Some of the most fortunate people in the world never retire. Consider Warren Buffett, who at age 83 remains CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Dianne Feinstein, the 80-year-old senator from California, and the head of circulation at our local library, who is going strong at age 72 and still loves her job.
Not all of us have the option to keep our jobs for as long as we want. Some of us are forced to retire in our 50s. Others jump into retirement at the first opportunity, even if they can't really afford it. Still others are sick of their jobs and dream of retirement, if only they could survive without a paycheck.
But retirement is not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition, and neither is financial independence. There is a lot of gray area where you may have some income in the form of interest, dividends, a pension, Social Security or a working spouse that is enough to supplement your earned income, but not enough to completely replace your income. What this financial semi-independence can do is cushion the blow of a layoff, or allow you to leave behind the drudgery of your old job and strike out for something new and more interesting, but that may not pay as well.
If you've been given a gold watch, a kick out the door or are just sick and tired of your job, you might be able to leave behind the daily grind and fill in the missing income in other ways.
The key is not to think of retirement as a time to sit around and do nothing. Instead, think of it as a time, at last, to do what you want. For a select few, that might mean continuing to run your own company, holding on to a seat in the U.S. Senate or helping people in the library. Others may want to continue what they've been doing, only on a less stressful basis. You can retire from your job, and work as a freelancer or consultant in your field – even for your old company. You’ll probably receive less money, but also work at a less frenetic pace, involving less stress and fewer demands on your time. Would you want to keep your job if you could do it 15 hours a week, instead of 40 hours a week, and do it from home, instead of commuting to an office?
But there are plenty of people who harbor a dream to do their own thing, and early retirement is the perfect time to pursue it. I have a friend who was laid off as a production manager in a publishing firm. He entered a fast-track training program for middle-school science teachers, and a year later had a new career. Now, instead of worrying about losing his job in a declining industry, he is enjoying his daily give-and-take with young teenagers.
There are also plenty of primary school teachers who do the opposite. One teacher got burned out on kids, retired and went to work at a food cooperative where there are no staff meetings, no parent phone calls and no challenging kids.
I have another friend who was in corporate sales, until he got fed up with the travel and commute. At age 60, he became a real-estate agent. He makes less money, but he has more time to take care of his wife who has health problems, and to get out and follow his daughter's music career.
Then there's the financial executive who at age 52 went back to school, got his nursing degree and started a new career in health care. He now works part time, on his own schedule. It gets him out of the house, earning some money, and allows him to feel socially useful.
Some people counter, if you're still working, how can you say you're retired? Think of it like a summer job in college. You're still on vacation. There are no papers to write or exams to take. And you're not getting graded. You don't have to suffer the indignities of the dreaded performance appraisal.
Working in retirement can provide the best of both worlds. You're free from the daily obligations you've been shouldering for years. But you're still making money. You have some structure in your life. You're meeting new people. And you're doing something useful, making a difference in the world.
Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.