Time to retire? Absolutely, said some. Never, said others. After a year of research, I had my answer
“So long as I am interested in the next, I’m moving,” says famed TV producer Norman Lear, who turned 100 earlier this year. (Unique Nicole / Getty Images)
When I first considered retirement, a notion that struck me as both tantalizing and terrifying, I found that I wasn’t alone. I’d mention to peers that I was tempted but conflicted, and they’d tell me they were in the same place, weighing the pros and cons.
I was born in 1953, which puts me in the curl of the cresting boomer wave. Roughly 10,000 people turn 65 every day in the United States, and many of them keep working out of love or necessity. I decided to talk to some of them, along with some of the country’s 50 million retirees, before deciding my own fate.
One year later, I had my decision, and I’d written a book about how I got there.
Lots of books explain how to know, financially, when you’re ready. But I’m no expert on money matters, and I don’t even know whether I can retire comfortably. If I live another five years, I’m good. If it’s 10 or 20 more, who knows?
Certainly, millions of Americans can’t afford to stop working, and many who punched out have gone back to work, taking advantage of employee shortages and new pandemic-era rules that have eliminated commuting.
My focus, though, was on the spiritual side of retirement. If the work you do is a reflection of who you are, whether you’re a teacher, a merchant, a nurse or a chef, who will you see in the mirror after you walk away?
My research involved interviews with happy retirees (a former marketing manager answered my phone call while on her boat and told me to begin retirement immediately, while I’m young enough to enjoy it) and regretful retirees (a legal clerk said she joyously retired on a Friday, ran out of things to do on Monday, and went back to work the following week).
I also spoke to those who can’t wait to give it a try and those who say they never will. As for the latter, there’s Norman Lear, creator of “All in the Family” and so many other television classics.
Ever think of retirement? I asked him.
“Never for a second,” said Lear, who was 98 when we spoke.
I felt feeble, contemplating retirement when a guy 30 years my senior was still going strong. I wondered whether, if you toil in a creative field, the work is oxygen. Stop, and you suffocate. Lear said he simply lives in the moment. As he put it, what happened yesterday is over, and he wakes up eager to move on to what’s next.
“So long as I am interested in the next, I’m moving,” said Lear, who was juggling several entertainment projects when I spoke to him. “And there have been, for 98 years, a lot of wonderful nexts.”
Mel Brooks, another Hollywood legend still working in his 90s, said his job is no sweat.
“I can tell you right now it’s not heavy lifting,” Brooks said of his tinkering with TV show ideas and other creative projects. “It’s not physical work, like working in a coal mine somewhere. It’s just using your mind. All I need is my pencil.”
Actually, I worry about how long my mind will work with me rather than against, as both parents traveled through thickening fog from about my age on. But I can identify with Brooks’ point. I walk around with pen in pocket, talk to people, write stories. I don’t know that you could even call it work, especially since I enjoy it so much.
“Then keep doing it,” Brooks said. “Because if you stop doing it, the devil will find ways to occupy your mind.”
His advice was that I go to my boss, right away, and pitch a hybrid plan — a little less work, a little more play. The best of both worlds.
“But always look forward to waking up with something that you do well,” Brooks said. “Something that you want to do.”
That’s the key, it seems. To do what makes you whole.
“I was sitting around the house and got so bored, not being able to see my friends and be around other people,” said my pal Lawrence Tolliver, a South Los Angeles barber who had to close his shop during the pandemic. “I’ve never been so depressed in my life, and that was a flavor of what retirement would be.”
Lawrence Tolliver, seen here in 2019, had to close his barber shop during the pandemic. “I’ve never been so depressed in my life,” he said, “and that was a flavor of what retirement would be.” (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
As soon as he was able, Tolliver reopened for business, and all was right in his world.
But for each one who can’t let go, there’s another one who can’t wait.
One day I went to see a gent in his 70s who works as a checkout clerk, near Disneyland, at a big-box store that is definitely not the second-happiest place on earth. He retired early from a utility company, eager to travel the world with the love of his life. Then a market dip hollowed out their savings, and an unexpected illness brought stacks of medical bills. So he had to come out of retirement, and his job options were limited.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to quit any time soon,” he glumly told me at his checkout post. His foot ached, and he said he needed to see a doctor as soon as possible.
I left the store thinking, “That could be me.” It could be any of us. And the financial aspect of retirement is obviously a big determinant of happiness. But Nancy Schlossberg, a retired professor who lives in Florida, told me there’s another calculation to be aware of:
We all want to matter, even in retirement. Maybe to a pet, a loved one, a grandchild. Whatever the source of mattering, Schlossberg found, happy retirees tend to have a sense of purpose.
