How to retire: lessons from my husband

Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente
Toronto Globe & Mail

My husband is turning 70 next month. This shocks his 93-year-old mother even more than it shocks me. “In your sixties you can still pretend you’re middle-aged,” she said. “But when you’re 70, you can’t kid yourself any more. You’re definitely old.”

Is he old? Not to my mind. In my mind, he’s still the man I married – a good-natured, slightly scruffy post-post-adolescent who is overly attached to his frayed and saggy blue jeans. He used to look like Frank Zappa, but now he looks like Anthony Quinn in The Old Man and the Sea. Polite young women yield their seats to him on the subway. He hates that.

Every day he gets up, puts on his blue jeans and takes the subway to work. Both he and I are astonished by this fact. We were certain that he’d be retired by now. He works in a relatively young industry where many of his colleagues are half his age. Some of them call him “Pops.” He’s secretly thrilled that he’s still got the moves. He likes to brag that he’s the oldest story editor in the Western world.

It’s not that my husband hasn’t thought about retirement. He’s done it several times. But it never sticks. Each time he vows that he’s reached the end of the line, that the industry has changed, that he’s tired of the work, and anyway he’s too old for anyone to be interested in hiring him. Each time I nod solemnly. Each time he vows to cultivate new interests. He’s going to get in shape, write a book, go back to school, do good deeds. Maybe he’ll even take a cooking course. Sneakily, I slip a book about vitality in later life onto his bedside table, where it gathers dust until I throw it away.

Here’s what he really did when he retired. Watched Netflix until 2 a.m. and fooled around on the internet while he ate ice cream. He flunked retirement every time.

These days, men like my husband are not a rarity. Census data say the percentage of working seniors is nearing 20 per cent. A record 53.5 per cent of Canadian men over 65 work at least some time during the year. Nearly 39 per cent of women over 65 do, too. Some folks need the money. But a lot of us do it because we can.

“I’m having too much fun to quit,” says a friend of ours who just turned 73. He runs creativity workshops for businesses and government. He could be loafing on a beach in Mexico, but he’d rather run around the country inspiring middle managers. We figure that at least half our friends in their young 60s to their mid-70s still put in substantial work time. Few of them have to do it for the money (although the money’s very nice). They do it because it keeps them feeling young. They’ve discovered that retirement is not the greatest privilege of growing old. Retirement is the greatest curse of growing old, and they want no part of it.

Straight through my 30s, 40s, even 50s, it was impossible to imagine turning 65, never mind the life beyond. Sixty-five was the end point of meaningful existence, when a shroud descended and you passed into a limbo called old age. Your generative years and public life would be over. After that would come loss of identity, idleness, boredom, old-lady shoes, debility, senility and inexorable decline, until a merciful fate arrived to snuff out the lights.

But no. So far, it’s not like that at all. Much to my surprise, being in your 60s is a lot like being in your 50s, albeit creakier. You’re still the same person, but without the burdens. The kids are launched. You’ve proved yourself. Your parts still function (or most of them). You stop caring about what other people think of you. If they don’t like you as you are, to hell with them. Besides, you can buy old-lady shoes that are cleverly disguised to look almost funky. The only downside is at work, where you wonder how many people are looking at you and asking, “Why is she still here?”

The last time my husband retired was in the spring. He told me he really meant it this time, and I half-believed him. All summer he happily dug holes in the garden. Then the usual syndrome set in. I put a helpful book on his bedside table, which he aggressively ignored. Then, mercifully, he got a job offer. “It’s just a two-week job,” he said. Two weeks turned into four, then something else came up, and now he’s booked through next summer. Both of us are giddy with relief. Retirement is the time of life when you can discover what you really want to do with the rest of your life. And what he really wants to do is work.

I know this news won’t go down well with Generation Z, or whatever they’re called now. The selfish job-blocking boomers are sucking the blood out of their prospects, just as we always have. We will cling to the work force until we become hopelessly senile and incompetent, at which point they will have to pay our medical bills.

But look on the bright side. Maybe they can learn a thing or two. After all, we’ve still got the moves.

Margaret Wente is a columnist for the Globe & Mail