Challenging the Retirement Paradigm Case Study 2: Joan, the elementary school principal

Blessed are those who enlighten the rest of us with their quest for quality--and get paid, too!

We need to consider that some people may not want to “retire” because they like their jobs.  As Confucius once said, if you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.   Many of this type of worker is a professional in a service industry, or they are lucky enough to earn a living off of their art or other passions.

I ran into Joan at a restaurant one Friday night.  I hadn’t seen her in several years, but I had actually helped to hire her decades ago as principal of the school that my kids went to.   We chatted and while we were catching up on family and life events, I was doing the math in my head and calculated that Joan was well past the point at which she might have collected her pension and retired from her lifelong career as an educator.

“So, Joan, are you thinking of retiring at all?”  I asked her.

“Well, I could, but my job is getting easier, so I figure, why retire?”

“It’s getting easier?”  I asked, surprised.  After all, a lot of educators I meet complain about the lack of support they get on every level, as well as the challenges of their students who often are distracted from learning by familial, social, and economic factors.

“Yes,” she continued.  “There are a lot more Asians in the neighborhood now, and they make my life easier.  The parents are supportive and involved and the children are motivated.  So, it makes my job easy.”

Joan is not going anywhere soon.  She may as well continue being of service in the community as long as she enjoys it.

Most of the early retirement how-to books I’ve seen are proponents of being completely financially independent so you can quit your job and travel and go wherever the wind blows you.  If you have a job that lacks meaning and you have no intention of seeking greener career pastures, working for financial independence with the goal of not working at all is a great goal.

But wouldn’t it be heaven to be able to accept the money you earn as kind of icing on the cake–not the pot at the end of the rainbow?  Who wants to chase that rainbow, anyway?   You totally miss the journey if you do.

Shortly after Steve Jobs died, I read his biography by Walter Isaacson.  One thing that struck me was Jobs’ ambivalence towards money.   In fact, this ambivalence manifested itself in some nasty fights with his Board of Directors at Apple.  While the Board of Directors and the stockholders a healthy profit as their “True North,” Jobs saw profit as secondary.   His True North was always Quality.

Steve Jobs relentlessly pursued Quality–in much the same way Ayn Rand spoke through architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, and the same way  in which Robert Pirsig maintained his motorcycle in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In the meantime, he made money.  Lots of it.

If you are lucky enough to have gotten to the apex of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and are profiting from it, you are in company with Steve Jobs and Howard Roark.   But most of us need to earn money in more mundane ways while working on actualizing ourselves.  (By the way, for inspiration on that front, I highly recommend a visit or revisit to those two classic books I mentioned above.)


It’s also worth noting that even the shine of idealism that motivates people in the service professions tarnishes.  In the book Rethinking Retirement–How to Create the Life You Want Without Waiting to Retire, the author, financial planner Keith Weber, talks about one of his clients, a teacher:

I learned Jeff was covered by a state pension program that used the ‘Magic 75’ formula where he would qualify for full retirement benefits when his age and years of service combine to equal 75.  At age 57 with 17 years of service, he was just a few years away.  You can imagine my surprise then, when he responded to my question, ‘When would you like to retire?’ by saying ‘I want to leave at the end of this year.’

‘But why?’ I asked.  ‘You’re so close to being able to retire with full benefits.’

Without missing a beat he said, ‘Keith, I just don’t love the little bastards anymore.’

So, let’s look at someone like Joan–who has dedicated her life to worthy goal–getting thousands upon thousands of kids to learn and grow.  Let’s just say she is ten years from retirement, and her job hasn’t gotten easier–it’s gotten harder.    She’s burnt out.

There are two scenarios for her situation now.  Scenario 1: she has lived her life as if she was going to have to depend on her salary until she retired at a normal age, which means she lived like most.  She bought as much house as the bank was willing to lend, and she’s furnished it to keep up with her academic friends.  She finances her cars to get to work,  She loves to travel and on her few weeks off during the summer, she loves to go to exotic places, as justifiable sabbatical and mental stimulation.  She usually charges the trips and pays them off throughout the year.

But now she’s stuck.  She’s servicing debt, and while she’s hovering on the line of living within her means, she handcuffed to the salary she’s built up over the past twenty years.   She either has to find a way to work through the burnout (maybe with another expensive trip next summer), or she has to cling on miserably until she can figure out what else to do.

On the other hand…[to be continued]

Next Post–Joan’s alternate scenario

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