The Economics of Soul vs. a Job in Old Age

While I have always been a highly introspective person, I never thought my introspection would grow more prominently into old age. I assumed (never assume) that by now – at 64 – I would have it all figured out and there would be less of a need to be looking inward and more of a desire to increasingly play cards with other people near or in retirement.

Boy, was I wrong (imagine a frowning emoticon)!

The Big Reality Does Not Hit Softly
The wrongness of my thinking, I believe, happened on some fateful day that I can’t specifically pinpoint about two years ago when I looked in the mirror and saw for the first time that I had indeed reached old age. Everyone has a unique moment in time when the reality of old age suddenly hits hard. Mine hit sometime after I turned 62, perhaps when I got my first early (and relatively meager) social security check. Or, it might have been when I noticed that someone walking behind me was getting impatient with my slowness as I entered the grocery store.

It wasn’t long after that cold realization that the next cold realization shot in like a lightning bolt. “Who are you, really?” I unexpectedly started to ask myself. “Are you the person you always wanted to become?” “I don’t know and absolutely not,” came the voice inside my brain. This deep questioning experience felt like a “calling,” similar perhaps to what a twentysomething, or someone even younger, might discover as he/she lights up on a new and exciting self-affirming career path to pursue. The only problem: I did not have any new career calling because I was quite happy in my chosen career as a self-employed freelance writer (on and off for more than 30 years now). Instead, I felt a very strong desire to further develop the more authentic human being I was meant to become.  Any psychiatrist will tell you that these kinds of feelings are common among the early old aged.

Work, Work, Work
In early 2016, I wrote a story for Fast Company headlined “Why Baby Boomers Refuse to Retire.”  I interviewed several intelligent proponents of positive aging who offered an increasingly common point of view about growing old and working well into your senior years – that not retiring anytime soon was a good option for optimal mental, physical, and financial health.

The article pointed to how the number of people over 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is expected to reach 55.9 million people by 2020, and that number should reach 72.7 million by 2030. The next logical question became how will all these old boomers thrive in the twenty-first century? The answer, say many aging experts, is by staying in the workforce, at least minimally on a part-time basis, and not fully retiring.  As noted by Gallup in Many Baby Boomers Reluctant to Retire, “nearly half of boomers still working say they don’t expect to retire until they are 66 or older, including one in 10 who predict they will never retire.”

On another level of interest, a 2014 study conducted by the National Institute of Aging-funded Rush University Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, points to living a life of purpose as highly conducive to reducing one’s susceptibility to stroke, dementia, movement problems, disability and premature death.

Must I Really Keep Working?
Does living a life with more purpose in old age necessarily mean that I must keep working? Well that depends on a good number of factors. Of course, the practical financial aspect is the primary factor that first comes into play when attempting to provide an answer.

I certainly can’t fully retire on the aforementioned meager social security check each month. According to the Social Security Administration, in 2017, 23% of married couples and 43% of unmarried persons rely on their Social Security benefits for 90% or more of their income. Without going into all the related figures and demographics, such as average dollar amount of benefits, where you live, whether you own any property, etc., those percentages ultimately translate into millions of old people struggling mightily just to keep the lights on.

Here’s an article with an ominous headline published in the Age at Work section of the career site Ladders: “The 2 big reasons half of older Americans are dying nearly broke.” Ladders reporter Monica Torres did a good job explaining the double whammy – no savings and having lots of debt (often from credit cards). Torres pointed to a number of important studies in her article, including a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research revealing that more than half of single seniors possess less than $10,000 in assets at the end of their lives; a GoBankingRates article disclosing that only 37 percent of people 65 and older have $1,000 or more in savings; and a Motley Fool piece pointing out that people aged 65 to 69 have about $6,876 in credit card debt and those 75 and over have about $5,638 in credit card debt.

Unfortunately, when you reach your mid-60s, as these studies suggest, the struggle to maintain financial health can get harder instead of easier, especially when you consider that many older folks have outrageous medical expenses that certainly do not help matters.

Opportunity Ain’t Knockin’
I can relate to all this. In the world of work, I’m experiencing two very disturbing trends: A lack of opportunities and a growing sense that ageism does exist. As a freelance, independent writer, I’m struggling with an industry trend whereby the pay for professional writing services has dwindled dramatically in recent years, and, because of this disturbing trend, I can see myself sailing forth in a dark boat. As I watched this trend get worse for me, I went about trying to find a second job, applying for a good number of positions I more than qualified for because of the solid experience I have accumulated over a 30-year career. What I have experienced thus far is flat out ageism, as I have repeatedly watched potential employers hire other candidates with much less experience and capabilities over my proven abilities to contribute greatly to their success. Because of this, the question that keeps popping in my mind is will I eventually be forced to down-scale my job aspirations and seek out an unskilled, entry-level, low-paying, unpleasing job someplace – a job I will assuredly loath.

