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Life After Retirement


An easily overlooked peril of retirement

I retired in 2003 at age 55. So far, I’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls that retirees, especially early retirees, are warned about. Except for one, that is. I call it the “white hole effect.”

You’ve no doubt heard of “black holes.” They are incredibly dense celestial objects with a gravitational field strong enough to distort space-time in their vicinity. Nothing, not even light, can escape the pull of their gravity. One effect of the extreme gravity is time dilation – time slows down near a black hole.

A white hole is the theoretical opposite of a black hole – a point of intense anti-gravity which, among other things, causes time to speed up. Physicists assert that white holes can only exist in science fiction. Now I’m no Einstein, but I’m not a quark, I mean quack, either. And I believe I have discovered evidence of terrestrial white holes.

My working hypothesis is that white holes are created when a particular combination of forces converge at the moment when and in the place where an employee retires. (Perhaps calling it a non-working hypothesis would be more descriptive.) If true, affected retirees would experience an increase in the speed of time.

For me at least, that is precisely what has happened. According to the calendar, it has been almost four years since I retired. Subjectively, however, it seems only half as much time has passed. In other words, my perception is that time is rushing past at nearly twice the rate it did before I retired.

I find it somewhat unsettling that I did not notice this phenomenon until recently. But I suppose it’s kind of like aging. When you see your face in the mirror every day, the infinitesimal and incremental changes tend to pass without notice, or at least without registering. In contrast, a friend who has not seen you in four years will be struck by (but will tactfully refrain from mentioning) the dramatic change in your appearance.

This “white hole effect” is not just some academic curiosity. It has significant practical implications.

I retired at a comparatively young age for a variety of reasons. Suffice it to say, I felt a sense of urgency. I truly enjoyed my job but my “always wanted to do but never got around to list” had gotten quite lengthy. The longer I waited to start tackling it in earnest, the fewer items I would be able to check off before my personal clock ticked its last tock.. Particularly pressing were those ambitions that involved physically strenuous activity, such as hiking the entire 2175 mile length of the Appalachian Trail. Eventually my body would be unable to handle the demands. If I delayed too long, goals that were currently within my grasp would become unattainable, leaving me with nothing but regrets instead of the satisfaction of accomplishments. The desire for more time to do what I wanted trumped the alternative of earning more money to buy things I didn’t need. So as soon as it was feasible, I retired.

But somewhere between then and now, my sense of urgency waned. Because it decreased so gradually and my attention was distracted by other matters which filled the vacuum, its disappearance slipped by undetected. It’s not that I was squandering my time on inconsequential and unproductive activities. Granted, my pace of life was more relaxed and I was less efficient than when I was working. But, I rationalized, that was what retirement was all about – an escape from the hustle and bustle, time constraints, and stress of the workaday world. Every day was busy, but not rushed. I continually chipped away at my to-do list. Some tasks took longer than expected. There were occasional setbacks. Surprises, both good and bad, diverted my time and energy. I succumbed to temptations of the moment. Nevertheless, I was making progress, slowly and steadily. And life was thoroughly enjoyable. Lulled into complacency and imbued with a sense of timelessness, I felt no pressure to hurry. Until one day, not too long ago, I suddenly realized I was two years older than I imagined.

At my age, “losing” two years is a significant chunk of time – about 1/8th of my remaining lifespan if I am a statistically average white male. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census data, the life expectancy of a 60 year-old white male born in 1950 (my generation) is 15.76 years. By comparison, the life expectancy of a 60 year-old white male born in 1920 (my parents’ generation) was 15.25 years – only ½ year less. So much for the hype that “60 is the new 40.” A 40 year-old white male of my parents’ generation had a life expectancy of 29.86 years – almost double what today’s 60 year-olds can expect. From a longevity standpoint, the reality for the leading edge of the boomer generation is “60 is still 60.”

It would be nice if I could find a black hole to reverse the white hole effect that fast forwarded me to my present age. But since that isn’t going to happen, I’ll focus on the future instead. That includes reassessing my priorities and, from here on out, doing my best to experience life to the fullest and appreciate all it has to offer. This does not mean I intend to live each day like there will be no tomorrow -- because the odds are there will be a tomorrow and I will be around to reap the benefits and suffer the consequences of what I did yesterday. What it does mean is that I’ll try to make each day count so that if I died tomorrow I would have no major regrets.

Copyright 2007
David Guenther

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