midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “retirement”

Minimalism: More Freedom, Less Crap – Material and Otherwise

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around… Minimalists search for happiness not through things, but through life itself.

— The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus

In a medical office waiting room, I stumbled across a reference to a book that piqued my interest, Everything That Remains, a memoir by two Dayton, Ohio young men with working class upbringings and early adulthood, ladder-climbing, wealth-accumulating ambitions, about their gravitation from the timeworn path toward an illusory standard of The American Dream to something more introspective and streamlined called Minimalism.

I found it at the library and read it. You might think the rest of this essay will be a screed about the evils and vacuousness of materialism and consumerism, and the beauty and simplicity of deprivation and Idealism, and a door-to-door-Bible-salesman-like proselytization aimed at convincing you to chuck the former’s wanderings through a vast commercial wasteland in favor of a holier life spent in the latter’s pure Garden of Eden. Breathe a sigh of relief; it won’t be.

The book did put a name to the broad ideas about how I’d prefer to live, though. And I believe I’m largely putting those ideas into practice.

When people hear the term “Minimalism” applied to a lifestyle, it does seem to conjure the image of someone just barely better off than Fed Ex plane crash survivor Tom Hanks’ character stranded on an uninhabited island in Castaway, fashioning shoes from palm fronds, feverishly twirling a stick on a rock to start a fire, and squeezing meager marine nourishment out of a shellfish speared with a homespun, sharpened bamboo pole. They think Minimalism means living a Spartan, monk-like, stripped-down existence: doing without, possessing no things, having no fun, staring at four bare walls from a lonely chair, living in a quixotic commune, scraping by on the minimum, spending no money – hell, making no money! It doesn’t.

What Minimalism means to me, as The Minimalists describe it, is eliminating the clutterFightClub_2 from my life – figuratively and literally – so that all I have left and all that I focus my attention and physical, mental and emotional energy upon are things that add value and meaning to my life. The Minimalists love the book/movie Fight Club, about an underground, subversive group of men breaking free from the soul-numbing shackles imposed by societal, cultural and corporate expectations, citing this quote from Fight Club’s charismatic leader Tyler Durden: “The things you own end up owning you.”

Eliminating oppressive, useless clutter that bogs you down applies to relationships, careers, meaningless pursuits and time-consuming obligations – real or imagined – as well as physical objects. That’s the freedom to which The Minimalists refer.

Minimalism is about breaking free from corporate and cultural influences that tell you who you should be, how you should act, what you should believe and how you should define success. It’s about the freedom to define your own path toward happiness and fulfillment, regardless of the disapproval and negativity you may receive from friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. It’s about the freedom to take risks, the freedom to make choices, the freedom to make mistakes and fail, and the freedom to take full responsibility for all of that in service of living a more courageous, authentic, satisfying and inspiring life.

It so happens that my recent movement toward Minimalism – a transition to a new career in mental health counseling from public relations, a move to a smaller area with a simpler lifestyle – has coincided with a more Spartan lifestyle, more out of necessity than by design. I have moved from a 3-bedroom, 4-bathroom townhouse to a 1-bed, 1-bath apartment. I am earning a salary that is less than half of my last full-time job salary, the result of the career change and starting on a bottom rung in a region with lower wages. I am not “livin’ large” – I’m driving a 15-year-old economy car; watching the smallest-possible, decade-old flat-screen TV, donated to me by a friend, on a no-frills cable TV package; and sleeping on a real bed only after weeks on a constantly-deflating air mattress, because I had no bed to take on my move – but I’m livin’ free and livin’ well.

I have no debt, save for my mortgage, the house I moved from but still own, and which still adds value to my life. I feel a greater sense of meaning and purpose in my new career than my former, so much so that retirement holds no allure for me at age 54, which I consider a good thing. I am pursuing activities and relationships that enhance my life.

I am a proponent of Minimalism, not because I want to latch on to the latest fad or lifestyle trend that may be featured on the Today show or in chic lifestyle magazines, but because my  re-evaluation of the course of my life during the reflective midlife phase was pointing me in the direction of Minimalism before I realized the philosophy had been assigned a pithy label. I am striving to be a Minimalist – not impoverished, deprived, lonely, isolated, rigid, overly austere, Utopian, cultist, weird, eccentric, anti-social, anti-consumerist, or anti-technologist (think Unabomber) – but free to embrace and fully pursue the things I value.

This quote from Minimalism’s emblematic movie, Fight Club, captures the undercurrent stimulating the Ohio natives’ cum Montana entrepreneurs’ lifestyle movement:

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. Goddammit, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man: No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war; our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

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Ramblin’ Man

For the second time in my adult life, I loaded all my possessions I could fit in a compact car and traveled more than 500 miles to a new city in a new state to begin a new career and concomitantly, a new life.

