Finding Your Real Life After Retirement
“Real life after retirement?’ some might ask, “Is that a thing?” It most certainly is, but you’d never know it from the messaging we get around retirement!
A lot of messaging around retirement in our culture has very little to do with “real life after retirement”. The vast majority of the retirement messaging we get falls into the “freedom after age X” category. “Age X” may vary, but one famous example that permeated the media for a very long time was an insurance advertisement that extolled the freedom that individuals would attain from retiring by a certain age—a very young age by most peoples’ standards. This advertising was targeted at boomers, but this meme or theme of retiring at a precociously young age is still around. A slightly different form of it seems to have captured the imagination of of Generation X and millennials. Now, the idea is often portrayed in terms of accumulating the resources to retire very young, and thus escape the clutches of corporate life.
The overriding theme here seems to be some variant of “retirement as escape”. The idea is that, if the individual can accumulate a certain level of wealth, then he or she can move into a life that has none of the negatives of working life. The individuals’ life will finally be his or her own, and days will be filled with the individual doing exactly what he or she wants, all day long. This sounds idyllic.
The other messaging is at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum. It images retirement as a state of lack of direction, and most often imagines that state as associated with a process of decline and atrophy. A process of slow disintegration and disconnection that ultimately ends in a completely dependent state. Needless to say this image is the shadow of the “freedom” imaging described above. Negating all the happy talk, these images float around the edges of our consciousness about “freedom at age X”. But they serve to bring us back to the basic question: is it possible to find real life after retirement?
Real Life After Retirement: Not Into Nothing
At one point, C.G. Jung writes about a man who made the decision to retire, who had a very difficult experience. He found he could not stand the ennui when he retired. Yet, he also found that he could not get re-engaged mentally to his former business when he tried to return to it. Jung relates what he said to the man:
I say to him: ‘You were quite right to retire from business. But not into nothingness. [Italics mine] You must have something you can stand on. In all the years in which you devoted your energy to building up your business you never built up any interests outside of it. You had nothing to retire on.”
You were right to retire, but not into nothingness. You must have something you can stand on. This idea of “something to stand on” is essential to finding real life in retirement. It’s not enough to just have “freedom” in retirement. There must be lasting meaning and value—something that gives the retiring individual’s life substance. Many people dread the prospect of retirement, because it can feel like a descent into meaninglessness and purposelessness. Is there any way to find underlying meaning and value in this huge life transition?
Individuation and Meaning in Retirement
How to we begin to find what it is that will sustain us through our retirement? Or, for that matter, at any stage in our lives? One important way is for us to understand and appreciate our own life journey, and our own uniqueness.
It can take some real effort to understand the journey that we have been on in this life, what makes our life journey unique and what it is that has particular meaning or value for us in that journey. This really requires that we look at our lives carefully, with compassion and curiosity.
It can be very tempting not to look at our lives this way, and to see our life journey as “pretty much like everybody else’s”. It might be easy from this perspective to be dismissive of where our lives have taken us, maybe even contemptuous, and to see ourselves as simply “one of a million”. From there, it might be easy to feel that the things that have mattered to us in our lives are not really that important. I’m reminded of someone I know, an Albertan, who was asked to comment on a website on what he had done in the forty-five years since leaving high school. His only comment: “In the oilfields.”
“In the oilfields”—OK, I get it. But I’m curious! What happened out there in the oilfields? What was it like? What was my friend’s unique experience in the oilfields? How has it affected him? What matters to him most deeply—now–in the light of his experience, in both his conscious and unconscious selves?
Soul and Real Life After Retirement
This takes us into the territory of what Jung, and people like archetypal psychologist James Hillman would call soul. This is the exploration of what has the deepest and most lasting value in our lives on both the conscious and unconscious levels. The question of how we’re going to connect with that deepest value, and live it forward, is of primary importance in our retirement years. The exploration of that deep identity is the crowning culmination of a life, and it can be of the greatest importance to find an ally who can assist us in this such as a supportive Jungian analyst. This work goes far beyond the work of merely checking items off on a bucket list.
Join me next time for the sequel to this post, “Beyond the Bucket List”!
With every good wish for your personal life journey,
© Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)….