Q&A Michelle Pannor Silver on Retirement and its Discontents

A convincing analysis of the disquiet among a small group of elders who—despite having money—want to work. Warning! A furtive tear may betray empathy for their deep feelings of abandonment, depression, being a renegade. Silver digs deep for courageous insights into the transition from career to retirement.

~ Teresa Ghilarducci, The New School, author of Rescuing Retirement: A Plan to Guarantee Retirement Security for All American

Autumn has arrived, and as we look out at the change in season, we can’t help but think about the season of changes in human life, particularly that of retirement. Retirement, like the fall, can be a time of letting go of the past to allow for the growth of something new, but the case isn’t always that easy for everyone as our Donovan Redd learned in today’s interview with Michelle Pannor Silver, author of Retirement and its Discontents: Why We Won’t Stop Working, Even if We Can. In this book, Michelle considers how we confront the mismatch between idealized and actual retirement. She follows doctors, CEOs, elite athletes, professors, and homemakers during their transition to retirement as they struggle to recalibrate their sense of purpose and self-worth.

Donovan Redd: Michelle, congratulations on publication! We’re excited about this project and eager to share your research. Let’s start by asking, what is it that drew you to the topic of retirement? Was there a specific moment or event that inspired your research?

Michelle Pannor Silver: Thank you! I first became interested in studying retirement when I closed my dad’s office and essentially retired him. He developed dementia when I was in my early twenties, and there came the point when it was clear that he could no longer see patients. In retrospect, I think that I probably spent more time thinking about his retirement than I might have otherwise because he wasn’t fully processing what was happening. At that point, I was starting a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and I found myself gravitating toward questions about what retirement means, both at the individual and societal level. I observed that economists systematically exclude certain people, like homemakers, from the category of “retiree,” and I wondered how people’s own definitions of retirement would differ from academic and policy-oriented definitions.

Redd: That’s an interesting observation. On the definition of retirement, can you tell us how you drew upon the definitions used in your book? Notably, the fifth definition. The first four seem to be by-the-book dictionary definitions, but the fifth, and final is more philosophical/prophetic and in some ways grim.

Silver: Sure. The fifth definition is “seclusion,” which does sound grim. But, consider that at earlier points in history, it was customary to abandon elders to remote wilderness areas once they became “too dependent”— talk about grim. For the most part, we no longer live and travel in groups, so we don’t hear stories about abandoning older family members into the wild anymore. But, we do operate in age-segregated societies. We have policies and pension plans that are oriented toward moving older workers out of the paid workforce, supposedly for the greater good. And whether you call them “old age homes” or “senior living centers” or by another name, we have places all over the world where our elders are often abandoned when they become less “productive” or “too dependent.” So the notion of retirement as seclusion is not new and it still holds relevance.

Redd: That’s a great point. How do these definitions work to frame your argument?

Silver: The definitions I provide at the beginning of the book are meant to demonstrate that retirement has been associated with a range of different meanings. Some are quite rigid and specific. But at the end of the day, we are left with a great deal of ambiguity. The idea is to make the most of that ambiguity and seize the day in retirement. But some people are at a loss for what to make of retirement and struggle with the feeling that they are being discarded by society.

Redd: I’d like to switch gears for a moment to ask about the individuals you were able to interview. How did you navigating your web of connections to track people down? How did you prep for the interviews? Were there any surprises or unexpected anecdotes that stand out?

Silver: Well, the heart of the book is five chapters that feature stories of people who retired from five different types of work. The people I interviewed were initial participants in a set of larger studies I had previously conducted. The stories featured in the book stood out to me as unique either because they experienced retirement as a letdown—a contrast to their expectations—or because their experiences illustrated important principles about retirement, and just how complicated the relationship between retirement and age can be.

The web of connections that led me to participants was fairly straightforward, but not always! For example, I initially connected with the CEOs, because a man came up to me after a talk I was giving about physician retirement and asked whether I had done any interviews with CEOs. I actually laughed at the time and thought: Wow, he must not have been paying attention to anything I said because CEOs must have fantastic retirement experiences! And, I couldn’t imagine how in the world I would get CEOs to let me interview them. But then he identified himself as a retired CEO, and the rest is history.

My typical prep involved making sure I had new batteries in my audio recorder, a backup recorder, and the consent forms. For the follow-up interviews, I made sure to cover the remaining questions from my interview guide. Oh, and made sure I knew the directions for how to get to the interview. My interviews with the physicians were not always in the easiest locations to find!

The surprises usually came to me after I conducted the interview—when I realized that each of these people who were seemingly so different had some vital things in common. Also, I suppose I was a bit surprised by how each participant had a such a different way of sharing their story.

Redd: Did you have a set hypothesis in mind before starting the interview process? If so, how did it change or evolve during the interview process?

