In my last post, I talked about the importance of knowing where your money goes and, in the way of these things, I chuckled when I heard a guru of “expenses tracking” – Vicki Robbin, co-author of the classic Your Money or Your Life – being interviewed by the Mad Fientist on his most recent podcast. I almost gave up on listening right through to the end of this interview however because, to be honest, this woman is a verbal Duracell Bunny on amphetamines. She just won’t shut up! The Fientist was lucky to get two dozen words in edgeways as the ideas, stories, recollections and events of Vicki’s life just poured forth like a torrent. It didn’t help that when the Fientist did actually lever a question in, she’d answer, “You know, that’s such a GREAT question”, an American cliche in interviews that’s becoming so common (like beginning sentences with the word “So”) that it’s almost an insult.
So I stuck with it, and in the end was glad I did, because as the podcast came to a close, Vicki began to talk about some subjects that I’d like to tackle myself in my blog, about some aspects related to retirement finance that you don’t necessarily think about. Or don’t want to think about. Top of the list was a comment she threw out from the welter of information she’s gathered over the years. “Loneliness is expensive”, she stated, and went on to talk about how vital it is to have a developed network of friends and community around you as you grow older. This was in the context of quite a lot of other material about community living and how to develop and look after yourself in retirement once you have the finances covered.
When I had my year out sampling early retirement, this was something that struck me personally quite hard – just how much my community, my network and several of my close friends, were actually all connected to my workplace. When that vanished, well, they didn’t exactly vanish too, they just receded rapidly over the horizon! People I’d spoken to every working day for several years were suddenly out of reach. Clearly I couldn’t call them on a daily basis just to chew the fat, but I made the effort to keep in touch maybe once a fortnight. Which then dropped to maybe once a month. Meanwhile the casual acquaintances at work, whose company I often enjoyed even if in small doses, well, they did vanish, only to be glimpsed occasionally on Linkedin as a reminder of the community I once had.
Okay, this seems obvious now, and I was cognisant of it when I was at work too – my workplace pretty much was my community. But leaving it was something I hadn’t really prepared for, nor was it something I was ready to pragmatically replace. I’m not, and never have been, a great fan of clubs or societies. I never liked the Scouts or the Boys Brigade as a lad, so thoughts of joining a “club” like the Round Table, or the University of the Third Age, or the local Historical Society, really didn’t appeal to me. Even clubs I was a member of, like my local golf club, I’d no interest in getting more involved with. In fact, the guys I do golf with, we all take an almost perverse pride in how little we join in with any of the club’s activities, slagging off our perceived notions of just how small-minded and parochial, if not downright snooty, that culture seems to be.
What other community interests and ventures could I take part in? I tried some voluntary work when I was retired but, ye Gods, after coming from the world of “real work” the way these organisations seemed to do things quickly drove me scatty. They were like how I thought the worst of the public sector might work. Meetings that would drag on and on with nothing really decided, or done. Hours spent discussing the organisation of a coffee morning or a checkout collection at the local village Tesco, while I’d be sitting there thinking “There are seven Tescos in our town, why don’t we do all of them, every day, for a week! Now that would raise some real cash!” When I voiced this opinion, the (elderly) members just looked at me as if I’d gone insane. Soon we’d be back focusing on the more important things, like who was going to organise the tea and coffee for the next meeting? And which biscuits should be bought, given the budget situation.
My wife’s managed to develop a wide circle of friends through her attendance of classes at the gym where I’m a regular member too. But, I don’t know, I find gyms really quite unfriendly and distant places, at least for men. Are blokes slightly embarrassed to be there? Or are the type of men interested in developing their fitness quite insular and introverted? Are we too competitive and proud to be friendly? I really don’t know, but in my experience gym’s are just not overtly sociable places. Perhaps this is the old “How did you find the people in the last village?”* adage, but I don’t think so. There’s more to it than that.
As I write this, I think, “Maybe I’m just becoming a crotchety old git?”, Victor Meldrew over the back. But surely he was such a strong and popular character because he ciphered some hard home truths to people about how they might become if they’re not careful? Victor Meldrew is seriously no role model for retirement but not because he’s ridiculous. It’s because we see in him traits that we can see in ourselves but find difficult to face up to. As you grow older, your tolerance bandwidth shrinks unless you work to enlarge it.
To return to the podcast, Vicki talked about how we’ve put work and money on a pedestal while sacrificing just about everything else before it. We’ve no time, or energy, or inclination to nurture much outside of family – if we actually get to see the family much itself, after the commute and long day at work. There’s some statistic that about 50% of us don’t even know our neighbours names these days. Arguably that’s a good thing but, if I take out the facetiousness, it clearly isn’t a good thing at all. Especially not for older people.
There’s now some interesting data being punted around about how the biggest division in society is between people who leave their home town and those who don’t. People who value community ties before the career path. Guess where the Brexiteers and Remainers sit? Well, forget the cliched politics of the stereotyping that this debate has grown out of, I find it a relief just to read of a way of looking at our society that’s not fixated on class, money, status and the individual. If Brexit sparks a debate about the importance of culture and community outside of the economic factors then that’s a good thing, is it not? As we grow older we need a social and community support network almost more than we need cash. Given that the generation coming up isn’t going to have much of the latter, we need to think an awful lot more about how to nurture the former.
*The Parable of the Two Villages
A man who was traveling came upon a farmer working in his field and asked him what the people in the next village were like. The farmer asked “What were the people like in the last village you visited?” The man responded “They were kind, friendly, generous, great people.” “You’ll find the people in the next village are the same,” said the farmer.
Another man who was traveling to the same village came up to the same farmer somewhat later and asked him what the people in the next village were like. Again the farmer asked “What were the people like in the last village you visited?” The second man responded, “They were rude, unfriendly, dishonest people.” “You’ll find the people in the next village are the same,” said the farmer.