Sunday, December 13, 2015

Purpose and provision

The two most vexing issues in retirement.

Our local family doctor has just retired. Word has it that in the early stages at least he has been at a bit of a loss and frustrated with the change. He has now resigned himself to spending time with his family as he “contemplates his future”.

This is certainly not an unusual experience for many entering retirement, especially those that see it as an end to something and not the beginning of something – an end to years of toil and simply entering a life of leisure. For medical doctors this must be particularly frustrating. Most of us see medical practice as the ultimate form of fulfilment, a purposeful pursuit in service to others, and one where there is constant affirmation of a contribution to society. This is particularly so for those is small town practices, where they get to know their patients intimately and are viewed by them as members of an extended family. In addition, of course, few in medical practice need be too concerned about provision, and no doubt over the years have ensured that this spectre will not haunt them when they stop practising.

But what it does show is that even those who do not lack provision in retirement can still be frustrated by lack of purpose. Unfortunately for many retirees both are of concern. Purpose and provision are the two main driving forces in our lives and finding a proper balance between the two is fundamental to contentment. For purpose and provision you can also read contribution and reward; meaning and means, and the basic instincts of empathy and survival.

It becomes particularly vexing in retirement for on the one hand, the end of active employment robs one of a sense of purpose, and on the other limits one’s capacity to cope with provision, or at the very least removes aspirations for an improvement in lifestyle. So the elusive balance we may have found in our working lives is suddenly and severely disrupted.

These may be fairly obvious circumstances that face retirees. Yet many I have spoken to, and even in my own experience, one can, like our family doctor, be caught flatfooted within a short time of that critical life change.

Provision is more tangible to deal with. True, the average person does not give sufficient thought to their retirement needs early in their working careers, but as they approach retirement, most would become acutely aware of what they would need and would hopefully have read the volumes of excellent material on the subject on Moneyweb. In addition, we have a very reputable, well controlled and active financial advice and retirement planning industry in South Africa. While we still hear of many cases of pensioners being taken by scam artists and fraudsters, I do believe these are the exception.

Of greater concern in provision are the personal choices one often makes. They include whether or not to sell one’s home, moving to a different area or to the coast, taking a world sea cruise, buying a coffee shop, or investing in a new venture. These are very personal, and few financial advisers are equipped to give advice beyond pointing out the financial implications of those choices.

Many of these choices are linked to purpose, or meaning, illustrating the strong connection between both of these life drivers as well as the strong desire to continue having some purpose in life. But they come at a time when one should be more averse to risk, and it is senseless if one forges ahead with some plan to establish some purpose in retirement, only to have that potential serenity destroyed by concerns about provision. A good example is the number of people who invest in some B&B in an exotic place only to discover that it not only takes hard work, dedication and long hours, but that these ventures can be a financial drain.

I believe the real problem lies in not giving enough serious attention to the “what” and “why” of retirement rather than simply the “how”. In other words, we spend a lot of time, effort and funds on ensuring a “comfortable” and “trouble free” retirement financially, but not nearly enough, and not early enough on ensuring that we can maintain some sense of purpose. When I speak to young adults, and those in their forties and above, I strongly urge them to develop some hobby or alternative activity that they can pursue in retirement. Preferably this should be linked to some commercial benefit, not only because nothing gives one a greater sense of affirmation than a commercial transaction, but most will find the additional income very handy.

Failure to plan early to establish a sense of meaning in retirement is, in part, simply because we underestimate the sense of purpose we had in active employment. No matter how much we disliked our work, the hours, the traffic and a belligerent boss, work has an inherent sense of purpose. We only recognise that fully when it comes to an end. It’s the old story of wanting to run away from something so badly that we fail to consider properly what we are running towards.

Another danger to consider is over-reaching in the new pursuit. You may attain your dream of that small plot in some idyllic rural area, where you grow vegetables, herbs and raise some chickens for market; only to discover that in time you lose energy, concentration and all the physical faculties you need to continue that pursuit. Changing gear at that time of life is far more traumatic than at a younger age. Of course it is a personal choice whether you are prepared to face that. One simply must not underestimate the discomfort it may lead to.

People and personal bonds are a key ingredient to a happy retirement. Few can face seclusion and isolation in their twilight years. Yet many seem destined for that. I have witnessed many sad cases of the elderly in retirement homes and frail care centres, abandoned by even their closest family. Of course, this is not completely in one’s own control and indeed it is a very sad reflection on modern life to see how the elderly have fallen from their revered status decades ago, to the kind of ostracising we have today. So whatever can be done from the retiree’s side to avoid that is worth the effort.

But of course, death itself is a lonely experience. And the last few years by their very nature are an inward, reflective journey.

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