Sunday, October 30, 2005

"The cutting edge of relaxing."

For men, aging's a Type-A war zone
Papas battle over which is nobler: to shave one's handicap or contribute to the bottom line.
By Mimi Avins
Times Staff Writer

October 30, 2005

THE golf course at the Riviera Country Club, preternaturally verdant and perfect, is close enough to the ocean to be cooled by a breeze most days. An invitation from a club member would normally be welcomed by a golfer who prides himself on his low handicap. However, if the invitee is a workingman in his mid-60s and the inviter is retired, even a beautiful, world-class course in Pacific Palisades might not be seductive enough.

"I know a guy who lives in Florida most of the year, but he still belongs to a club here," says a Los Angeles business owner past retirement age who works 45 to 50 hours a week. "He called me to play golf, and when I said yes, he practically jumped through the phone, he was so excited."

The senior play date seemed promising, but stay tuned. Afterward, the professional man complained: "I found myself not wanting to be with him, because there's nothing going on in his life. I see these guys at the country club I belong to who have retired early. They're unplugged. Purposeless. They might as well be out there in the pasture someplace, grazing."

The guys at the club are quick to offer their own critiques, of workaholics who can't let go, of anhedonics who, in their opinion, have no personal passions and no idea of what to do with leisure time.

In the last few years, while no one under 50 was paying much attention, America's elders have become a somewhat divided continent. On one side are contented Medicare beneficiaries whose retirement nirvana includes volunteer work, playing with grandchildren and low stress levels few working people get to enjoy. They face — and return — the scorn of peers who don't want to hear the "R" word, much less live it. The gulf is particularly evident in the economic strata in which men have the luxury of choosing whether to retire.

It's a battle that echoes the emotional intensity of the mommy wars, the clash between stay-at-home moms and working mothers that erupted at playgrounds and preschools nearly a decade ago, destroying friendships and launching heated debate.

The papa wars are primarily a male struggle because men tend to feel less connected to conventional definitions of masculinity when they're not tethered to the highly valued role of breadwinner. Throughout their lives, women see themselves as friends, sisters, daughters, mothers and workers and develop a more fluid sense of identity. Men are more brittle, less tolerant. For them, it isn't enough to make a choice to continue working or to retire. They also invest considerable energy in viewing the alternative with condescension.

"My wife and I spent some time with a bunch of rich people who were retired and living in Tuscany," says Len Williams, a 68-year-old former retailing executive who started a second career as a writer. "They had a lot of long, fancy dinner parties, drank lots of wine and talked about what they used to do when they were working. I'd get bored and frustrated, and I couldn't work the next day." Williams' first novel, "Justice Deferred," was published 2 1/2 years ago.

"If you retire at 60 and you're going to live till you're 85, that's a long time," says Williams, who lives in L.A. "You have the possibility of 25 fabulous years, or you can play bridge. What's the point? The people who play golf all the time end up complaining about the golf course. 'The greens aren't good.' It becomes like their office. I've seen people who have as much time as they want for leisure, and it doesn't work. They seem to be in a rote existence that wastes whatever spark they had."

Competition over which path through adulthood produces healthier children fueled the mommy wars. Did a woman whose job description was "my kids' mom" make a better mother than one who pursued a career? The papa wars are not being waged over anything as emotionally charged as the well-being of future generations. But that doesn't make the sides any chummier. Joel Robbins, a 59-year-old semiretired attorney who lives in Philadelphia, has noticed retired friends and those still working forming distinct clusters at social events. "That happens at barbecues and dinner parties," he says. "It's like the junior high dance, where the girls and the boys would be on different sides of the room."

The appeal of engagement

ISN'T it ironic, then, that the most conspicuous casualty of the papa wars — the traditional notion of retirement — could be claimed by either army? The fact is, no one touts sitting in a rocking chair anymore. "Engagement" is the buzzword on the lips of gerontologists and marketers eager to serve 78 million baby boomers in the coming years, 38 million of whom are approaching retirement now. Increased longevity has been accompanied by a cultural shift, a different way of looking at aging that supports the choices made by retirees and working seniors — as long as they all keep very, very busy.

"In the 1980s, retirement was seen as heaven on earth. It was also seen as a statement of status," says Ken Dychtwald, a consultant and psychologist whose guide for planning an active future, "The Power Years," was published last month. "People who retired young were seen as successful. If you met someone who was retired you'd ask, 'How old were you when you retired?' If the answer was 68 you'd think, 'That's too bad.' If it was 48, that was impressive. The model of the attractive, potent adult was a man at leisure. There's been a complete flip-flop." Now the admired adult is the person still working, at least part of the time. "It's shifted from 'I don't work. How great is that?' to 'I'm still working. How great is that?' "

Rupert Murdoch, Warren Buffett, Frank Gehry, Clint Eastwood, Donald Rumsfeld and Roy Romer are all still working past age 73 and seem disinclined to stop. This fraternity of high-profile, hard-charging septuagenarians, as well as millions of lesser-known working seniors, are making life a bit more challenging for the graying flock that looked forward to spending their golden years on an endless vacation. Mention the word "retirement" to the likes of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, 78, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, 82, or TV newsman Mike Wallace, 87, and the reaction ranges from aversion to fear and loathing.

Pop culture has reinforced that position by portraying retired men as annoying geezers ("Everybody Loves Raymond's" Frank Barone) or lost souls with nothing better to do than run a child's life (Warren Schmidt in "About Schmidt"). The retired, backward-glancing sad sack Bill Murray portrayed in "Broken Flowers" is no one's idea of a role model. Fun, adventure and glory was in store for the "Space Cowboys." All they had to do was go back to their former careers.

