Lost (retirement) horizon?

Mike Causey is on vacation this week and asked several readers, friends and even critics to write guest columns in his absence. Please enjoy today’s offering from Nancy Crosby, a relative latecomer to government who talks about watching other people prepare for retirement:

As federal employees, we see a lot of stories about retirement. Federal employees are thought by many people outside of fed-land to exist in a sort of working Shangri-La, a place of ease, leisure and long life, isolated from the harsh world.  A place from which the employee can retire early with generous benefits allowing a person to continue in a long life of luxury.

That’s what some people think, anyway.

For longer than the at least 17 years that I’ve been a federal employee, there has been talk of cuts to the so-called overly generous retirement benefits and I suspect everyone reading Mike Causey’s column is familiar with the form those take.

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Talk of a federal “brain drain” has been going on for even longer. But that tsunami of retirement has not happened. There has been a slow and steady leak of attrition as people become eligible and finally reach their savings goals or the limits of their tolerance. With ups and downs in the economy, many people who might have retired have stuck around. Some are hoping for the elusive buy-out.

I started my federal career late, so I’m watching now as many people not much older than I am are retired or getting close to retiring. I’m happy for them, I really am. They earned it, they deserve it. And they don’t deserve having politicians working to change the rules on them this late in the game. People work and plan based on the conditions they agreed to, only to have the retirement rug pulled out from under them.

There is a lot of advice out there for people near retirement. Even for people just getting started in their working life, you see investment advice, advice on advancing in your career and so on. What I rarely see is a story for those of us who might be described as “mid-career,” a significant amount of time already invested in their work life but with retirement itself nowhere yet on the horizon. That includes those of us considered too old to just start all over again, but too young to think about retirement projects.

Maybe everyone assumes we mid-career people are all just busily pursuing the next promotion so we don’t really garner any attention. But sometimes, even though I will be the first to say I have a good job and am grateful for it, being at this point in one’s work life feels a bit like getting stuck, like a polar explorer, frozen in the growing ice of an Arctic winter. For those of us not busily looking for the next promotion, there is a sense of hunkering down to get through the darkest days, hours and months, as did explorers searching for the Canada’s Northwest Passage in bygone centuries.

Over the last decades, the work environment has changed so much and working adults can expect to change employers and careers multiple times. Federal employees do have some expectation of retirement, even if it sometimes seems like an impossibly far horizon. In the meantime, I remember that I am fortunate to have a good job, with benefits. On the days when “it pays the bills,” isn’t enough, I think of other ways to keep positive.

  1. Try something new at work. Ask to help with a project or assignment. It’s great experience if you’re seeking promotions, but even if you’re not, trying different things can spark interest and energy and possibly even ideas for other positions you might enjoy.
  2. Try something new outside of work. Maybe there was a hobby from childhood that has fallen by the wayside? I never learned to play a musical instrument as a child and always wanted to try, so I took guitar lessons. Turns out I’m really bad at it, but I’m glad I explored it as a possibility. The cat is especially glad I gave it up. I’m thinking of trying cooking classes next. Adult education centers and community colleges offer a lot of options. Get a library book from an unusual section, visit county and state parks or try a new restaurant. One activity gaining popularity of late are coloring books for adults, with incredibly intricate designs rather than the wide-eyed Disney characters. It can be relaxing and stimulating.
  3. Consider volunteering. Teach kids and adults to read, work with Habitat for Humanity, walk dogs or play with cats at your local humane society. Someone needs what you have to offer.
  4. Above all else, do not neglect the present while you focus on a future of working hard, getting promoted and saving for retirement. Of course those things are important and succeeding in a career is a worthy source of pride and accomplishment. But don’t put off all other aspects of life while you strive for that future. As Mark Twain said, “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

We never know what may happen down the line, so while you’re working hard and planning responsibly for the future still make the most of the life you have now. Take the words of Lucille Ball to heart: “I would rather regret the things I have done rather than the things I haven’t.”

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Amelia Brust

The country of Bhutan measures “gross national happiness” of its citizens using 33 indicators and nine domains of psychological well-being, health, education, culture, time use, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.  According to the GNH Index, people can be considered happy when they have sufficiency in 66 percent of the weighted indicators or more.

Sources: Centre for Bhutan Studies & GNH