Her new mission, after initially feeling lost in retirement, was to write books on what she called one of the greatest and most complicated transitions any of us will experience in life. She wrote “Retire Smart, Retire Happy: Finding Your True Path in Life,” and “Too Young To Be Old: Love, Learn, Work and Play as You Age.”
But don’t expect a picnic, Schlossberg said, because in retirement, as in life, plans go awry, we’re needed in ways we hadn’t anticipated, and we suffer loss. Learn to embrace ambiguity, Schlossberg told me, because “everything will change. Your relationship with your wife, with your children, with your colleagues. Your daily routines will be changed and so will your assumptions about yourself and the world.”
Retire? Winemaker Randall Grahm, founder of Bonny Doon Vineyard, says he’s “going to die in the vineyard.” (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Rabbi Naomi Levy — who retired from a full-time pulpit job and then formed her own faith group to allow her time for family and a writing career — told me that retirement isn’t for everybody. It’s especially not for those who thrive on structure, as I have for nearly 50 years.
If I imagined myself pursuing one or more hobbies in retirement, Levy said, it would be wise to carve out some pre-retirement time to sample the dream, and make sure I’d find fulfillment studying language or music, or whatever else.
“I think what you’re asking yourself is, ‘What are the contours of my soul?’” said Levy, the author of “Einstein and the Rabbi.” If I wasn’t sure about hanging it up, she observed, maybe that was my answer. “If we’re really being honest with ourselves, when it’s time, you’ll know. You’ll just know.”
During the course of the year, I did know. And then I didn’t. I came to envy those who had clarity.
“I’m going to die in the vineyard,” Randall Grahm told me.
He’s the legendary California winemaker who was once crowned the Rhone Ranger. As I interviewed him at his vineyard in San Juan Bautista, for a story on the impact of climate change on his industry, Grahm and I both wondered what I could do in retirement that would top getting paid to sample wines midday in a beautiful setting.
“Jesuits retire in the graveyard,” Father Gregory Boyle told me at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, where he has devoted himself to helping former gang members redirect their lives. “The baseline is to go where life is, and as long as this gives you meaning, why would you stop?”
“Jesuits retire in the graveyard,” says Father Gregory Boyle, shown here in 2019. (Ana Venegas / For The Times)
Grahm, Boyle and I were born within a year of each other. If they were hanging on out of love and a sense of purpose, I thought, maybe I should too. But halfway through my year of research, former L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge, a longtime neighbor who was born nine days before me, died unexpectedly when his heart gave out.
In that moment, I was sure I would retire. In 2012, moments after knee replacement surgery, I had gone into cardiac arrest and flatlined. I was quickly resuscitated, but I became more acutely aware that each breath we take might be our last, that we die with business unfinished, risks not taken, words unspoken.
Five years before his death, LaBonge had been termed out of office, ending the public service that was so much a part of who he was. If I were to surrender my press pass — which has served as a license to meet strangers, a front-seat ticket to a never-ending show, and a kind of student I.D. badge in a 50-year-long graduate course — who would I be?
When I’m working, I don’t think about time. When I’m not working, the clock stands still, I get jittery, and in my head I start rewriting everything I ever wrote or wondering what story I’ve missed that’s right in front of me.
“My advice about retiring is don’t even think about it,” said a freelance writer who lives at Leisure World in Seal Beach, where most of the residents are retired. “The only people I see who enjoy retirement are those who have a lot of grandkids, or who are able to travel a lot, or those who hated their jobs, or those who are passionate about other pursuits. … If none of this describes you, I think retirement would become really boring for you.”
Another of my many Leisure World retirement counselors, a former college professor, had this advice: “You must be certain there’s a Steve Lopez who doesn’t feel empty when he’s not complimented, or yelled at, for today’s column.”
I don’t think I’d miss being yelled at or cursed, which has been happening with greater frequency in recent years. But as my year of introspection ended, the youngest of my three children was ready to leave for her first year of college. I worried mightily about the perils of confronting two huge voids at once — an empty nest and a finished career.
I don’t know what next year might bring, or the year after that. I’m learning to embrace ambiguity, as Schlossberg suggested.
But for the time being, I have not retired.
I did, however, go to my bosses and negotiate a part-time schedule with less work, lower pay, more play.
The hybrid plan.
If he ever gets tired of what he’s doing, Mel Brooks could probably find work as a life coach.
L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez’s new book is “Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement From Some Who’ve Done It and Some Who Never Will.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.