Continuing from “First Thoughts”:
From childhood, through adolescence, university, and entrance into the world of “employment,” we have slowly lost the ability to think original thoughts, or even to think old thoughts but anew for ourselves. This is why we are possessed with anxieties and boredom and feelings of meaninglessness. We have tried to build our lives with the templates of others and when our expected outcomes have failed to materialize, disappointment floods us. In response to that flood, we do not try to find the origin of the water to shut it off, but rather we cloak ourselves in what is at best a mostly ineffective rain suit. Upon complaining that we are wet, we are told that the rain is just part of life.
This does not mean, however, that life should be devoid of suffering. As Scott Peck writes in the lines of The Road Less Traveled, “life is difficult.” Life will always be difficult. Life will always be a series of problems to be solved. It is the illegitimate belief or hope that one day there will be no more problems that has created the myth of retirement-as-vocation. We will explore this myth in-depth in just a moment, but first we must pause to understand the word “vocation,” as it is central to this entire discussion.
The word “vocation” has Latin roots that mean “to call out” or “calling.” Each of us may have more than one vocation in life, sometimes simultaneously, and at other times in succession. We have general and universal vocations as well as specific and particular ones.
For example, we all have universal calling to maturity and adulthood. We all have a calling to life-long learning and personal growth. We all have a calling to be kind and constructive in our relationships with other people. The extent to which we answer these calls in large part determines our overall joy, happiness, and fulfillment with life. It also determines whether or not we will successfully pursue our specific and particular vocations.
As Emerson writes in “Spiritual Laws,”
Each man has his own vocation. The talent is the call. There is one direction in which all space is open to him. He has faculties silently inviting him thither to endless exertion. He is like a ship in a river; he runs against obstructions on every side but one; on that side all obstruction is taken away, and he sweeps serenely over a deepening channel into an infinite sea…For the more truly he consults his own powers, the more difference will his work exhibit from the work of any other. His ambition is exactly proportioned to his powers. The height of the pinnacle is determined by the breadth of the base. Every man has this call of the power to do somewhat unique, and no man has any other call.
The myth of retirement is a false vocation, it is the god of gods of contemporary secular society, and it is worshiped in nearly every corner of the world by people of many cultures and languages. Retirement is the eschatalogical aspiration incepted in us throughout our formative years. Here I do not mean retirement as an exclusively or even primarily economic condition, but rather as a set of expectations.
The economic condition of retirement as life without paid employment is the colloquial use of the term, and while my usage of the term is inclusive of it, it goes well beyond the mere economic. Retirement is expected to be a spiritual condition where we are no longer bothered by the annoyances of living. Retirement is expected to be a life without problems, or “real” problems, at least. The reason it is so attached to economics is that we believe (falsely) that with enough money and no active labor we will not be annoyed by the details of life and that we can exist “at ease” for the balance of our days.
It is in anticipation of this “heaven” that we are willing to sacrifice our present fulfillment, that we are willing to endure the illegitimate suffering of contemporary life. Yet we all know that retirement is a lie. We know that most of us, by the age in which the economic prerequisites of retirement are met, will be physically deteriorating if not already infirm. We know that inflation will erode our financial security. We have met retired people, few of whom seem really and truly happy.
There is a related myth that follows the same line of reasoning, a myth that is more prevalent than the retirement myth in the United States and parts of Europe. That is the myth of the “dream job.” As many people have begun to question the myth of retirement, they have turned their faith toward a slightly improved eschatological aspiration to perfect work.
The dream job variation of the retirement myth goes something like this. You do well in school and get into a good university. You do well in university and then take a low-paying or unpaid internship at a company or non-profit or government agency to “get some experience” and leverage that to gain an entry-level job that will lead to incremental promotions (usually achieved by job-hopping from company to company) that after 5-7 years, will result in the dream job. The dream job consists of doing work that is meaningful with people you like, and that gives you flexibility with your time. Like retirement, it is envisioned as an idyllic freedom from real problems.
The dream job myth has been debunked for most young people by the economic crisis plaguing the West since 2008 in most cases because the availability of perceived dream jobs is scarce. For the rest, it has been proven a fraud by the sad truth that the dream job isn’t really a very good dream after all.
This state of affairs appears likely to worsen in the coming years.
A third variety of this myth of retirement (again, the spiritual condition, not the economic circumstances) is the start-up myth. This one is really a parody of the other variations, but is taken seriously by some of the brightest and most ambitious people in the world. The start-up myth says that if you can come up with a good idea, you should drop out of college or quit your job and create a “start-up.” You will make a lot of sacrifices for a few months until you raise money from investors, and then at some point in the near future thereafter, your start-up will have the magic number of users such that Google or Facebook will buy you for millions or billions and then you can spend the rest of your life either building more start-ups, doing charity work, or retiring.
Of course belief in this third variety of the retirement myth is like believing you will win the lottery. But because you have heard that somebody did it, you are tempted by it nonetheless. Indeed, it is seductive precisely because there are the rare exceptions where it has been true, just as there are indeed people who win the lottery and hence people continue buying lottery tickets.
If belief in one or more variations of this myth is as absurd as it seems, why, then, do we continue believing in these lies?
Perhaps we believe it because there is nothing else to believe. Perhaps it is the only justification we can find to allow ourselves to go on doing the things we do. Perhaps these false hopes give us ersatz meaning that we are able to convince ourselves is genuine meaning.
If there is any certainty in the matter, it is that we humans are adept at fooling ourselves. We get drunk with lies because sober reality seems like too much to face.
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