SI Vault
You can'T PuT ouT THe Fire
Jerry Kirshenbaum
November 12, 1973
Even with time aplenty and money to spare, retirement is often disconcerting. For some, frantic involvement—in sports or in the community—offers solace
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November 12, 1973

You Can't Put Out The Fire

Even with time aplenty and money to spare, retirement is often disconcerting. For some, frantic involvement—in sports or in the community—offers solace

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Milburn's change in attitude reflects social shifts of a broader nature. Where retirement used to be nothing more than a cultural dream for most people, today fully two-thirds of American men above 65 are retired. Furthermore, younger workers are leaving jobs at ever earlier ages, taking advantage of retirement plans that, in the case of some companies, pay partial benefits at 45. But there is no cause for celebration. Surveys disclose, astonishingly, that no more than one-fourth of all retired executives step aside voluntarily; the rest are unwilling retirees for whom the dream has become the worst nightmare.

Many of these involuntary retirements are caused by illness or the kind of obsolescence suffered by Tony Owen. Another form of obsolescence, this one imposed, is mandatory retirement, by which industry makes room for younger blood. Forced to step down, usually at 65, some victims of mandatory retirement become lost souls who continue to show up at executive coffee breaks long after leaving the job. The Gray Panthers, a militant organization of older citizens, urges the abolition of mandatory retirement on the grounds that it constitutes "ageism," condemning to the scrap heap those still willing and able to work. And Alvin Toffler suggests in his best-selling Future Shock that retirement be somehow "gradualized" to avoid "the abrupt, all-or-nothing, ego-crushing change that it now is for most men." Except for progressively longer vacations, however, industry does little in the way of easing retirement shock.

The wealthy and self-employed are sometimes able to gradualize their own retirements and this, in effect, is what Moritz Milburn did when he quit United Pacific. Milburn had tied up his money in stocks and bonds, but he decided to use it instead to build and operate a couple of medium-sized shopping centers. He also accepted directorships with half a dozen companies in everything from insurance to rocketry. Juggling his leisure in much the same way, he began lingering after lunch to play bridge at Seattle's venerable University Club—and then, opting for fresh air, cut down on bridge in favor of golf. Like a mechanic adjusting a carburetor, he was seeking the right mixture.

After years of such fine tuning, it was a contented Moritz Milburn, if not a wholehearted pioneer in leisure, who sipped coffee in the office he had rented to oversee his various activities. "I wouldn't have been happy completely retired," he admitted. "And you know, Rosalie might not have enjoyed it, either. The average woman doesn't want her husband underfoot all day. It's like the woman who told her husband, 'I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch.' Of course, I couldn't hide from the truth. I knew I couldn't go 12 hours a day anymore."

So Milburn worked out a compromise, one reflected in the schedule he was then following. It was a Thursday and he had breezed into the office at 9 a.m., 45 minutes later than he used to report for work at Centennial Mills. He had been away since noon the day before when he had gone home early to play with his six-week-old wirehaired pointing griffon. On Friday morning Milburn would begin a three-day weekend fly-fishing in British Columbia. But at this moment his thoughts were on a new business venture: enriching the mixture a bit, he and some partners had just begun dredging for clams north of Seattle. Milburn unfolded a map of the dredging locations. "What you usually see on the Pacific are hard-shelled clams," he said, "but we're after softshells, like in New England."

Since retirement is called the golden years, it seemed symbolic that the office drapes were drawn, forcing the morning sunlight to fight its way through. In front of the windows stood a splendid Chippendale grandfather clock. As Moritz Milburn pored over the map, the clock ticked off more of the seconds and minutes he had so artfully arranged.

Larry and Mabel Westerberg were about to leave on a journey more modest than usual, an overnight trip to Kalamazoo, Mich. to attend the wedding of a grandniece. As the Westerbergs breakfasted in their ivy-covered house in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, a friend who is a doctor stopped by.

"Don't you two ever get tired of traveling?" the doctor demanded. It was the same question he had asked when Larry and Mabel went to the South Pacific and, before that, to Africa.

The Westerbergs laughed, and after a while the doctor went home. He was in his late 70s, but he had refused to retire, insisting that in half a century of practicing medicine he had seen too many people "fold up" on leaving work. And, as generalizations go, this one was fair enough. Studies suggest that memory tends to decrease faster with retirement and that life expectancy declines sharply. It is a phenomenon that W. H. Auden improbably touched on when he wrote of cancer:

"Childless women get it,
And men when they retire;
It's as if there had to be some outlet
For their foiled creative fire."

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