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How to stay gainfully retired

By Yeo Toon Joo, Peter (thoughts in January 1996 on early retirement)

At 30, I resolved to retire from work by age 35. Needless to say, I failed to meet that target. Humbled, I shifted my planned retirement age to a more realistic 45, then 50.

Today, at 50, I am still hard at the daily grind, and have become increasingly pessimistic that I will succeed in opting to stop fulltime work, even at the ripe old age of 55.

However, as the prospect of retirement looms larger, I ask myself: do I really want to retire? What will I do after I retire?

Financial considerations apart, will I die prematurely of boredom or from a sense of uselessness, as many hapless retirees have succeeded in doing?


Talk to any retired person you meet wandering aimlessly on the road in Singapore and chances are he will admit almost apologetically that he is retired, as if it was a blight.

Old, retired racehorses?

The speech of retired people, more so those who were formerly in senior corporate positions, betray a sense of uselessness and loss of self-esteem. They sound as if they feel guilty that they are no longer working, or doing something economically useful with their lives.

These retirees often sound like retired race horses apologising for being put out to pasture among a herd of lower ilk, aged farm work horses, instead of people proud to have earned their leisure. A much looked-forward-to time in their twilight years, when they have the freedom not to have to work, is instead regarded as being laid off from respectable society.

Statistics show that many active and robust men, especially those in positions of authority during their working lives, wither and die within five years of retirement from a conviction that they have nothing left to live for. I have read of a healthy ex-boss man who died within a year of retirement - of no apparent debilitating illness. The diagnosis: a broken heart, apparently from lack of subordinates to shout at and order around after he ceased work.

Retirement prospects

What then are the prospects of my retiring happily at a decent age with time left to smell the roses before I fertilise their growth, and why have I been so keen to retire?

Work, unless it is interesting, or spiritually uplifting, is a curse. Fortunately, I have been involved in work that has been interesting. The problem is there has been too much of it, and too little time left to enjoy the fruit of that labour.

Work is a vocation, but for many it has become a life sentence. And, like a convict who has been paroled after spending the better part of his life in jail, most find it difficult to adjust to a life of freedom when released from a life term of hard labour.

Anyhow, what are the prospects of a good life after retirement at 55?

For most Singaporeans, it appears that many will be at loose ends if they retire at 55, even at 65. Many will spend their remaining years staring into vacancy in our HDB void decks, or making a nuisance of themselves at home for everybody, and not a few will find excuse for picking up every passing virus to hurry their journey to an early grave.

Sad to say, only a minority among us has many all-engaging hobbies, activities and interests, and something more substantial in life to fill the waking hours of each day.

Something to fill the void

Most, apart from watching TV every evening before going to bed - a process repeated daily - have few or no pursuits outside work. Remove work, and - after that post-retirement cruise somewhere - they grow increasingly listless and morose for lack of something to fill the void.

The prospect of another 20 years and more ahead, because of their inability to die early, and the early desertion of their children to new nuclear families elsewhere, make retirement a doleful existence after the initial flush of much desired idleness.

So planning for retirement is not just about building up a huge nest egg and large Central Provident Fund safety net or letting our Government postpone our retirement age.

Work to live, not live to work

It should be more about looking at what life is all about. Remember, man first worked – by hunting – to stay alive because, if he did not do so, nobody would feed him.

However, work has now loomed so large in our lives, that we live to work instead of work to live. So that now, when we stop work, we stop to live, or lose our raison de'tre for living.

I have always looked forward to an early retirement because I believe work should be more than earning a living. I also have so many other things better than work that I wish - nay, need - to do. Work gets in the way of my pursuits. A 4-month stretch of enforced leave and supposed idleness I had years ago left me this conviction that I would enjoy early retirement and know how to stay gainfully retired.

Work is not my reason for existence. For that matter, it should not be anybody's. The truth is I am so busy after working hours that I need to retire from work to have time to accomplish what I need now to do after work.

I know that barring ill health, and mindless dissipation of my assets on jackpot machines, I will find retirement too short.

For those younger people dead set on amassing a fortune as their only preparation for retirement, start planning now instead to develop pursuits, other than learning flower arrangement (sic), to make retirement a busy life-long existence.

Find a meaning for life and living.

2007 Post script: All my beliefs and statements in 1996 on early retirement have been validated by my experience since retiring from fulltime work seven years ago, before I turned 55. I am now healthier, stronger physically, and busier (happily) than before I retired - (enjoying) doing all the things I have always loved to do.

Cartoons courtesy of My Sketchbook.