I’ve recently been reading Learn to Grow Old, published in 1971 by Swiss physician Paul Tournier. Dr. Tournier practiced what he called the medicine of the person, an integrative approach to care of body, mind, and spirit that now would be considered a form of holistic medicine. Tournier suggested that most people are poorly equipped for retirement. He suggested that preparation for old age in general and retirement in particular start in midlife:
“In order to make a success of old age, one must begin it earlier, and not try to postpone it as long as possible. In the middle of life we must stop to think, to organize our existence with an eye to a still distant future, instead of allowing ourselves to be entirely sucked into the professional and social whirl.”
This post will consider one of the reasons Tournier thinks such preparation is needed, namely the move from a highly structured schedule to one with considerably more flexibility. We have more free time, but may not know how to allocate it. Tournier reflected as follows:
“No I am not so busy, and that is the privilege of my age. The more free time one has, however, the more difficult it is to organize it properly.”
Extra time is like discretionary income. Whether it’s money or time, when there is only enough to cover the basics, that’s where it goes. When there is extra, though, it’s not as easy to figure out what to do with it. I work only part time now, and I handle time differently than I did when I worked full-time and was a single parent, or when I worked a full-time job and another one on the side. I waste some time, but, more than outright waste, I spend time on things that have some value but not as much as I would like. For example, on Facebook, I’m not lured by videos of stupid pranks or perplexed cats (my apologies to cat video fans), but I bite more on news links than I would like to. I’m over-informed about some things that don’t matter much–not a terrible problem to have, but also not the best investment of my time.
Even if we think we know what we want to do when we step away from full-time work, we may not feel the same when the time comes. Tournier says, “A hobby may give us great pleasure when we practise it for a few hours, as a change from our work; but after retirement it may lose much of its attraction, when it is the only thing left with which to fill our lives.” He was writing at a time when most people retired to a life of leisure, and the problem of retirement was how to spend that leisure on satisfying and meaningful activities. Now, we are in an era of “active retirement,” a tilt-a-whirl of part-time work, volunteering, family responsibilities, hobbies, travel, recreation, and social engagements. Still, the problem is the same: the regimentation of the previous decades of our lives has been replaced by tremendous choice. As Tournier puts it, in retirement we are at liberty, and most of us don’t know how to handle liberty.
In their book Successful Aging, John W. Rowe and Robert Kahn compare the elderly in our society to the small child in an ultraprogressive nursery school who asked plaintively, “Do we have to do what we want to again today?” Some days it would be nice to have a little direction! On the whole, though, this is the freedom we’ve spent our lives working for, and most of us wouldn’t willingly don again the straightjacket we once wore. Nevertheless, it is a challenge to figure out how to use this extra bonus of time well.