Passing Time

By Jim Selman | Bio

I was talking to my neighbor today about the book that Shae and I are working on. It is about retirement and we’re engaged in the question of ‘when’ does retirement occur. Is it merely an ‘event’ that happens at the end of our last job? My thinking is that it is whatever is left of our lives when our primary concern in life is no longer about earning a living. In this context, a trust fund baby could be born retired just as a person who is ‘retired’ could still have an occupation. Even a homeless person (if homelessness as a choice) might be seen to be ‘retired’—as Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” would suggest.

Part of our inquiry is focused on what seems to be a cultural imperative that most of us live our lives with a kind of mental template of aging that looks something like a bell curve. We start out at the bottom, rise to a point that we talk about as being ‘in our prime’ and then decline until the end. We see this in our human developmental models, in our expectations of the future, in our societal roles and institutions and in our personal relationship with our future.

When most people died not too long after reaching their ‘prime’, this was probably a minor or at least a short-term consideration. Today, however, when the last third of life can typically be 30 or more years, to expect one’s life to be in decline on the ‘back side’ is tantamount to giving up at half time. I am not even sure what adjective to use, probably to say it is sad is to be kind. We know that one’s health and fitness can be excellent to the end of the longest of lives. Just because I don’t run as far or as fast as I once did, doesn’t mean that I am less healthy or fit. We know that the creative capabilities need not decline and can even be enhanced as we age. We know that relationships (including sexual ones) are not limited by age. Certainly there are no inherent limits on one’s entrepreneurial capacity to create wealth if necessary, and obviously there are no inherent limits on our capacity to learn. So why should we even think about ‘decline’ as an inevitable aspect of the aging process?

Probably the biggest implication of living in a mindset of ‘decline’ is that it changes the questions that tend to shape our attitudes and our relationship to everything. Specifically the question that I hear most in retired people’s conversation is “What will I do with my time?” It is a question that we didn’t ask when we were younger. Maybe we asked, “What do I want to do with my life?” But not our ‘time’. Time was something we used or spent for the sake of something else. At some moment, we shift to ‘filling’ our time and ’staying busy’ and begin a process of endless days spent going through the motions of living without any apparent vision or purpose or organizing context beyond activity for its own sake.

Of course, there are many exceptions. As Boomers increasingly wake up to the fact that they don’t have to buy into the cultural stories of what ‘old’ means and what lifestyles are expected, they are also rediscovering some of the idealism of their youth and the commitment they had to creating a world that works for everyone. Creating that world begins each morning with a question. Not “How will I fill my time?”, but “How will I use my time to make a difference?”

© 2008 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.