We have a bad habit going as a culture. We tend to see most of our decisions as either/or. Either I go to college or get a job. Either I have a career or have fun. Either I keep working or I retire.
The assumption is that if you do one of the things, you aren’t going to be able to do the other. Looking at it that way makes for rather stark choices. Most of the time, it really isn’t “either/or.” It’s a matter of figuring out how much of both you want and then shaping your solution to get that.
Many have gone to college and worked simultaneously–some holding more than one job. As a society we tend to feel sorry for these people. They have a lot in a day, yes. But if it’s what they need and feel works best, why are we pitying them?
Most of the time, doing the if-this-then-not-that kind of choice is more impoverishing. If you only take classes (i.e. “go to college”), you have no clue what a day at work is all about until you start on that first rung of your big-time career ladder. College graduates without work experience are not the first to be hired. They are untested in terms of knowing how to show up on time, understanding what is part of “working” and what is not (texting and talking to friends and family on the phone). If you just take college courses for those years, you will be a bigger risk for an employer and require a longer learning curve than the guy (or gal) who worked either between semesters or while enrolled.
In addition, there are points in most college careers where what you are doing starts to get boring. It is very tempting to quit. Maybe you haven’t gotten to what you’re really interested in yet in terms of the coursework. Maybe you have a new love that’s not at the campus where you’re studying. At various times while getting my undergraduate degree, I worked as a grocery checker, a deli clerk, and in the finishing room at one of the local paper mills. Numerous times, my commitment to stick with getting that degree came from what I knew about what else was out there as a job if I didn’t finish college.
So why I am talking about this in a blog that’s focused on retirement issues? The dumbest “either/or” thinking we do is about retirement. Either you keep working or you stop totally. Why? Who decided those were the only options? If you want to get retirement right, this is the very first decision you need to put some sophistication into.
The question is not “do I keep working or do I stop working?” The question is “How do I want work to fit into the retirement stage of my life?” Work will be there in some form once you retire unless you have severe health issues. Perhaps you’ll prefer to volunteer rather than earn a paycheck. Maybe you will get into creative endeavors instead of helping customers. But do find a way to continue putting regular effort into something as an ongoing part of your life. If it is work, it needs to be work that works for you–work you love. How much of it you want to be doing is a decision that’s uniquely yours as well.
Sometimes, it’s wise to totally give up the work you have been doing during your primary career years. A few days ago, I met a woman hiker who’s within 14 months of being able to retire from UPS. She needs to step away from that job because it’s physically demanding and her body is starting to object to lifting 70 pounds and driving a route for 12 hours a day during the holiday peak. But she sees that it’s not “either/or.” When she reaches that magic milestone, her goal is to move into a kind of work that gives her more flexibility. That way she can hike on Wednesdays without having to be on vacation. That way she can be part of the family things that she didn’t get to participate in during her career as a UPS driver.
Either/or decisions are fine when you’re deciding where to go for dinner–or even on vacation. But limiting yourself to either/or on the life decisions will leave you sadly shortchanged.
The real question is not “this?…or that?” (Well…maybe if you doing an eye exam….) It’s “What do I want out of this situation and how can I get that to happen?”