A Coming of Age Story
You choose the ending
Life was a straight shot in my parents’ generation. It consisted of school, work, marriage, kids, retirement and old age. Today our trajectory is anything but straightforward.
Consider the young adults we call millennials. They live longer with their parents (maybe you still have a couple at home), are more educated than ever but find less job security when they graduate, postpone marriage and children, and forge ahead with no map. Who can blame them for not having a plan when everything changes so quickly — city life, diverse families, remote work and a gig economy, the way we consume news. Then all of a sudden, democracy is up for discussion, a tiny virus causes a pandemic, and another war starts for us to agonize about in real-time. One day life is normal, and the next day it is not.
It is just as complicated for boomers. We don’t have clear directions for our lives either and certainly not for retirement. We are making it up as we go along, and hardly any of us are retiring full-time at 65, the once upon a time official retirement age. We work longer because we can’t afford to retire or because we want to continue, or because 60 is the new 40.
When we eventually retire, we are nowhere close to old age either. We have this whole life stage — it could be 20+ years thanks to medical advances and extended healthy lives — that never existed before. In fact, within the space of one generation, our life expectancy has increased by a decade. What do we do with this extra unscripted time?
I “retired” recently. I did it because I was close to 65 and had worked my entire life in a varied and fulfilling career. Until this point, my life was work- and child-focused, and I didn’t have time to think about a retirement plan beyond a few financial implications. I knew I didn’t want a job to define this next stage of my life. I was sure I would not be bored by the windfall of time on my hands, and I was aware of time passing and making every day count.
At first, when someone asked me how I was spending my time or what I was doing in retirement, I didn’t have an appropriate answer. I had a list of projects and a bucket list longer than feasible, but somehow that was not what I wanted to explain. Tackling projects is not what is important to me, although I organize my days around projects, such as becoming a better writer and helping others craft their words. Getting things done sounded like a job and didn’t convey what was meaningful about this stage of my life.
I tried explaining when all was said and done, I wanted no regrets and had checked off the items on my bucket list. But I didn’t like that answer either. Maybe first, I had to figure out what I wanted this stage of my life to be.
Oprah would be proud to hear me say, “this I know for sure.” I want to focus on how I want to be — present in the moment, creative and challenged, and productive but less stressed. I want to feel like I am making a difference in the lives of others — my family, friends, and the larger community. I need to put the self-compassion I have acquired to good use.
How I want to be is what guides the decision-making process for what I take on. I rarely had the luxury of thinking of myself first. Now I only do those things that contribute to how I want to feel. I say ‘no’ to many things without regret.
There is plenty of advice about the financial and practical aspects, but there is no expected retirement scenario. Each of us has a different coming-of-age story to tell, and each one has to figure out how to be the hero in our masterpiece creation.
I can tell you though, the handy dandy life expectancy calculator helped put it in perspective. I have approximately 7765 days left on this planet, so there is a good reason why I can’t afford to wait for some distant day to start living my life and getting my sh*t together. I know what I want this age to be. And I sure as hell know I should use the good dishes every day.
Your coming-of-age journey will be different than mine. But life has an interesting way of coming into balance and sharp focus when we become of age.
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