Why you should never retire

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In one episode In “The Sopranos,” a popular television series that aired in the 1990s, a gangster tells Tony, of the titular family, that he wants to retire. “What are you, a hockey player?” Tony responds. Non-fictional non-criminals who are considering ending their professional lives need not worry about broken fingers or other bodily injuries. But they still face other potentially painful losses: those of their income, their purpose, or, most poignantly, their relevance.

Some people just won't give up. Giorgio Armani refuses to give up his role as CEO of his fashion house at the age of 89. Being the second richest man in Italy hasn't dampened his work ethic. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett's sidekick at Berkshire Hathaway, worked at the investment firm until his death late last year at the age of 99. Mr. Buffett himself is in great shape at 93 years old.

People like MM. Armani, Buffett or Munger are exceptional. But in remaining professionally active in what would historically be considered adotage, they are not alone. A poll this year found that nearly one in three Americans say they may never retire. The majority of Nevers said they couldn't afford to give up full-time employment, especially when inflation was eating into an already meager Social Security check. But let's assume you're one of the lucky ones who can choose to opt out. Should you do it?

The arc of a company's life was once predictable. You have moved up the career ladder, gaining more prestige and higher salaries with each step. Then, in my early 60s, there was a Friday afternoon retirement party, maybe a gold watch, and that was it. The next day, the world of meetings, goals, tasks and other activities faded away. If you were moderately agitated, you might play bridge or help with the grandchildren. If it wasn't, there were crosswords, TV and a blanket.

Although intellectual stimulation tends to keep depression and cognitive impairment at bay, many tech professionals are retiring as early as possible to make room for the younger generation, admitting that it would be unrealistic to maintain their lead in the field. However, withdrawing means leaving the center stage: hobbies give you all the time in the world but tend to marginalize you because you are no longer in the game.

Things have changed. Lifespans are lengthening. It's true that even though the twilight years after retirement get longer, they don't have to lead to boredom or a meaningless life. Once you retire after 32 years as a lawyer at the World Bank, you can start splitting your time between photography and flea market research for a collection of Americana. You don't have to miss work or suffer from a lack of purpose. If you are no longer a hospital head, you can join Médecins Sans Frontières for occasional missions, teaching or helping out in your local clinic. Self-esteem and personal growth can come from many factors, including nonprofit work or mentoring others on how to start a business.

But can anything really replace the setting and buzz of being part of the action? You can have a full schedule, devoid of deadlines, meetings and spreadsheets, and thrive as a consumer of theater matinees, art exhibitions and badminton lessons. Hobbies are great for many. But for those who are extremely motivated, they can seem unnecessary and even slightly embarrassing.

This is because there is depth to being useful. And excitement, even in doses significantly lower than typical early in a career, can act like an anti-aging serum. Every time Mr. Armani is told to retire and enjoy the fruits of his labor, he responds “absolutely not.” Instead, he is clearly motivated by his involvement in the day-to-day running of the company, signing off on every design, document and figure.

In “Seinfeld,” another 1990s TV show, Jerry goes to visit his parents, middle-class Americans who moved to Florida after retirement, over dinner in the afternoon. “I don’t gorge myself on a steak at 4:30 p.m. just to save a few dollars!” Jerry protests. When this Bartleby guest entered the workforce, she assumed that when the day came, she too would be a retiree wearing a pastel-colored shirt and opting for the “early bird special.” A quarter of a century later, your 48-year-old columnist hopes to write for The Economist in decades, even if she rushes to her interviews backed by a Zimmer executive; After all, Mr. Seinfeld is still going strong at 69 years old. But ask him again in 21 years.

Read more from Bartleby, our management and work columnist:
Companies run at their annual pace (January 18)
When your colleagues are also your rivals (January 11)
The CEO's message for the new year (January 1)

Also: How Bartleby Column got its name

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