"In this country, most people have jobs, not careers," says Robert Kahn, a University of Michigan social psychologist. "The assumption that somehow staying at home is less stupefying or intellectually deadening than many jobs is ridiculous." Ridiculous, but widespread.

A retired business executive who lives in Westchester, N.Y., commutes to a rented office in Manhattan each day, where his major activity is reading the newspaper. He says, "I don't want to be home in the daytime, just sitting around." Even as Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's progressed, he was driven to an office in Century City every day, where he sat at a desk. What most people want to avoid is waking up every morning with nothing to do and Peggy Lee's anthem of ennui, "Is That All There Is?," playing in their head.

Retired people weary of the question "What do you do?" — and the glassy-eyed stare that the response "I'm retired" engenders — find comfort in banding together. Five years ago, at 53, Dr. Jerry Bovino left his retinal surgery practice in Toledo, Ohio, and moved to Aspen, Colo. "It would have been hard to retire in Toledo," he says, "where everyone else goes to work all day. In a resort community, there are a lot of people who want that social aspect that makes retirement fun."

Since moving to Aspen full time with his wife, who sold real estate and raised the couple's two children, he's skied 75 days a year and earned a pilot's license. He's active in local politics, writes a column for the Aspen Daily News, and hosts a weekly talk show on the town's public access TV station. "I feel that I retired to something rather than from something," he says. "The good thing about retiring to Aspen is you're in a place where there are other active retired people to do things with. This is an incredibly competitive physical environment. Staying fit and trying to stay healthy is a full-time activity. When people come to visit us, they go home exhausted. We go from a hike to a political talk to the music festival to a fundraiser."

Retirees who go from cello lessons to an afternoon book club gathering to a tennis game say the terminally working are dependent on their jobs for their identities and aren't inventive enough to manage an active retirement.

"They think, 'I know how to relax, and the people who continue working don't.' And there are people who really don't know what to do with free time," says Dr. Gene D. Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "Those who are good at playing go from criticizing the people who vegetate to feeling bad for them."

Some happily retired folks accuse the married-to-the-job battalion of using work to mask the emptiness of their lives and the poverty of their relationships. Robbins, the semiretired lawyer, has six children, from 9 to 28. Now that he works half time, he relishes attending all their school activities and ballgames. "There are people still working full time who say, 'I could retire any time I want to,' " he says, "but what they're really saying is they enjoy working 60 hours a week and never seeing their kids." And of course, for every doting grandparent eager to spend more time with the kids, there's a man who has never found young children very compelling.

Retirement's powerful symbolism

BOTH people who have retired and those who have not admit to being concerned with their image. A trim, white-bearded 72-year-old UCLA professor who recently took emeritus status says, "Accepting retirement is a statement about myself, that I'm no longer the same person with the same capacities, which I don't believe. It's the symbolism that made me reluctant to retire, and it still makes me uncomfortable.

"I understand that many people view retirement as a time to change their lives. I do not. I view it as a time to continue what I've been doing. I enjoy what I do. I don't want to stop. I'm not going to stop, even though I'll have more time to write and more free time because I'll be teaching on a halftime basis. We have a large number of emeriti faculty who come in regularly, but I don't identify with them yet. I don't identify as a retired person. I think I'm more youthful. I know I am."

Blissful, laid-back retirement was a long-running myth based on deferred rewards, a concept common to many religions. He who worked hard and lived a good life got a rest, then an even better payoff in paradise. But unlike their parents, who lived through the Great Depression, boomers have had trouble embracing delayed gratification. They've been called self-indulgent for buying what they want when they want it, for not postponing vacation travel. Born into postwar prosperity, many boomers are too spoiled to see having and doing less in retirement as anything but a booby prize.

Only the IRS knows whether a boomer praising the working life is sincere or just putting a positive spin on not having saved enough for retirement. For many, retirement funds will have to last longer than once anticipated. One hundred years ago, the average American died at 47. Life expectancy was 69 in the 1950s. For every decade that passed in the 20th century, the average life expectancy from birth rose an average of 2 1/2 years. Today, someone 65 can expect to live to 83.

That can bring unanticipated financial strains. But as your grandmother told you, nice people don't talk about money. It's more socially acceptable to describe how the joys of a job haven't diminished.

Active retirement can sound like another manifestation of a pattern that begins with overscheduled children. Some Seinfeldian lip service is paid to an individual's right to choose any lifestyle that's legal, but contempt for senior slackers is rampant. For the young, everyone in the middle and especially the elderly, Americans seem to value a hyperactive hoedown more than a slow-motion ballet.

"Today, whether they retire from work or keep working, people don't see themselves as retiring in behavior," says Cohen. He conducted a 25-year study on creativity and aging, and he considers the mind a use-it-or-lose-it muscle. "Being active is influenced by higher levels of education, better health, by the culture and peer pressure. People are asked, 'What are you doing for yourself and others to keep from vegetating?' and everyone wants to have a good answer."

Answer one, from Bovino, the surgeon who retired to Aspen: "Most of us here are Type-A personalities who found a different venue to operate in. We don't just want to relax. We want to be on the cutting edge of relaxing. We want to relax better and faster."

Answer two, from Roy Romer, 76, who became superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District at 71: "I saw this job as very difficult, but it's a mountain I wanted to climb. The job drives my energy."

Maybe the busy, busy papa warriors would declare a truce if they understood how similar the other side really is. Both, after all, have done their part to undercut sentimental stereotypes of the elderly in a way their children are still adjusting to. Once, Grandpa was only too eager to baby-sit. Now the family patriarch is available only when a business meeting is canceled or an alfresco tai chi class is rained out.

Get used to it.

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times


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