Despite such negativity, my inner voice also says that to take on a position of victim is not a healthy choice; we are masters of our fates. So, keep moving, man.

A Risky Direction
Perhaps it is no surprise that my sights have been peering more directly toward the drive for purpose and meaning, the so-called “calling,” instead of continuing to overly devote my time toward finding more work-for-pay to perhaps offset the coming of the dark and possibly sinking boat. Worse than that, however, is that for people like me, there are few viable resources that can help keep the lights on and not die broke other than scarce help from government subsidies that under the current White House look to be dwindling dramatically in the not-too-distant future.

On the other side of this coin, there’s plenty of resources online and in bookstores on how to be more humanly authentic and how to take the necessary care of your psyche/soul by living a life of purpose and meaning into old age and pursing your desire to be more of who you really are.

The element of life that pushes us toward unpleasing work has only one extremly important benefit – survival. By unpleasing I mean work that has no relevance whatsoever to your true self; work, in other words, as a necessary evil. At this stage in my life, I’d prefer kicking back a bit more, sitting in a café drinking coffee with some friends who are open to intelligent and respectful conversation, instead of spending vast amounts of my time at an 8-hour-per-day station that gives me no joy. There’s no lack of “I hate my job” people out there, and there is no lack of horrible bosses. I’ve experienced both in order to pay the rent over some long hauls in between the larger independent self-employment path I worked hard at for most of my adult life. These realities hit some people harder than others, by chance, through no real fault of their own, meaning it could happen to anyone for who knows how long.

So, the thing to do, in my estimation, is to simply keep trying to find some sort of balance between working on yourself through a deeper search for more meaning and purpose and the uncomfortable search for more work-for-pay. The old clichés of you get nothing for doing nothing, and if, at first, you don’t succeed . . . are still alive and well. That is a good thing for the simple reason that quitting is not an option.

The Meandering Path
let your life speak coverThis is where Parker J. Palmer, in his wonderful book, “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation,” was recently added to my ever expanding self-awareness-oriented ebook library. While he does not offer financial guidance, some of his principles, I think, can be applied to a financial survival strategy.  Palmer writes, for instance, that “vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling the who I am.”  He then adds that “I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live-but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.” While Palmer’s advice seems more attuned to younger folks, age really does not come into play. In fact, early old age for many becomes the most prominent time in life when everything starts to get reevaluated, sort of like an old-age crisis as opposed to the popular, but mostly false, mid-life crisis.

Interpreting Palmer’s words in my mind means the life of contemplation and philosophy that I enjoy so much and find deeper meaning and purpose in can be used as a stepping stone for finding work that may not be so much financially rewarding as it is personally rewarding.  “Go far enough on the inner journey, they all tell us – go past ego toward true self – and you end up not lost in narcissism but returning to the world, bearing more gracefully the responsibilities that come with being human,” Palmer explains.

Anyone with a strong and focused resolve can get closer to that, and the simple trick is to keep striving to reach such a lofty and authentic ideal, despite the setbacks. As Palmer notes about a time in his life when he was struggling, “on the surface, it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.”

Image by Nikko Macaspac

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  1. I’d like to hear what anyone thinks about a problem I’m encountering as time goes by. I have a decent job and I think i’ll stay several more years for retirement security. But, as anyone reading this article knows, the longer you wait the less time you have to live and use it. Anyway, the problem i’m actually having is with people around my age who often seem genuine about sharing quality time but never seem to call. I’ve reached out plenty of times to folks doing things the so-called Christian and/or assertive way. But I think there is a time for writing off folks who say the door is always open but they never find my door. I wish I could say I don’t regret all of this but maybe its regret for not finding people like me. Maybe if i represented the material norm thing it would be different. I’m middle class by pay, but I’m single, I live in an apartment and I stay in shape, have art and music hobbies, and I don’t look or act my age. I’m not wild or anything and I’m a solid person though a bit on the solitude side. I’m thinking maybe not looking my age or acting “old” as many people my age do may put off people. I know we all are somewhat habitual and do things in certain ways so I don’t like to judge folks. I’m thinking its just finding friends my age gets harder. Social media is good to a point and church is okay to a point but I miss flesh and blood encounters not found blogging and church is often what i’ve already described about people hanging around their comfort zone and not reaching out. I’d like to hear some thoughts from anyone especially as to how they may or may not relate and ways they may handle this problem.

    1. My advice, which is not professional, is to just be yourself and let the cards fall where they may. Don’t give up, however, on reaching out to people you find interesting or would like to know better.

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