Two small differences were that the first time, I drove a Honda Civic from Washington, D.C. to Florida; the second time, a Toyota Corolla from Maryland to South Carolina.AdamCarPackedForSC

A bigger difference is that the first time I was 22 and just starting out in life, the future stretched out before me like the unending Eastern Seaboard expanse of Interstate 95 that I trekked to Florida, with few obligations or attachments. If the world wasn’t yet exactly my oyster, I had what seemed an eternity to search for pearls.

This time, I was 54, acutely aware of entering the latter stages of my career and wanting to make it inspired, with long-standing financial, material, family, friendship and community ties from nearly three decades in the Baltimore-Washington region. Quite simply, there was more riding on my decision – more people to potentially disappoint or who would disapprove; more things to give up; a sense of security and stability that comes with comfort and familiarity to be shattered; greater doubts and fears about starting anew in midlife to be conquered.

Moving is never easy, especially when relocating as far away as I have, from Maryland to the Charleston area of South Carolina, far enough to truly be gone. I feel like I’ve made a highly unconventional decision to upend my life at this midlife stage, gone against the grain. Indeed, demographic studies and surveys say I have.

While the United States is widely viewed as a land of boundless geographic mobility, with its heritage of explorers braving the Wild West frontiers and searching for their fortune in gold, the truth is, many Americans never venture more than a half-hour from their hometowns to live. Most Americans, especially from certain demographic groups, are stayers, not movers.

  • A 2015 University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study found that the typical adult – half the population — lives within 18 miles of his or her mother, and only 20 percent live more than a few hours’ drive from their parents. The study showed that over the last few decades, Americans are staying put at higher rates, with multiple generations remaining close to relatives for financial and logistical support. Those with college educations and higher incomes are more likely to live farther from their parents.
  • A 2015 Allstate/National JournalHeartland Monitor poll determined that more than half of respondents lived in close proximity to where they grew up. The percentage of stayers was highest for people from rural areas and small towns. Nearly half of all respondents had lived in the same area for 21 years or more. The pull to stay put is strong: Less than half of the respondents who believed that their hometown regions were on the downswing economically nevertheless said that the possibility of a move was not likely for them.
  • A 2008 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 40 percent of Americans had never left the hometown region in which they were born, and 57 percent had never lived in a state other than the state in which they were born. Those who moved most often cited greater economic opportunity; the main influencers for stayers were family, established connections, and a sense of belonging.

Anecdotally, it seemed to me that people in my demographic group – college educated suburban or urban dwellers — moved around in early adulthood as they established careers, sought better opportunities, climbed work and social ladders and started families. But once they entered that next stage, middle adulthood, they seemed to stay put for decades until retirement, in their 60s or 70s, or beyond.

Beyond the pull of family, connections, familiarity and a sense of belonging, a big reason few people move in midlife is that it’s just plain hard, especially emotionally. It’s a gamble, as much as one tries to predict and reduce the risk through analysis, projection and planning. I’m experiencing that now, just completing the first two weeks in my adopted new South Carolina hometown. Everything is new; nothing is known. I can’t sit back and wait for things to happen; I have to make them happen. It takes energy, effort and openness. It requires being outgoing, to meet new people, forge relationships with work colleagues and get involved in things I like to do. It involves learning and adapting to a new culture – as my boss jokes:  “get used to guns and fried chicken.”

It can be lonely – extremely lonely. I relocated to a region where I have no friends or family. Some may call this decision a mistake, a dumb move, a misguided effort to search for where “the grass is greener.”

I certainly have misgivings. I have given up a lot, and that weighs on me. I still don’t know how some things will turn out because of my decision. I almost abandoned the idea of moving many times, but an urge wouldn’t let me. I made a gut decision based on seeking a change of environment after 30 years; an opportunity where I would perhaps be a larger fish in a smaller pond in my new counseling career, thus increasing business prospects; and a place that offered a lifestyle and culture that I believed I would enjoy potentially for the rest of my working life and thereafter. The short-term adjustment challenges would have long-term benefits in quality of life and career satisfaction, I gambled. Still, it was hard to pull the trigger and yank up stakes.

But the angst is counterbalanced by the excitement, renewal, opportunity and sense of adventure that comes with starting fresh in a new place. It’s a chance to recharge batteries and create something from scratch, to expand my universe and experiences, to grow and learn and build confidence, to stretch beyond the known and test myself.

