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In Two Minds About Work

25 May 2021 - Dr Jan Orman

Maybe it’s not the same for everyone, but the conversations I’m having right now as I approach the question of if and when to stop paid work suggest to me that there are quite a few people who feel the same way I do about retirement.



I know my early life experience is important in framing my attitudes here. I grew up in a household of “old people” (my mother was 44 when I was born and died when I was 17) and when I was ten my father was medically retired as a result of the onset of early dementia. But I think there is more to it than that.

A conversation with a friend led me to wonder if our attitudes might have something to do with the language we use. I went to a dictionary for some help. There were no surprises:

Meanings of “retirement”:

  1. to stop work
  2. to withdraw (eg to bed, from a jury, from action, from danger)

Derivation - from the French “re” (back) and tire (draw)

All the dictionary meanings seem to be about withdrawing to a passive state. I wonder if we can  find a way of describing this part of life that means something more active? eg

  • Engaging (with community)
  • Exploring (new ideas)
  • Rejoining (life)
  • Enjoying (liberation)

(My friend, a noted speaker, feels that I should jazz that up and make it the 3E Model of Retirement. She has a point!)

Why do we work?

We work to survive, to provide food and shelter for ourselves and our families. Once that’s done a few higher order needs can be met. We might like the sense of achievement that work brings, the sense of satisfaction of a job well done, we might like the routine and structure of a working life  – or we might simply like satisfying our need for approval of others.

If we have reached a point where food and shelter are not an issue, can we satisfy those higher order needs without depending on paid work? This will take effort and imagination (and possibly some time in therapy!)

Is it partly the effort and imagination needed to retire successfully, to suddenly change course after a working lifetime, that makes us recoil? It comes at a time when effort, both physical and mental, has become more difficult than it used to be.


Finding meaning

We’ve all learnt to apply ourselves to problems during the paid-to-work part of our lives. This retirement thing might be just another one of those challenges.

Paid work gives meaning to many of our lives, but we don’t have to be paid for our work for it to have meaning. Many people in meaningless jobs find satisfaction in the parts of their lives that they are not remunerated. Did those of us with “big” jobs forget how to do that?

It’s very sad for us if earning money is the only marker we have for meaning in our lives.

That money we earn has other meanings though. For some of us it indicates we are valued by others and that just takes us right on back to our need for the approval of others - the need for external validation.


Measuring our worth

It would be nice to live life with no need for the approval of those around you. I admire people who can do that. I also recognise that too little concern about what others think might be dangerous. At the end of that road lies sociopathy.

We have all learnt to value the approval of others. The cries of delight when we take our first step, the praise when we pass an exam, the tears of joy when we find our life partner and make it official all eventually subside and we begin to measure our success in terms of the amount of money the bank will lend us, or the holiday we can now afford. That’s a trap! No one warns us that it’s just another way we fall into depending on outside measures of our worth.

One of the big challenges in stopping paid work is to learn to measure our worth in some other way, some way that doesn’t depend on praise from others or objective evidence of success.

I confess that even as I commit these thoughts to “paper” I realise that, at some level, I am thinking about what feedback I will get from others who read them. There’s a whisper that says want to be told that my thoughts are useful, that I’ve written them well, that my writing has depth and clarity. I can see how sad that is. That’s the urge for approval that for many of us distorts our view of withdrawal from paid work.

What’s the answer?

 Can we overcome that need for approval or should we just learn to get approval in other ways?

I don’t have the answers. I can only ask the questions and hope we can all find the answers for ourselves. Maybe that little bit of insight will help clear the path to a solution.

As a starting point let’s think of something else to call it.

Meanwhile, I’m off to talk to some of my well-adjusted friends who have taken early retirement to see how they are coping. I’ll let you know if I discover their secret.


Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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