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Retirement and Tennyson (2Q22 Quarter Newsletter)

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

April 15, 2022



NOTICE: This Report & Commentary includes comments regarding what is normally a not-particularly- controversial subject: retirement. However, as I review what I have written I realize I may have voiced some opinions that are, at the very least, open to challenge. In my day-to-day work, I give advice on pre- and post-retirement planning, largely financial in nature; but unless asked – and maybe not even then – I have no business opining on how anyone chooses to spend his/her/their golden years. So please remember the following comments are applicable to myself only. I have chosen this subject, and share my take on it, because it represents one possible way (albeit a possibly controversial way) of viewing the retirement experience.

Some of us, and you know who you are, treated our 65th birthdays as just another day among the approximately 23,740 days that preceded it – and not as the sell-by date that comes to mark the end of a working life and the commencement of a life “in retirement.”

I understand the attraction retirement holds for many, especially for those whose working lives have been spent eight hours a day, five (or more) days a week at jobs they would never have chosen if they felt they had other options. The need to make a living and support a family makes getting a job – any job – imperative. And even as people grow and prosper in their work there is, in many cases, the feeling that “this is not where I really want to be” and “retirement can’t come too soon.”

Accepting that retirement for many people is a highly anticipated moment, I have always viewed “normal retirement age” as something of an anachronism (not unlike the nine month school year that gives children three months off in the summer to help bring in the crops). It suggests that decades of accumulated intellectual and emotional capital that were, just yesterday, being put to their highest and best uses in one valuable body, are today obsolete or maybe just no longer needed. I should also add that personally, the idea of retirement sets off in me the unpleasant sense that I would be throwing in the towel, calling it a day, and giving up whatever remains of the (as-yet unfulfilled) hopes and aspirations of younger days.

A while back, I came across Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” Here, in the final section of the poem (and expressed in language somewhat archaic to the modern ear), Ulysses describes how I felt, and still feel, about the aging process and its retirement corollary: no throwing in the towel, no calling it a day, no giving up the hopes and aspirations of younger days:

... Come, my friends, ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: It may be that we will touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are: One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.

There is (as they say) much to take away from this. If what the poem says about the continuities between youth and age makes sense, then the idea of retirement makes no sense – at least for me and people like me. One message I don’t take away is that this is a plea for “active retirement,” something like encouraging participation in the minute-by-minute activity agendas characteristic of so many retirement communities.

Ulysses, speaking for me and by extension those who agree with him, asks us to not give up on our efforts to “seek a newer world,” not spend our older years (call these the post-normal-retirement-age years) living in the world as it is, a world in which we (the aged) have given up any hope of changing our piece of it for the better. Perhaps it is a reach, but another take away for me is that how we have spent our time, energy, money and focus in the past has actually served as a kind of preparation, a prologue, a foundation, even a kind of evolutionary fitness test for what we are called upon to do going forward (“To sail beyond the sunset...until I die,” and all the challenges this implies).

I particularly like the reference to moving earth and heaven. Who among us did not believe, when we were young, that our brains, ambition, energy and vision would, in fact, move the world – or at least impact positively whatever and whomever we chose to engage with. True, our strength may not be as it was, and we may be “Made weak by time and fate.” But it is clear to me that we are being told that age and its associated ailments (“We are not now that strength which in the old days moved earth and heaven”) cannot be excuses for avoiding the purposes for which our lives and experiences have qualified us, no matter our age (or, for that matter, our life circumstances).

So, this is all very well ... but, even if I buy the “no retirement” message, how does it translate into the way I live my “non-retired” life? Sailing beyond the sunset to seek a newer world is a lovely metaphor and has the virtue of sounding, to my ears at least, intuitively correct. The core idea the poem incorporates, that those of us of a certain age are assets to be utilized and not mere cyphers on open-ended vacations, sounds intuitively correct as well. But how does buying the message change the way I spend my day?

Books have been written about this and related questions. My contribution to an answer can’t be a book, just observations and reflections based on my own experience. And it goes without saying that my own experience may or may not prove to be a good guide to others seeking answers to the same question.

So here are six such observations and reflections, which have translated, however imperfectly, into how I spend my non-retired days.