For me, with memories of pulling into my retired distant relatives’ house in Longboat Key, Florida in the dark after a 20-hour journey to start a new life as a 22-year-old sportswriter still vivid in my mind, those affirmatives made it worth going back to the future.

Career Change at 50 ‘Can Be a Perilous Thing’

Altering a career course at fifty can be a perilous thing, and many people, if not most, do not traipse merrily down that path. The luckiest among us find their work fulfilling, and cannot imagine why they would leave. Others would follow their passions if they could, but college tuition, the mortgage, and the care of parents or children or both buckle them into their present work…Still others are simply scared – with good reason, because the job market does not necessarily embrace mid-career transitions.

— Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Life Reimagined

I embarked on a path to a new career at 48. It was more like entering a maze – I couldn’t see what was around the next corner, let alone envision arriving at the destination. I had doubts about whether I would have the fortitude to finish, and whether I actually even wanted to make a dramatic change and start over so late in my professional life.

I had established several decades of skills and experience as a journalist and public relations professional – fields that wouldn’t earn me a cup of coffee in the new career I was pursuing. I wasn’t just transferring and adjusting skills, as I did when I made the leap from journalism to PR. I was doing a total makeover, learning a new way of being.

“The brain likes its habits…and hates change,” Bradley Hagerty quotes a Harvard Medical School professor. “The brain despises conflict: It reasons that I may be happier over there, CareerChange_TwoPathsbut I am earning a good paycheck here, and in general it resolves this cognitive dissonance in favor of the familiar. At the bottom of every dilemma is fear.”

To make the change I sought – becoming a mental health counselor/therapist – I had no choice but to return to school for a marathon master’s degree venture, and ultimately confront the fear of the unfamiliar and the insecurity of the lower earnings commensurate with starting anew.

At first, I merely dipped my toe in the water by applying to a program and enrolling in the first of 22 required courses. I nearly dropped out after breaking my leg before completing my first course and losing motivation, feeling overwhelmed by the long road ahead. I overcame ambivalence and registered for a second course a few days before the next semester began. From there, it was a step-by-step progression that would have registered in the hundreds on a Fitbit.

After 5 ½ years of classes and internships and another five months of bureaucratic license- application process, I have been hired for my first professional job as a licensed counselor at age 54. As Bradley Hagerty writes in her book about midlife, it has not been a merry traipse, though it has been rewarding nonetheless – the sense of striving and accomplishment, the satisfaction of learning and growing, the excitement of pursuing something new and meaningful that will contribute toward others.

“The role of people in their second half of life is not to build up for themselves, but to begin to give away their time, energy and talents,” Bradley Hagerty writes.

There have been costs accompanying the benefits. I left my job two years ago, largely because it was incompatible with the latter stages of the master’s degree program, where I had to serve internships for four semesters. That plunged me from making a comfortable living to pay for a mortgage, two college tuitions and care of children – just as Bradley Hagerty identified – to an itinerant work life in the Gig Economy, working lower-paying temporary, part-time and seasonal jobs. Breaking even on the monthly household budget, much less saving for retirement, went out the window.

Psychologically and emotionally, I felt unmoored. After all, what kind of responsible, mature man in his 50s would be working the same summer job alongside college students as a tennis teacher? Wasn’t I supposed to be at the peak of my earning power – indeed, the job I left provided me the highest salary I had ever made – instead of making the same hourly wages I earned in my 20s? All this so I could enter a new career at the bottom rung in a profession where beginning pay is notoriously low. Just to drive home the point that I’m a rookie, my license for my first two years identifies me as “Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern.”

Was I scared, as Bradley Hagerty suggests many midlife career deliberators rightly are, “because the job market does not necessarily embrace mid-career transitions?”

No…at least not so much to be deterred. I was more scared about looking back in a decade still with a yearning to try something new and realizing with regret that I missed my window. Once midlife careens on the backside toward older age, it becomes even harder to reinvent the self.

I also was entering a job market where there is a growing need, where men are relatively scarce and therefore actually valued for their gender perspective and traits, and where the accumulation of life experience and wisdom that comes with age is an advantage in helping other people with their problems – unlike some other professions, where older workers become dinosaurs because they can’t keep up with technology, trends, new methods and the requisite energy to stay on top. Or they are paid at the high end of the salary range, making them expendable in favor of hungry and more footloose up-and-comers.

Altering a career course at 50 certainly can be a perilous thing. There’s no guarantee the job market will unfurl a welcome mat for a midlife career changer or that the changer will be successful, however success is measured. I’ve managed to get through the front door; now I’ll find out for myself whether the new house I’m entering truly is my dream home.