Silver: I had a set of research questions that guided my interviews. And, as I describe in detail in the methodological appendix, I chose to focus on people who experienced retirement as an end from the work that had been a crucial source of their identity. So, my hypothesis didn’t necessarily change—instead, I would say my understanding of retirement became a lot more nuanced.

Redd: Of the various groups of retirees, were there any that provided narratives which made you think more critically about how we conceptualize and socialize people for retirement?

Silver: Each person I interviewed made me think more critically about how we, as a society, conceptualize retirement. I would say that athletes, like Allison who retired at 21 or Luiz who retired at 28 helped me rethink traditional boundaries about what it means to be retired. In part, it was because they retired so young, but mostly I think it was because even in the face of loss, injury, and decline, they represented retirement as a time to recalibrate and re-channel one’s energy. The homemakers I interviewed caused me to think about how we should conceptualize work and retirement vs how we currently conceptualize work and retirement. Because they never earned an income for their work and were not eligible for a pension based on their life’s work, many people would take exception with their use of the term “retirement.” But, the homemakers I interviewed identified themselves as “retired” and described how they felt a significant shift in their sense of purpose in life when they retired. As a society, we expect some people, like homemakers, to work without pay. On the other hand, we have others who work for relatively high pay, like doctors, who we almost hope will eat, breathe, and dream only about their work. Then we expect that each will magically remove themselves from their work at the height of their careers before they are at the point of decline, and in ways that don’t interfere or interrupt anyone else.

Redd: Fascinating. So, work isn’t the focal point of your studies, but it can become a source of personal identity. Can you expand on that idea and how it relates to leisure play?

Silver: When people spend most of their time focused on work – and this is mainly the case for people who do the type of work that can be done anywhere or the kind of work that comes with expectations that they will be potentially available anytime – it can be hard to turn work off and enjoy leisure time. Robert, one of the doctor’s whose story is featured in chapter 2, explained that he had a whole stack of novels and books of historical fiction he’d wanted to read for “leisure” in his retirement. Instead, he found himself drawn to the medical journal articles that had absorbed him for most of his life. For some people, work can become a source of gratification, a source of pride and accomplishment, and the primary source of their identity. In some professions, like medicine where doctors are acculturated to prioritize their job over all other aspects of their lives, work can be all-consuming. For people who have focused almost exclusively on work for most of their adulthood, enjoying leisure time can feel unfamiliar and unproductive.

Redd: How then, do you define “work” and “leisure” for the sake of this study?

Silver: I let the people I interviewed define “work” and “leisure” themselves. Most of them came to see the two concepts as either intertwined or diametrically opposed. For example, many of the CEOs I interviewed had engaged in leisure activities, like golfing. Golf was something that enhanced their work. But, when they retired, golfing no longer had a connection to their work. It left them feeling unfulfilled. In contrast, some of the doctors I interviewed found work and leisure to be diametrically opposing concepts, particularly those who felt that there had not been enough time to be good at both. They would explain that golfing is not that fun when you’ve never taken the time to be good at it (and you’re the kind of person that is accustomed to being good at everything you do).

Redd: The voices in the book use various terms to describe “retirement”–the “golden years,” an “expiration date,” the “third phase,” “renegade” years, etc. What language do you think is most generative to use concerning how you’re thinking through retirement and its discontents?

Silver: Some people think of retirement as a “bad word.” I think rigid definitions of retirement don’t serve anyone, except for econometricians, well. Retirement’s ambiguous nature is generative because it can give life to the idea that retirement is what you make of it.

Redd: So, going back to work and leisure, one might argue that, in a hyper-capitalist society, one’s identity is always already tied to their labor. What advice, if any, would you give to folks in how terms of how they manage the relationship between work and identity as they move through life and towards retirement?

Silver: I suspect that most people work because they have to and that most people inherently know how to enjoy leisure time. But for those who don’t, I suggest applying the skills that make you good at your work to learn how to develop hobbies and interests outside of work. No one can work all the time–even oncologists are expected to relax and have some downtime.

Redd: Last question, now that you’ve made it to the other side of this project, how have your lifestyle and retirement plans changed if any?

Silver: Well, I am a compulsive planner and list maker, and I doubt that will ever change. That said, there are some ways my plans or my goals in life have changed because of this project. I’ve noticed that my lists have started to include more things to do just because they are new to me or sound like fun. The other day, I took a belly dancing class. It was fun. Part of the idea is to focus on some areas of your body – you don’t ignore the rest, but you try to quiet down other regions so that you can isolate your movement. I’m more interested in quieting down certain aspects of my life. I want to appreciate the people in my life each day I get.

Thank you for this interview. We’d like to remind our readers to enter our raffle for a chance to win a copy of this book and to check our blog tomorrow for a special guest post from Michelle.

Read an excerpt from chapter 3 of Retirement and its Discontents.

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