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Strong Advice on Aging, but Dubious Thoughts on Retirement

Rely on Daniel Levitin's new book for good advice on aging, but not retirement.

Daniel Levitin’s new book, Successful Aging, is deservedly a bestseller. As in his delightful This is Your Brain on Music, he combines solid science with personal commentary. Almost all the advice he gives is excellent, but I have doubts about his number one recommendation: Don’t retire.

Two recent commentaries to my posts have used the derisive expression "OK Boomer," and I share concerns about how to deal with getting older. Levitin's book is a superb user's manual for aging bodies and minds, providing an evidence-based discussion of issues including personality, memory, intelligence, and emotions. He delivers antidotes to excessive worries about declining memory and other problems of aging while giving good advice about diet, exercise, and sleep. There are many encouraging observations, such as that people are usually happier at 82 than at 48.

I know a fair amount about aging brains but this book gave me new information. I love walking in the woods but hadn't thought about the cognitive challenges of walking on rough terrain and dealing with navigational issues. I was not aware that there is a new theory of autism from Stanley Prusiner that connects it with prions, which are misfolded proteins already known to be responsible for mad-cow disease. And mushrooms turn out to have chemicals that may enhance brain operation.

The book concludes with an appendix that provides 10 pieces of advice for rejuvenating your brain: Don't retire, look forward, exercise, embrace a moderate lifestyle, keep your social circle exciting, spend time with younger people, see a doctor regularly, don't think of yourself as old, appreciate your cognitive strengths, and promote cognitive health informative and entertaining. Unlike Jordan Peterson's 12 rules for life, Levitin’s recommendations are largely tied to good evidence rather than shaky dogma. The major exception is his advice against retirement.

Levitin’s full statement is: “Don't retire. Don't stop being engaged with meaningful work.” His support for this advice is stories about people he knows who are happily working into their 70s, 80s, and 90s. In contrast, when he reviews issues about diet, exercise, and sleep, he endorses the sound principle that the word "data" is not the plural of "anecdote." The anecdotes he provides about retirement are mostly based on people in his own fields of academia, music, and the arts, who find what they do to be inherently meaningful. But there are lots of reasons to think that the admonishment to avoid retirement is ill suited for the majority of the population.

I have not found any evidence that people generally regret retirement. Of course some do, but usually because they find that they don’t have enough money or miss social engagement. It is important to have something to retire to as well as a job to retire from. But my friends who have retired are delighted to leave work stress behind. French workers have been demonstrating in opposition to government plans to raise the pension age from 62 to 64, so many people there are eager to retire. In Canada and the United States, professors no longer have a mandatory retirement age, but most choose to retire by age 70.

Anthropologist David Graeber has pointed out that an increasing amount of employment is in what he calls "bullshit jobs," which the workers themselves consider to be pointless. Burgeoning bureaucracies in business, medicine, and education generate futile activities that people delight in abandoning. People naturally are happy to retire from meaningless work.

The academic and musical examples that provide support for Levitin’s advice are relatively cushy jobs. There are also meaningful jobs such as being a physician that are highly stressful because of demands from people needing to be cared for and from organizational constraints. Many jobs such as working in construction or factories are far more physically demanding than being a writer or musician. Levitin’s optimism that aging is not as bad as you think ignores how limitations in physical and mental capacities make work more challenging.

I appreciate Levitin’s advice to keep engaged with meaningful work and his emphasis on volunteering as a valuable occupation in retirement. But he should have given more evidence about the pros and cons of retirement. I retired as a professor almost four years ago, not because I didn't like teaching, but because I wanted more time for writing rather than dealing with bureaucratic bungles. I guess I don't count as being really retired since I still write five days a week. But I know other people who are happy to have left their annoying jobs and to have found other worthwhile activities that don't qualify as work. Retirement means never having to say that you’re sorry.

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