Is the Grass Greener?

I typically believe the grass is greener on the other side, just over the next hill. It may be self-delusional or wishful thinking, but it’s my nature, however torturous it can be, to believe there’s something better.

Such thinking can be the curse of people who are never satisfied with life and what they grassfield_greenerhave, always seeking, never arriving. Or it can be the motivation that leads to risk-taking, improvement and growth.

I have been seeking greener grass in my career through a marathon five-year journey, and now that I’m on the brink of making a transition from public relations to mental health counseling after what will be 22 graduate courses and two years of internships — and one collapsed full-time job along with its reliable income under all that weight — I am pretty confident that the fescue indeed will be brighter.

I also have been thinking that as I launch my new career in 2017 – which will include, ideally and ultimately, my own independent practice – that a new geographic location may offer greener pastures than the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis where I have been stationed for 28 years, business-, lifestyle-, scenery- and culture-wise.

My thinking is that the time to make a geographic change would coincide with my career transition, or at least relatively early in my new career, before becoming established in one place.

I also will be 54, far into midlife, by the time I graduate the counseling program. If I go somewhere else, I want to be young enough to become engaged in the fabric of the new community occupationally, socially, civically, recreationally and other ways, not just to live out retirement (which I don’t know if I will ever want to reach anyway).

I have already had people advise me against moving, telling me essentially that the grass is not greener, that the desire for something fresh and new is merely a cover for a compulsion to escape.

The idea of moving is complicated by several factors, primarily family concerns. Some factors I believe are manageable: I don’t have a big fear of change; the move wouldn’t necessarily be irreversible if it didn’t work out; I believe I could make new friends and keep old ones with some effort; I am confident I can earn a living and be successful starting a business, though research is needed.

But family, that is the hardest one to gauge. I’m a new empty-nester. Both of my kids are attending Maryland colleges. My daughter will graduate the same weekend I will in 2017. She may go to France to teach English; she may follow her boyfriend to an engineering job in Texas or beyond; or she may stay in Maryland. My son will have at least two years left. My extended family is small and scattered.

My wife’s family and her roots are in Maryland. She doesn’t want to leave. I understand. Many would argue that factor alone should kibosh the whole idea. And perhaps it will. Or perhaps there could be room for compromise and negotiation as events unfold and more is discovered.

There’s no doubt that the belief that the grass could be greener can complicate life and cause angst. But it’s also a belief that gives those prone to seeking an excitement about the unknown, about a new experience, about what could be around that next corner, over that next hill. Will it be emerald green, or drought-baked brown?

Living on the Cheap

Since I left my full-time, public relations job last October to focus on my unpaid counseling internship and a full-time course load as a master’s degree candidate in pastoral counseling, I’ve adapted to living on the cheap.

I can’t say I’m living a deprived life or even struggling. I have everything I need and much more. I can’t say I have any idea what it’s like to live day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, wondering where the next meal will come from or worrying about losing my shelter. Comparatively, I’m well-off, not one of the “1 percenters” but probably closer to that than the bottom 75 percent.

But I am more aware of, and closely monitoring, my discretionary spending, much morePennies_cheap than when I knew my bank account would be replenished with an equal amount every two weeks. I am subscribing to minimalism, at least to some extent, as described in the book, Everything That Remains by The Minimalists.

Still, just as I’m transitioning careers in midlife, I’ve hit a time of financial stress and challenges. In addition to my own graduate school tuition, I’ll have two children in college in the fall. Three simultaneous higher educations will blast a cannonball-sized hole in any family budget. I am not so many years away from typical retirement age – though with my new career, I plan to work as long as I want and don’t ever envision really retiring. And if the theory holds true that you will need $1 million in retirement to last, I have a long way to go. And I have an aging parent who could need financial help in the future.

Despite my income needs, I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t adeptly handle a full-time job, a part-time internship and graduate school classes, and perform any of them well and with full focus, without suffering from stress, exhaustion and dissatisfaction. Trying to handle them all might have doomed completion of the counseling master’s degree after a four-year investment.

Luckily, I have a wife with stable employment (though with a company known for frequent layoffs and restructurings) that has provided a financial anchor while I scramble to produce more erratic income from various sources.

That’s what brought me to the Sea Colony Tennis resort in Bethany Beach, DE to work as a seasonal tennis instructor for the summer. Though it required me to be away from home, it provided the greatest earning potential for the short period between internships and semesters.

