‘If you stand still, you’ll go crazy’: The case for unretirement


It’s been two years since I left my full-time job, at age 65, as managing editor of Next Avenue (the PBS site for people 50+), and embarked on unretirement.

I wanted to share a few thoughts about life in unretirement for people thinking about doing it or who are in it, as well as the stories of two other people who are at this crossroads.

One is Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, 70, who just marked the first anniversary of the column he’s been writing in unretirement, The Golden State, about aging in California. The other is John Kelly, a longtime Washington Post columnist who took a buyout at age 61 and is contemplating his next chapter.

Steve Lopez: ‘Live your life’

For the past 2 ½ years, Lopez has been working for the LA Times three-quarters of the time at three-quarters pay. He calls it a “modified hybrid retirement.”

Lopez works on his column daily, but now has 12 weeks of vacation time which he uses to travel with his wife and to see his daughter play in college tennis tournaments.

Reflecting on his hybrid retirement, Lopez told me: “I really like it and I feel kind of lucky that I did it that way.”

The headline of his recent column reflecting on his year writing The Golden State said: “My decision to keep working didn’t just replenish me; it helped save me.”

Read: This isn’t ‘quiet quitting.’ How quitting — and retiring — can set you free.

Partly, Lopez told me, working in retirement has been therapeutic after the death of his son, at 43, two years ago. “For me, it was a case of, ‘If you stand still, you’ll go crazy.’ So, I just kept working. I still am worried about full-stop retirement; I just get jittery when I don’t have to do something, when I don’t have a deadline.”

I feel the same way.

It’s why I write The View From Unretirement column for MarketWatch, freelance for places like Fortune, Next Avenue and AARP, volunteer most weekends and mentor college students and recent grads at the NYU Summer Publishing Institute, where I’ll be its digital media strategies director for the third consecutive year this June.

Read: Volunteering can be key to a happy retirement. Why aren’t more people doing it?

My wife, Liz, says I’m not retired. I say I am. We agree to disagree.

Lopez told me that interviewing people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 100s for his column has taught him about making the most out of life at any age. He’s been surprised by how many people are thriving in this season of their lives.

Lopez’s new, inspiring role model is one of them: Pete Teti, 100, who is studying fractal geometry and producing computer-driven art projects. Lopez wrote that Teti is “Exhibit A of the idea that all of us must age, but none of us have to get old.”

Lopez, a sometime guitarist, says his biggest unretirement regret has been not joining a garage band. But after writing his anniversary column, he received six offers to jam with others and says he plans to take one up.

Lopez’s advice: Don’t act your age; don’t even think about it.

“We tell ourselves we can’t do things because we’re a certain age, and it’s really B.S. If you want to do it, go ahead and do it,” Lopez said. “I was a little nervous about taking up the guitar. It seems a little pathetic to me to be this age and looking at videos — How do I play this song or that song? But I’m glad I did it. I’m enjoying it and I’m getting better. So yeah, live your life.”

Read: ‘We all need purpose when we wake up in the morning’: Finding meaning in retirement leads to happiness and health

John Kelly: ‘Who will I be next?’

John Kelly is figuring out how to live his life after leaving his perch at the Washington Post, where he worked since 1989 and wrote roughly 4,600 daily “John Kelly’s Washington” columns since 2004.

In one of his last of those columns, Kelly wrote: “I’m a little worried about what I’ll do next, about what I’ll be next.”

He told me his wife, Ruth, who retired in 2023 from her job as a lawyer for the satellite industry (now an adjunct law school professor and board member), said: “Oh, John, he’ll always be writing. He’s written every day for 30 years.”

Kelly told me: “It’s too soon to say. I have a lot of ideas and I’ve always thought it would be nice to spend more time on each thing that I have been able to with a deadline every day. It might be nice to have a project that I spend weeks or months on.”

From the archives: Unretirement has a new face — and it’s Tom Brady

His readers offered their advice, generally saying: Don’t jump into anything too soon. Kelly told me he’s embracing that sentiment, using his newfound free time to think about how to help his parents, clean out his garage, do some filing, and spend more time traveling including seeing his two daughters in England and Oregon and his folks in North Carolina.

He also might play more with his band of older musicians: The Airport 77s.

Kelly’s excited, if a little apprehensive, about his next chapter. “I don’t feel like I have to win the lottery to enjoy the next however many years,” he said.

One thing he’ll likely find out, as I have during my most recent year of unretirement, is that life will throw curveballs. In my case, they’ve mostly been about caregiving — helping my wife take care of her mother and one of her brothers, both of whom have been having rough times lately.

I’ve also had unexpected work and volunteering opportunities come my way, which I’ve been delighted to grab, but also a few projects I hoped I’d get but didn’t. Disappointing, yes, but not devastating.

I have the same attitude as Lopez and Kelly: this stage of life is both what you make happen and sometimes just what happens.

Las Vegas News Magazine

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