PUMPING IRONY: A Working Hypothesis

My path to retirement has long been littered with financial obstacles. Recent research suggests that may not be such a bad thing.

A piggy bank with glasses

I’m not the kind of guy who reflexively shares personal financial details, so I was a bit taken aback the other day to find My Lovely Wife and I hip-deep in a conversation about income and expenses with an old colleague I’ll call The Professor. She’d retired a few years ago from her university position and wondered about our own retirement plans.

“I figure I’ll work until I die,” I told her over lunch. There was no pension forthcoming, I explained, we’re a one-income household, and my monthly Social Security check covers the mortgage but not much else. Besides, I really enjoy my job.

Still, we wondered how she was able to swing it, so we spent the next hour or so baring our respective financial souls, an exercise that revealed the difference between a meticulous financial planner (she) and a couple whose fiscal foresight is not quite 20/20 (us). She downsized her housing when the market was favorable, hired a savvy investment adviser, and walked away from her job with little concern for her financial future. We’ve managed to sock some money away, but not nearly enough to ensure a comfortable retirement.

It probably doesn’t hurt that The Professor is a single woman with no children and is thus spared from rescuing offspring from various short-term money woes — not to mention those pesky college loans. Plus, the only debates about spending and saving occur in her own mind, not with a partner who may see things differently. She knows what works for her, and she’s free to pursue it.

None of that argues against her approach or its successful execution. We’re just in a different boat, rowing against the tide. She was desperate to escape a toxic workplace; I’m in no hurry to depart from a place that offers rewarding work among smart and caring colleagues. It’s not like I’m schlepping kegs of Grain Belt off a truck, like my father did. There’s no reason why I can’t happily continue playing with words well into my eighth decade.

That would do more than keep our checkbook balanced; it also might be good for my brain.

Binghamton University researchers recently released the results of a study suggesting that retirement may lead to cognitive dysfunction. The report, published in the journal IZA Institute of Labor Economics, describes a 10-year survey of older adults in rural China who were awarded a pension through the government’s New Rural Pension Scheme (NRPS). When compared with their counterparts who continued working, these pensioners displayed “significant negative effects” on cognition.

“Individuals in the areas that implement the NRPS score considerably lower than individuals who live in areas that do not offer the NRPS program,” study coauthor Plamen Nicolov explained in a statement. “Over the almost 10 years since its implementation, the program led to a decline in cognitive performance by as high as almost a fifth of a standard deviation on the memory measures we examine.”

That’s not to say retirement is devoid of benefits. Nicolov and his team found that pensioners generally improved their health — more sleep, less alcohol and tobacco — after leaving the workforce. But these benefits were negated by a lack of mental activity and, especially, fewer social connections.

“Social engagement and connectedness may simply be the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age,” Nicolov noted.

These conclusions mirror those of earlier studies, including a 2018 analysis from University College London and King’s College London that followed more than 3,000 pensioners over 30 years. That study, published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, found that verbal memory declined 38 percent faster than normal after participants had retired. Scientists also pointed to the lack of social interaction as the key variable.

I don’t worry too much about The Professor losing her mental acuity. She’s reinvented herself as an artisan, skilled in the art of marbling paper. She showed us the studio she shares with another artist and invited us to stop by for her next class — she’s still teaching. She’ll be fine.

Meanwhile, I get to go to work again tomorrow. I’ll head into the office with whatever mental acuity I can muster, hoping that it’s enough to keep me gainfully employed for another day. It’s not what I’d call a retirement plan, but it might just be a healthier strategy.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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