines between job and retirement, between work and play. Maybe work as we have known it, as something you do from age 25 to 55 or 65, suiting up and clocking in every day, is a creation of a modern industrial era, an era that is itself fading fast.
Maybe “retirement” too is a creation of a particular stage of history or type of society? My grandfather never “retired.” He operated his small-town Oregon drugstore until a few months before his death at age 88.
Maybe it’s time to recover an older word for and understanding of work: “vocation.” Vocation comes from the Latin, "vocare," meaning “to hear.” It’s a calling. You may change how you go about a vocation but you don’t retire from it. You can’t, since it’s who you are.
Just the other day I was chatting with a member of Seattle’s Mount Zion Baptist Church. I preached at Mount Zion a number of times over the years, so she knew me. Interestingly enough, she didn’t ask, “How’s retirement?” She asked, “What are you doing for the Lord these days?” She had the right idea. It’s not a job; it’s a vocation, a life, and a way of life.
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