Reframing Retirement: The Gift That Keeps Giving

Man extending arms with a gift in representation of retirement being a gift that keeps giving

For many, retirement implies the freedom to spend all that money you spent years saving. But the expenditure I’m referring to is not financial. Rather, the open-ended outlay of time tends to pose a bigger conceptual challenge for many. One of the themes we see with our financially secure clients is that their prosperity poses a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, it ought to leave them feeling liberated. No longer do they have to trade their time for money. However, trading their time for money has been the overarching purpose governing how they choose to invest their time. It is, at least in part, a transactional choice to do this in exchange for that. Not that there’s anything wrong with a swap, but it’s a different beast altogether from the prerogatives that apply to retirement.

Retirement & The Gift Economy

In psychologist Edith Eger’s bestselling book The Gift, its core lesson teaches us the difference between a transaction and a gift. Its core lesson teaches us the difference between a transaction and a gift. Perhaps the most interesting distinction the writer makes is that a gift is not meant to be an equal exchange. The very intent behind a gift waives off forward giving. In a gift economy, you give without expectation of anything coming back. Gifts, as Eger points out, are supported by labor, not work. Her definition of work as a transactional function reminds us why. By contrast, the labor of parenthood, the labor of creating art, the labor of cooking a meal for your family – they are done for the sake of the act and its beneficiaries without a balance sheet of anticipated return. The gift itself is enough.

Reframing Retirement: From Transaction to Gift

The concept of a gift may take some warming up to for a veteran of a lucrative career. But once there, it’s like a trick candle that keeps reigniting. The bright flame continues to flicker. I believe the gift concept to be a powerful catalyst for prospective retirees to shift their thinking about the future. Because if you acknowledge that you have enough money and there’s no longer any need to be transactional, now you can ask yourself, In service of what would I choose to labor?

The Quest for Meaning

A healthy tension between labor and leisure is to be heralded. But what labor would you choose? Here I’ll offer some dos and don’ts born out of experience: Don’t complicate your quest for meaning by factoring in money. Do reframe it as a choice between a labor and a gift. Don’t turn the endeavor into a transaction just because that’s what you’re used to. Do shed the old transactional head space – the gift is enough in itself. Consider this powerful exercise: remember how you’ve felt when you’ve given someone a meaningful gift. You’re probably not drumming your fingers on the table wondering, Well, where’s my gift? Don’t default to spreadsheet mode in designing your future endeavors. Do try envisioning those future endeavors as gifts, whether serving on a board, writing a book, volunteering for a cause or making art—and see where it pulls you.

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