Retirement is, in large part, a psychological adventure. It seems to me that if you are not psychologically prepared for a major life transition like retirement (or marriage, children, divorce, or getting old), you are likely to struggle.
Part of that preparation is to avoid traps laid by our culture. Or to see that you might be in one, then try to extricate yourself.
A classic culture trap around retirement is the work ethic. (Keep reading for the part about sex.)
Most people who have a spent most of their lives proud of the fact they are hardworking — possessed of a “strong work ethic” — naturally feel a loss when the work they do to make a living ceases.
It’s like losing a piece of your identity. It might even be most of your identity.
But what if you recognized the “ethic" as a culture trap? What if the entire foundation the work ethic rests upon is a shaky one worth examining at a certain time of life and — with a new narrative — releasing?
Wikipedia describes ethics as "a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct,” its origin from the Greek ethos meaning “habit, custom.”
Culturally, we see work as a good habit, a virtue, the opposite of a bad habit or vice such as sloth or gambling.
On a personal level, it gets us ahead in life. It serves us well.
But what if there’s a point when it doesn’t serve us as well?
Does the ethic still hold if it’s no longer as helpful, if it’s really more habit than imperative?
At a certain age and stage, work can be worth putting aside, or at least reducing, so the rest of life’s offerings can be experienced during the time we have left, time that work consumes in large, irretrievable chunks.
If you look at work in that light — as a time-eater when time is at a growing premium — the transition away from work is as natural as the transition away from many things as we age, as part of the process.
A parallel? The sex ethic.
Sex too is a cultural trap. (And so sensitive a subject that writing about it at my age feels like a plunge into a forbidden pool.)
The term "sex ethic" never dawned on me until I watched a short video from Alain de Botton’s The School of Life. Titled “Why We Go Off Sex,” it neatly explains that our culture imposes expectations around sex that outlive their usefulness and, in fact, create plenty of suffering.
Here’s the opening voice-over of the animated video:
One of the great burdens our romantic culture has imposed on long-term relationships is the idea that love and sexual fulfillment must always, if things are working as they should, fit neatly together. This beautiful and hugely convenient idea raises a passionate hope that over many years two people will not only like and help one another, manage their domestic finances reasonably well, perhaps raise a family, have enjoyable holidays, understand one another’s problems, schedule cleaning routines, put up with each others failings, see each others parents and friends, and pursue their careers in harmony, but they will also be devoted and exciting sexual partners endlessly entwining and recombining, sometimes being gentle and slow, at others brutal and urgent, travelling together on a shared lifelong erotic adventure.
It’s this sublime idea that begins to torment us when, as is the case in almost every relationship, sex starts with time to get at once less intense and less frequent, more cautious and more frustrating, more at odds with daily life, and eventually, definitively, more daunting a prospect than reading a book, watching the news together, or simply going to sleep.
The narrator (de Botton himself) goes on to say that far too many of us consider this natural diminution to be catastrophic. It routinely destroys perfectly good relationships. And that feelings of inadequacy around what happens in long-term love are really a cultural failure, an unrealistic picture we hold in our minds, like the picture of work that some people hold.
The video ends this way:
In a wiser world, we would collectively admit to the very rare cases where love and sex did run together were astonishing exceptions with no relevance whatsoever to most of our lives. We would instead learn to pay admiring attention to those who had accepted with a reasonable show of dignity and grace that the natural price of long-term togetherness is a decline in the quality and frequency of sexual contact, and that this is, in a great many cases, a price very much worth paying.
Likewise, in a wiser world, those of us who have, with dignity and grace, moved away from a job and into a broader, more exploratory phase of life called "retirement," might be seen as both lucky for the privilege and worthy of admiring attention for the psychological leap we have made, releasing one ethic in favor of a better one, an ethic of relaxed exploration.
Or put more simply: if you change the story, you can change the picture. And shake off the trap.
(Of course, I should add, when work and sex in retirement are no longer traps, they can be even more pleasurable experiences, like that guilt-free triple Häagen-Dazs you eat now and then.)
Here's why we should endeavor to keep having sex: It’s all the cuddling – psychologists explore why people who have more sex are happier
And why college students — surprise — are happier when they have sex: Three-week diary study: sex today increases sense of meaning in life tomorrow