January 30, 2015

Retirement anyone?


A word full of hope for some.

A word feared by others.

And ignored by most physicians.

It is a stage of life that is not well understood and a stage of life that is poorly planned and managed.
Some see it as a reward after a long and productive life, a reward made of endless leisure, where the goal is rest and fun — away from pain and distress — an everlasting vacation.

Others see it as a time of decline.

“Now that I’ve climbed to the top of the mountain and have begun the journey down the other side…,”1 said Dr. Robert Marion while contemplating retirement.

Most of us see it as the beginning of the end, when old age, dementia, disease and boredom will take hold of our last few years, an obligatory transition to prepare us to death.

This view was shared by Dr. William Osler who claimed in 1905, “The effective, moving and vitalizing work of the world is done between the age of 25 and 40 and it is downhill from then on.”

He further jokingly suggested at 60 years of age, men be allowed a year of contemplation before being offered a peaceful departure by chloroform2 — not a great recipe for a long and happy retirement.

Unfortunately, we don’t have much help seeing retirement as either of those two extremes.

Except for financial articles, it is rare to read about retirement in medical magazines. When we look at our colleagues, we lack role models to show us what a successful retirement could look like.1 It is safer to ignore the issue, and continue our usual life, as long as our body and mind allow.

When confronted with the possibility of retirement, we see many advantages to continue working. We get respect and a sense of purpose. Why struggle to make new relationships when we have great contacts with patients and colleagues? We don’t have to plan our days, it’s done automatically. We work alongside students and residents; this helps us to feel young.1 On top of that, we’re even getting paid.

Why would we leave that and wrestle with a boring and purposeless life? Is that what we want? Is that what we should do?

We see the loss of those benefits, but what we fear most is the loss of our identity.

We are physicians, this is what we do, this is what we have been doing for a long time and this is what we will continue doing. Why should we leave an exciting and familiar life to step into the unknown on the road to boredom?

Those concerns and questions are validated when we look at retirement as either an everlasting, purposeless life of leisure or as the gate to boredom, illness and death.

Those views, however, are outdated and unappealing. New social changes are redefining retirement: It is no longer a time of stagnation — to the contrary — it is a time of opportunities to discover or renew a passion, to discover who we are or to finally have the time to do what we have long dreamt of doing.

It is a new beginning, full of potential for personal growth and renewal.

The new social definition of retirement values meaning over rest, personal fulfillment over relaxation and life balance over a lopsided life of leisure.5

It is no longer a sudden, abrupt and distressing process of quitting work, but a transition that could last several years. It is a process in which work may still exist, but is no longer the main activity. Our focus is somewhere else, on something that needs to be discovered.3

To be able to explore and discover new directions we need free time.

Free time…?

When was the last time we had an unplanned and empty day? High school, perhaps? The idea of free time gives us an uneasy and uncomfortable feeling, but we need to value and protect it because it is the key to reconnect with ourselves and develop a new mission in life.

Free time will help us explore and try new activities, take courses and step out of our comfort zone, where we can discover new and unexpected directions.

I like Mark Twain when he said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the one you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in you sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

The new retirement is no longer a time to be busy; it is a time for a leisurely life, a true luxury of retirement.

Work might well be part of this life — it is a personal decision — as long as we don’t continue working because we don’t know what else to do, from fear of boredom or fear of exploring a new life path.

I also like the simple formula suggested by Dr Stephen Archer.4 In order to continue work, we need to score three out of three based on the following criteria:

  • P for passion. Do we still have fun and enthusiasm in the work we do? if yes, score 1.
  • E for energy. Do we still have strength and vitality to work? Do we still have stamina left at the end of our working day for our family and for our own interests? If yes, score 1.
  • A for ability. Are we keeping up with learning? Medicine is a fast-moving science and we need to keep up to date. If yes, score 1.

As you can see, the decision to keep working has nothing to do with age.

Retirement may not be as simple as we thought, but it is another exciting stage of life, a new beginning, the start of a new life journey of vastly expanded proportions. This is a part of life we don’t want to miss.

If you have successfully retired or know somebody who did, let us know. We would love to hear your story and share it with our colleagues.


  1. On Retirement: Thoughts of an Academic Physician, Dr. Robert Marion, The Doctor’s Table
    Blog. August 6, 2013.
  2. William Osler and The Fixed Period: Conflicting Medical and Popular Ideas
    About Old Age, L.D. Hirschbein, W. Arch Intern Med 2001;161(17):2074-8
  3. Life after Medicine — Road Map to Retirement, Dr. Alan Rodberg.
  4. Remain or Retire: Advice for Physicians from Leonard Cohen, Dr. Stephen Archer, To.Department of Medicine Blogs. Queens University.
  5. The New Retirement: Discovering your Dreams, Dr. Richard P Johnson.