Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Retirement Envy (Another Rant)

While driving to work the other morning I listened to a spot on National Public Radio profiling young millionaires. Most of these wunderkind had bolted from the workplace and were free now to do whatever they wanted. 

They seemed like nice enough people – A single mom, a young bachelor – and were the rank and file from Google, Facebook, or some other tech gold mine. Each seemed glad to be free from the stress and grind of 12 hour days and was now basking in the rewards of having been in the right place at the right time. They spent their days snow boarding or tinkering with an autobiography or volunteering at the Humane Society. The high point of the day for one was getting up to go have coffee at the local cafĂ© before heading off the chair lift. 

The subtext of the story was that these guys had done it, won big with time to spare. They were given a kind of celebrity status, were instant icons, set up as model achievers, and, actually had the problem of too much time and money. I felt I was supposed to simultaneously pity and envy these people.

These early retirees are becoming part of the American cultural landscape, and are on the fast track to becoming an archetype of the American dream. They are the Marilyn Monroe and the James Dean of the retirement world and populate our images of youth, leisure, and investment as the path to salvation. (Think of the coddled investor dropping off to sleep in his chaise lounge as the Caribbean quietly laps at the sand in the background.) They are becoming the stuff of legends, of folk tales told during breaks at work. The story goes something like this: “I heard of this guy who retired when he was 30! Can you believe it? Man, I’d like to do that.” 

The rest of us are portrayed as working wannabes, the chumps left doing the necessary work of society while the smart and lucky ones soak up rays on the ski slopes.

Now, I like to dream about retirement and writing my memoirs as much as anyone, and I am not advocating a hair shirt denial of self-interest, nor am I trying to glorify the stress of making a living, but I think that there’s something flat and hollow about holding up retirement at 30 as the perfect outcome of a life well-lived. More than the early exit, it was what people did with the luxury of wealth and time that disturbed me. The consuming focus on self-gratification and fulfillment with no real regard for anything like a common good or a social responsibility embarrassed me. You’d think these people lived in a vacuum where the only thing worth doing was feeding personal whim. 

The premise that we can somehow be separate from the social and natural world and that we can coast doing nothing without consequence is both fallacious and dangerous. Rather, I would hope that we would look at our lives as extensions of a vast web of interdependence and that we all have a responsibility to improve the quality of that web. This is a cultural choice we are making. I wonder if it is a good one.

Tom Volgy has a new book, Politics in the Trenches, in which he talks about a growing mistrust of social involvement, of political participation. People don’t want to serve as much as before because of a growing social stigma toward people who work in the political arena. 

On a small scale, people less and less serve on PTAs or run for local office because they are perceived as liars, cheats, and parasites, when in reality, most are committed people working for the common good. He is on to something subtle and wide ranging.

Have we arrived at a point where we value more those who isolate within their own self-interest than those who opt to work and serve the common good? 

Maybe this is just me, but I see this as contrary to a democratic system in general and personal maturation in particular. If the “end” of life is to feather one’s nest and stop there, problems like class disparity, environmental degradation, decaying schools will all continue to grow into greater crises than they already are. 

If we are lucky enough to achieve independence from the workday world, it is due in part to a system that made us rich. Isn’t that reason enough to put something back? Freedom of all kinds is a responsibility as well as a blessing. Tony Morrison says “the function of freedom is to free somebody else,” and the way things are right now, there is plenty of freeing to do.