August 20, 2013

Here’s the question I dread most, now I’m retired

By Dave Dineen

It’s easier for working people than retired people to provide a satisfactory answer when asked, “What do you do?”

If you and I were to meet someday, you could ask me almost any nosey question you’d like, such as:

  • How old are you?
  • How much do you weigh?
  • Why are you wearing that hat?
  • How much did you pay for your car?

Don’t worry, I wouldn’t mind. But if you want to see me squirm, just ask: “What do you do, Dave?”

Actually, I’m willing to provide a satisfactory answer — I’m just not that able. As a recent retiree, I’ve tried to answer the question, but I never feel my answer satisfies people.

I’ve tried the “elevator speech” trick, where you memorize a short speech that you have ready to impress people in just a few seconds. Frankly, I haven’t had much success with my elevator speech, either.

It’s easier, of course, for working people than retired people to provide a satisfactory answer to the what-do-you-do question. If you tell a stranger that you’re a lawyer or a receptionist, that you work the night shift at Acme Manufacturing, or you work “in computers,” people get at least some idea of what your daily life is like. They may get an impression of whether you’re better paid than they are, or you have a cushier job, or your job is more stressful.

Should I envy you or pity you?

Just by hearing your answer to the what-do-you-do question, people can start to assess whether they’d be happier in your shoes, or whether they should be glad they’re not you.

Just saying “I’m retired” doesn’t give them much to go on. Are you retired because you want to be? I call those people “Plan-A retirees,” because being retired is their choice. Or are you retired because of poor health or job problems? I call these people “Plan-B retirees,” because they have had to adapt to the necessity of being retired. They’d rather be working, but that choice isn’t available to them.

These days, if you tell someone you’re retired, they no longer really know what that means. In contrast, they’re more likely to get an accurate measure of you if you say you’re:

  • Semi-retired
  • Phasing into retirement
  • Never going to retire
  • Starting a second (or third, or fourth) career
  • Cutting back on your hours at work

I’ve told some people that I’m retired and they’ve even argued the point! Their argument goes like this: If Dave does any work of any kind, for any amount of money, then Dave isn’t retired. According to their black-and-white view of the world, I’m not retired because I do a bit of writing about what it’s like these days to be retired. Ironic, eh? I actually spend about as much time brushing my teeth as I do writing about retirement, so I think most Canadians would agree with me that my situation falls within their idea of retirement.

This is what I do

  • I do what I like. I avoid what I don’t like — a nice reward for decades of hard work.
  • I seize the day. Most days, that’s easy: I have a schedule and include time for fun and rewarding stuff. Some days are special and require more than a day of preparation -- that calls for planning. For example, for our daughter’s recent wedding in England, my wife and I began budgeting and saving long ago. Our trip was a full month long and we prepaid our flights, hotels and car rental. We exchanged our money at a great rate about a year earlier and flew to England nearly a week before the wedding day to avoid jet lag. I also spent a lot of time planning my father-of-the-bride speech!
  • I make up for lost time. In today’s workplace, it’s not easy to maintain a satisfying and healthy work/life balance. As a retiree, I now have more time for exercise, preparing healthy meals, reading and spending time with family and friends. My days aren’t rushed, but I don’t drift through them either. The secret is having two things: a purpose and a schedule.

I guess what I do in retirement might not sound exciting or fulfilling to everyone. But it more than satisfies me.

So what am I doing today, in particular?

Um…let me check with my wife.

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