On the Job After 65 (or 90) by Choice

Find Happiness, Joy, and Purpose Doing What You Love.

Retirement is a tricky subject. For most of us, it’s different than it was for our parents. They were conditioned to see retirement as a goal and “65” that magic age. It was going to be their reward for years of hard work and sacrifice, their golden years of rest and relaxation. My parents were part of that generation. But it was a different time. Goals and lifestyles were modest, and life expectancy was 62 (1950) as opposed to 78 (2015). Social Security, combined with savings, went much further than it does today. It was a rare mindset that viewed those years as an opportunity to use the experience and wisdom of years past to expand on personal achievement—but that’s no longer the case. Today, it isn’t unusual to continue working into our 70s and 80s, well beyond that magical 65.

Frank Lloyd Wright did some of his best work in his 90s. Warren Buffett, at 90, is still at the helm of Berkshire Hathaway, and Norman Lear is producing entertaining TV at 98.

But it isn’t just the rich and famous that find satisfaction by continuing to work. My neurologist/geneticist friend Tom Bird, 78, continues to do research and mentor young scientists at the University of Washington, and several law school classmates in their 80s have thriving practices, as do a number of writer friends who are creating new and exciting work.

My friend Bob Gandt writes fiction and non-fiction. In 2015, he co-authored the book, Mastery: A Mission Plan for Reclaiming a Life of Purpose, Fitness, and Achievement. The book begins by stating the obvious: “For a huge number of seniors, the sweet dream of retirement has become an empty promise. Millions have resigned themselves to a slow, insidious erosion of their power and self-esteem.”

Gandt’s recommendation is to stay engaged, to reengage, or find a new “mission.” Engagement or reengagement can take many forms. One of the simplest is to forego retirement. If you love the work you do, keep doing it. Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” It sounds trite and over-sentimental, but it’s hard to disagree with.

Employment law is changing. Today, state and federal anti-discrimination laws protect older workers, allowing them access to new job openings and preventing their dismissal based on age. There are still jobs that mandate retirement at a certain age. The Federal Aviation Agency, for example, orders the retirement of commercial pilots at age 65, an exception rooted in compromise for the protection of the traveling public. And while this may mean the end of a highly satisfying career as a commercial pilot, there are many years ahead and opportunities for second or third careers.

We only get to go around once, so the biggest decision we have to make is how we want to do it. I left a large Los Angeles law firm because I was unhappy. If I had stayed, I could be living comfortably in Beverly Hills but would be miserable. We make choices all through our lives. Some are difficult. Many have uncertain outcomes. All have some degree of risk, but finding joy requires action and openness—especially in your third act. Find that thing, as Nike says, and Just Do It.

I feel lucky to still be active in my 80s. At 60 I started a new career in the nonprofit world and a decade later took over the management of an NGO (non-governmental organization) in Vietnam. At 75 I transitioned to freelance writer, where I’m my own boss, set my own schedule, and come and go as I please. I work because I love what I do. Like many in the time of COVID-19, I miss the travel that has always been part of my life and livelihood. Hopefully that will change soon, but it isn’t a burden to “shelter in place” when you enjoy what you’re doing.

Having interviewed many people, famous and not-so-famous, it’s clear that passion and purpose is the key to survival and happiness as we live out our third act. The people I know who are the happiest, no matter what their age, are those who love what they do. They are grateful for the satisfaction and purpose. If, like an airline pilot, you can’t continue in the job you love, pursue something you’ve always dreamed of doing. Develop a new skill. Become proficient in a language, write a book, or play a musical instrument. When Bob Gandt talks about “mastery,” he’s not talking about tinkering around the edges. He’s talking about staying vital and alive, active and engaged, as if that new endeavor is a new profession.

I have friends who are lawyers, doctors, writers, bookstore owners, restaurateurs, salespeople, legislators, and tradesmen who continue to work well into their 70s and 80s because they find joy in what they do. There’s a Jimmy Buffett song called “It’s My Job” that tells the story of a street sweeper who finds joy in his work.

Here’s the refrain,

“It’s my job to be cleaning up this mess

And that’s enough reason to go for me.

It’s my job to be better than the rest

And that makes the day for me.”

I leave you with this: The Rolling Stones are all in their 70s. Paul McCartney is 78. Dame Judi Dench is 86. Goldie Hawn is 75. Bob Woodward is 78 and Carl Bernstein 77. Lesley Stahl is 79. Robert Redford is 84. Tony Bennett is 94. Morgan Freeman is 83.  And President Joe Biden is an energetic 78. All still engaged and working. Unlike perishable foods, we don’t have pull dates. We can still have fun and be productive as workers well into these later years.

We all need to find joy in our lives. It provides the endorphins that enable us to thrive and survive. Sometimes, joy is right in front of us, in the job we can’t imagine giving up or in the book we always intended to write. Maybe what gives us joy is life as we’ve always lived it. That could just be the thing Jimmy Buffett is suggesting when he says, “that makes the day for me.”

Jack Bernard is a freelance writer based in Seattle. He is a former Marine Corps and commercial airline pilot with a BA in English from the University of Washington and JD from the University of California, Berkeley.

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