Steve Lopez knows he’s running out of time.
Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist and four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, isn’t dying in his grave just yet, but he’s 69, with two artificial knees and a pacemaker.
“Although that’s a scary thought, by the time you get where I am, statistically you’re in the last quarter of your life and most of that is behind you,” he said.
But there are still so many items on his to-do list.
He could pull back and start chipping some, but he’s hesitant. “As a columnist, I had a quasi-public life,” he said. “Who will I be after this?”
He wanted to find out before his parents’ health problems interfered.
“I mentioned it to everyone I considered my age peers, and they all had the same conversations with themselves and others about when it was the right time to leave.”
To find out why some people retire and others don’t, and what makes retirement fulfilling, Lopez spoke to dozens of older adults for his new book, Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement from Some Who’ve Done It and Some Who Never Wants”. .”
He interviewed a priest who said he would retire “in the graveyard” and a winemaker who said he would retire “in the vineyard.”
He interviewed a man who retired but soon found himself working as a cashier at a checkout to make ends meet.
He interviewed Mel Brooks and Norman Lear, both in their 90s and employed.
Financially, there’s an amount of money that experts say you can comfortably retire from, and Lopez said he doesn’t want to downplay the importance of figuring that out. “People who had money revel in their retirement,” he said.
But how do you mentally know when it’s the right time to walk away?
“There are many books out there about the financial skepticism of retirement,” he said. “What about the spiritual side?”
CNBC Make It chatted with Lopez about managing retirement and finding meaning after work. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
“Be ready to adapt”
Aditi Shrikant, CNBC Do It: You’ve interviewed dozens of people about retirement. What lessons or pieces of advice did you remember the most?
Lopez: The most important lesson I have learned from my experience is not to be reckless when walking away. You have to have a real sense of how important you could be, and I think there’s a human instinct to be relevant. And whether you care about your cat or dog or the people at the nonprofit, you need to build a life that gets you out of bed in the morning.
The best advice I was given was to be willing to adapt and expect the unexpected.
There was a man who retired and wanted to travel the world, then he found out his daughter and granddaughter needed help. He said he didn’t know anyone else who had the planned retirement.
You will be doing yourself a favor if you anticipate that this phase of your life will be all about change, and some of it will be good and some of it difficult.
There are those who can spur it on and there are those who retire to the remote and catch up on old movies. But we’re running out of time, and it’s important to be smart about who you are and fit in with the time that’s left.
And another piece of advice from a rabbi who has retired and then decided to go back to work is to try and sample what you think will take up your time in retirement to make sure what you idealize is is worth your time.
bold: As you plan your own retirement, have you considered this advice?
Lopez: Well, the pandemic closed my office. The office closure has meant working from home far more than I have ever done in my life, and my wife is a freelance writer working from home.
We were sharing an office for the first time in our lives and not living in a sprawling mansion, so there were a lot of clashes.
This pandemic gave us a preview of what our retirements would be like if I spent more time at home. My wife said to me, “If this is the preview, I don’t want to see the film.”
You need to manage and adjust these types of relationships. She’s working and doesn’t need me to sit around asking what we’re going to do next.
I still work three quarters of the time, but I work mostly from home. We’re still getting used to that and I think I love playing guitar and I’ve gotten a lot better in a year.
I’m not so good [learning] a language and I would like to travel a lot more. That was more difficult because of the pandemic restrictions.
I hope to go half the time next year [to work]and then I slowly begin to take a step back.
“Retirement can and should be full of surprises”
bold: How have relationships impacted the lives of retirees you spoke to?
Lopez: I’ve interviewed people who are lonely and feel isolated and depressed. I have people who wish they had more time to do all the things they do in retirement.
Of course, losing a spouse in retirement is a blow for everyone, and there are those tragic cases of people who step down to spend time with their spouse only to find that a health issue gets in the way.
This woman, Nancy, in Florida, did not expect her husband to die as young as he did. Little did she know she would fall in love again, and little did she know she would lose the second man in her life. Then when I spoke to her, the phone rang and it was her new boyfriend.
Retirement can and should be full of surprises, and you need to be able to handle them.
bold: Have you noticed that men and women deal with retirement differently?
Lopez: My feeling is that women are much better at this than men. Men are more impulsive and not as smart as women.
There was a professor in Brown [University] who told me he sees that in men. He teaches geriatrics. He talked about how women multitask a lot more than men throughout their lives and are therefore better trained to manage time.
You are more inclined to figure things out, act proactively, and make reasoned decisions about things.
Women are stronger than men. We are too fickle and not made for retirement, and I saw that in the women I interviewed for this book.
bold: You interviewed some pretty high profile people. What did Norman Lear have to say?
Lopez: I was interested in Mel Brooks and Norman Lear not only because they are celebrities and Hollywood legends, but because they are working in their 90’s.
[Lear] said life is about that little space between what’s over and what’s next.
What happened yesterday is over. Yes, he created All in the Family and The Jeffersons and produced films and made groundbreaking television for 60 years, but it’s over and he’s not sure what’s next.
bold: And what about Mel Brooks?
Lopez: Mel Brooks said: “I understand that you live in Spain and want to research your grandparents’ hometowns, but how long do you think you will be there before you find a story in it?”
He asked me how long I’ll be living in my new home in Barcelona and learning how to make tapas before I’m like: hey, there’s a good story behind this; Let me call my friends at the LA Times.
Or maybe it’s putting on a podcast. In my case, I was also tinkering with this idea that aging can become my specialty as I get older.
I could write a column about aging in California. I could call it the “Golden State”.
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