Mental health and physical health are intertwined. Stress can increase the risk of death. (BMJ.) In a prospective study, workers with “high job strain, a combination of high demands at work and low job control”, had a 2.2 times higher risk of cardiovascular death than compared to their colleagues with low job strain. Prolonged stress as seen in survivors of a concentration camp results in higher mortality in the years after. (Ceskoslovenska Psychiatrie.)
OK, but isn’t retirement the diametric opposite of work? In other words, no stress? No, retirement brings stresses of its own, but this time brought about by not working. People who retired early in Denmark had a mortality rate about 50% higher than those who did not. (Scandinavian Journal of Public Health.)
In the United States, men who took Social Security at age 62 had a higher mortality rate than those who did not. (Social Security Bulletin.) Of interest here is that for women who retired early, the mortality rate barely showed any difference. This indicates that retiring early for health reasons doesn’t (wholly) explain the increase in mortality.
What it shows about the difference between men and women is of great interest. Evolution has adapted men to be risk takers. The reason for this is that in all of human history, only 40% of men have reproduced, while 80% of women have done so. (NY Times.)
Therefore, if men have wanted to reproduce, to get their genes into the gene pool, they have had to take risks, whether those risks were exploration, becoming a settler, or fighting other men for power, wealth, and glory.
For a woman to reproduce, pretty much all she had to do was exist.
This is reflected in men’s and women’s psychological makeup, and when men retire, they have symbolically given up the ghost, removed themselves from the game, and their mental health suffers.
No so with women: since they don’t have the innate need to take risks, their character lies in being and nurturing, and they feel no strain from retirement from paid work.
What does this mean for men? For starters, it means that the dream that you’ve been sold about working all your life and then retiring is a deception.
You won’t be happy or have sound mental health unless you are, somehow, in one way or another, in the game, using your mental and physical faculties to advance yourself, or your family, or to change the world in some other way.
In the old days, men worked until they could no longer do so. Most men died figuratively on the job. Retirement is a modern invention.
Even when men did retire, they found themselves involved in family and community, caring and being cared for. In today’s atomized society, men become isolated and feel useless.
Feeling useless may be one of the worst things for mental health possible.
At one time in my life I spent a year unemployed. The first month or so is fine, but after awhile, you start to wonder what your purpose in life is.
I would tell younger men many things if I could, and one of them is to forget about retirement as some kind of goal. Certainly, strive for meaningful work, for making money, to become your own man, and any number of other things, but not for retirement. You won’t be happy spending decades of your old age playing golf and watching television. It will make you feel useless and depressed.
Do you ever wonder why most wealthy men don’t seem to retire? One reason is because the kind of temperament it takes to become wealthy in the first place also makes one never want to stop.
Sure, one needs balance, with some leisure time. All work and no play makes Jack, etc.
For those of us interested in slowing the aging process and extending our lifespans, all of this is quite important. You don’t want to optimize your diet and exercise regimes and take the right supplements in a bid to slow aging and then fall into the trap of retirement.
Science shows that men who retire are not terribly happy, as seen in the increased mortality rate. The earlier you retire, the sooner you die.
Personally, I want to be like those old military men, who never relinquish their ramrod posture even though they’re long past the time when it was necessary. That’s symbolic of never giving up, of always feeling your drive to better yourself or the world, to never get soft.
Admittedly, I may be seeing much of this through the lens of my own temperament. It’s easy enough to think that I may change my mind some day, perhaps when I’m old and decrepit enough to stop caring, or to summon the energy needed to carry out some project. But I hope that’s a long time off.
There are 90-year-olds still in the gym, lifting. Many men who are quite old are still working at their regular jobs.
Instead of retirement, one should be much more concerned about finding fulfilling work that one can stick to in the long run.
Men who work crappy jobs are the ones most concerned about retirement.
Both human nature and the science of psychology point to retirement being an unnatural, potentially soul-destroying state.