I found the cheapest place I could rent, no easy feat along the shore, and am living with two roommates. One roommate is another tennis instructor who is living similarly frugally. He turned me on to the Dollar Store, where we’ve bought a lot of our food, toiletries, medications and household items at half the cost of the grocery store. We found the Atlantic Community Thrift Store, where I got a cool Old Navy bathing suit for $2 and he found a Pinehurst Golf jacket for pennies on the dollar and a desk chair for $3. My roommate has found a way to play several holes of golf for free by walking onto a course near our house after regular hours.

I’ve been here for 15 days, and have gone out for a meal only once, my first night. It’s tempting, with all the restaurants, seafood and pizza joints and junk food establishments at the beach, but I’ve held off so far. I question each expense to determine if it’s necessary, while still allowing certain indulgences like Dollar Store sale-priced Doritos and ice cream bars.

The tennis teaching season has started relatively slow, while school is still in session and most tennis-player vacations are planned for July and August. That’s when I’ll make my money and the investment to live away from home pay off. I’m conscious that going out for a beer and appetizer plus tip can wipe out the earnings of a one-hour tennis clinic, and what would be the point of that?

My one other indulgence was the clunky, antique, heavy-as-hell cash register I bought on a whim on my way to move to the beach at a roadside antique and junk shop. Even then, I bargained the proprietor down from $50 to $20. I have no idea its worth and it needs some refurbishing, but it looks retro-stylish. I think the guy just wanted to get rid of it, an indication it’s not worth much in its worn condition.

Living cheaply means living more simply. I like it. As long as I have enough income to meet my needs and preferably a few wants, I’m happy. It’s less stressful than trying to make more money so I can live bigger, have more and maintain more. Living cheaply, I can focus on the things that matter – relationships, pursuing fulfilling work, helping others and doing things I enjoy with my time, which will be more possible when my income needs are less.

Living on the cheap was brought about for me largely by necessity. But it is a lifestyle choice that I embrace.

Social Insecurity

God help me if, in my supposed “Golden Years,” I’m hanging out by my mailbox, hopefully not hunched over like Quasimodo or leaning on a walker or sitting on a scooter (no offense to those who need them for mobility, I just hope it’s not me), on a certain day of each month anxiously awaiting my Social Security check so I can survive for another month.

Often through no fault of their own – or sometimes, through bad luck, setbacks, unfortunate decisions, costly medical problems, lack of foresight and typical life struggles – that is the fate of many older people in the U.S. The fear that I may join them drives me to try to maximize my income-producing options for the future and save and invest as much as possible, as hard as it is with two college-age children, my own graduate school education, a mortgage, and a life in a metro area with one of the nation’s highest costs of living.

The AARP’s Retirement Confidence Survey revealed that nearly half of 50+ workers and nearly three in five retirees have less than $25,000 in savings and investments. That, to me, certainly seems like a crisis of poverty engulfing our elderly citizens. Think about it: three of five retirees who may live 20 years in retirement may have $1,000 or less in savings and investments for each of those years. That’s a retirement of mere survival.

Most 50+ American retirees have less than $25,000 in savings/investments.

Most 50+ American retirees have less than $25,000 in savings/investments.

The survey found that Social Security is a major source of retirement income for two of three retirees over age 50.

The survey concluded that Americans age 50 and older may not have a realistic view of their financial future in retirement and are not adequately preparing for it.

Whether many people could possibly adequately prepare for it in this age is another matter, with wages and income stagnant in perpetuity; rampant employer layoffs, persistent and widespread unemployment and jobs shipped overseas; escalating and unaffordable college tuition; high student and consumer debt loads; and rising consumer costs and government fees and taxes.

In my state, Maryland, politicians are trying to force workers to save for retirement. A new legislative effort has been launched to establish retirement security plans for more than a million Marylanders who would otherwise rely entirely on Social Security in retirement.

U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez joined Maryland leaders to promote the national initiative at the state level: the creation of workplace savings accounts in which employees would be automatically enrolled but would have the right to bow out of participation.

While I believe the financial fate of the nation’s elderly is important to the U.S. economy and society’s overall health and well-being, I contend that the government is overstepping its reach in this effort of forced “workplace savings accounts.” I also believe in individual responsibility and accountability and free choice. And where does this policy leave entrepreneurs, consultants and other non-traditional income earners in this unstable economy which is increasingly moving toward a free-agent model and employers cannot be counted upon for a secure job for life?

As for me, this fear of over-reliance on somewhat meager Social Security payments is one of my motivations for pursuing a graduate degree in mental health counseling. Counseling is something I can do independently to produce income if I so choose, and a career that doesn’t necessarily come with a built-in retirement date. It expands my options, and I want all the options I can generate at my disposal to live life on my own terms in the future.

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