  1. I should start by telling you the little tongue-in-cheek “deal” between my wife (who loves to travel) and me (who loves to work). We have negotiated an agreement that we will travel as much as she wants and I will work as much as I want. (Obviously, there needs to be more than a bit of give and take at the interface.)

  2. One possible consequence of aging is the integration (at last!) of what you are good at, what you like to do, and where you are most effective with the needs (personal, familial, communal, national, even global) you can effectively address. When such integration occurs it adds a significant dimension to one’s personal power. And in my experience, such integration rarely happens, paradoxically, until normal retirement age approaches. Nature, or God, or Fate has caused you to spend a lifetime preparing for maximum effectiveness ... then offers you the opportunity to say yes or no.

  3. I do not get up at 6:30, shower, shave, breakfast and race out the door to be at my office by 8:00 as in days of old. Often, I sleep until 8:00 and then spend a leisurely hour or so reading the paper and having coffee with my wife. I schedule meetings (whenever possible) no earlier than 10:00. I am able to live at this more leisurely pace as the result of a decision made jointly with my firm some years ago. I wanted to continue working as long as I was able and the firm seemed happy to have me around. (They seemed to agree that it would have been perverse for me to spend decades mastering the business and then, just when I knew most of what I needed to know, step away.) But what was obvious to all was that the presence of the Founder, in a continuing CEO role, was undesirable, not least because it narrowed the leadership opportunities smart, ambitious employees might otherwise expect to enjoy. We are all familiar with stories of founder/owners whose failure to cede power and control as they aged resulted in strong prospective employees looking elsewhere with the corresponding weakening of the firm’s long- term prospects. Our solution? I remain available for assignments where the firm feels I can be helpful (maintaining client relationships, particularly with those I have advised for decades; looking out for deal opportunities; advising when asked [as in: “let’s see what Chris thinks”] without my advice being binding, and so on). The firm’s current operations are living proof of this solution’s good sense. We have never before had a staff of such enterprising, creative, bright and self-motivated people and, frankly, we have never done so well financially.

  4. There are countless “interests” to which people are drawn. These could include interests in issues involving the worlds of business/investment, philanthropy/non-profits, politics, family and so on. Family matters (particularly estate planning and the well-being of children and grandchildren) are always a preoccupation but not one that takes up every working day. What does take up every working day for me (and where I feel my competencies, such as they are, can best be utilized) are in the business and philanthropic/non-profit worlds. (Most everyone will acknowledge the contributions philanthropists and non-profits make to our general wellbeing; but business, I think, would not enjoy the same unanimity of good opinion. I believe that any business run with the wellbeing of its clients and its employees as its first and second priorities is making just as important an impact, after adjusting for scale, as any philanthropic/non-profit activity.)

  5. “Push off and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows...” It is understandable why many modern readers don’t get the meaning of these lines on first reading. We are not that familiar with galleys and those who manned them. But the important point is that the journey requires joint effort. No one person can move a galley. It requires the disciplined participation of the whole crew. So it is important that I associate myself with a business where all the oarsmen (nay, oarspersons) are “sitting well in order” and that we work together to “smite” the needful tasks. (Better still if we can do so with “[o]ne equal temper of heroic hearts.”) This I believe I have done insofar as our business is concerned. And I have tried, when committing time to philanthropic/non-profit work, to seek out institutions whose operations reflect the fact that all involved are already (forgive the pun) fully on board.

  6. I would like to believe (as most of us would) that I am “strong in will [t]o strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” But I am human-all-to-human and ... stuff happens. When stuff happens there is nothing for it but to pick oneself up, acknowledge the happening, make right what needs to be made right, and move on. And if the happening turns out to be a permanent impairment (“inability to perform the duties of one’s occupation” as they say in the health insurance business) then ... so be it. The likelihood is that the time, energy, effort and resources expended by those of us who have “sail[ed] [together] beyond the sunset, and the baths [o]f all the western stars” in our post-retirement years will add serious value where that time, energy, effort and resources are applied, where such value might not have otherwise been created. If this turns out to be just a statement of faith, again ... so be it.

Chris Weil

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