Winter solstice thoughts on reinventing oneself in retirement

It is now the winter solstice, the Holly King has vanquished the Oak King. It seems a good time of year to reflect on the balance of opposites, because uneasy lies the head that wears a crown...

The search for wisdom to go with knowledge is one of the themes of the second half of life.Joseph Campbell talked about the value of myth in passing on wisdom, in his magnum opus The Hero with a Thousand Faces. For nearly two decades after my mid-twenties I hardly read any fiction at all, and it probably impaired my ability to comprehend the mystery of being human. That was okay then – you don’t become an engineer because you have a burning sense of wanting to work with people and understand how they work 😉

Establishing themselves in society in the Turning Outwards in one’s twenties, most people find some aspects of their psyche easier to face the world with. The extrovert seeks the company of people, and feeds off their energy. I was not one of these, I was never going to become a salesman, a politician or a motivational speaker. The inferior function, that aspect of one’s psyche that is not normally set against the world, slumbers across the working years, it is not efficient to play a weaker hand.

In my case this is pretty much the whole of the humanities in terms of knowledge, and perhaps a gentling of the introverted nature. I didn’t pick any of this up when I retired in 2012,  perhaps the first few years were occupied with the process of recovery.

But I am picking up signals from these inferior1 functions, now that enough time has passed since stopping work, and now that I have moved. Although we knew a few people here from before, it is invigorating to start anew, and the people we are meeting here value different things in life. They are generally from a more artistic rather than an engineering background. It is early days yet, but perhaps widening the range of activities I cover offers a different kind of reward, developing what has been idle for a long time. I am learning different things – to take one example I have become a better photographer in the areas of composition and the decisive moment, while perhaps weaker in the technical control of the camera since I let this be done automatically a lot more now. I needed to push myself in different areas of the craft, ones I have left fallow too often because they weren’t my strong hand.

Jung posits that the inferior functions of the psyche  still run in the background, and as one gets older these seek expression, to maintain balance. I was surprised to come across the same concept derived from a very different angle from the author Brene Brown, with an unusual twist.

Looking at others, there is a general principle, that energy and capabilities need to flow, the water must find its way to the sea. What is suppressed backs up and will out, but I hadn’t really thought this extended to what is unused.

life as a journey

I am fortunate in that the town I moved to has several bookshops2, and on some previous visit a couple of years ago I picked up one that was remaindered for £5, titled New Passages, by Gail Sheehy. I had already read the original version titled Passages, (predictable crises of adult life) as a library book, and drew on a lot of it when I wrote Journey’s End. There was also a lot of dissonance for me in the case-studies of people as they went through the stages of life. I assumed the dissonance was due to the fact that most of the cases were American, and the book was written when I was a teenager so it describes a world several decades old.

The blurb of the new book was

At last, this is your story. You’ll recognize yourself, your friends, and your loves. You’ll see how to use each life crisis as an opportunity for creative change — to grow to your full potential.

Mrs Ermine appropriated the book so I never got to read it at the time, I figured she may as well read it first since I had already read the original version. I’ve only now started reading the new version, which was written in 1995, and the original version was written in 1976. And saw Sheehy had written about the end of my career when I was just over halfway through it.

“Just at the point when […] reached their forties. however, sweeping structural changes were revolutionising the American and Western European economies. A digital revolution happened under their noses. Worldwide industrial competition grows more fierce every year”

This did happen to The Firm, when I was in my thirties. I had just foolishly overpaid for my first house, so I kept my head down and sucked it up. I was lucky enough to be too young to be the obvious target for the massive rotating axe swung above the workforce’s heads in 1997. Some of those guys got fantastic payoffs, some in their 50s being able to draw their pensions immediately with no actuarial reduction, effectively transferring the cost of redundancy payment from The Firm to the pension scheme. And Sheehy foresaw that, and in applying it to the generation 10 years older than me, foretold what would happen to me just over a decade later.

Sheehy’s description of the experience of the American blue collar workers presaged Donald Trump’s base. I shared  with them a roughly fixed work identity after I had job-switched in my twenties. I was intellectually agile enough to change field entirely, from electronics engineering to software/IT/networking as well as leading people as I drifted up the greasy pole. But it’s nothing like Peter Drucker’s3 exhortations

“you have to take responsibility for knowing yourself so you can find the right jobs as you develop and as your family becomes a factor in your values and choices. […]Simply being well-educated is no longer enough.[…] When you don’t communicate, you don’t get to do the things you are good at.”[^4]

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing. because all the decision trees that fan out from any one state have been collapsed into what did happen, the one path pruned from the bushy growth of potential outcomes. But I can’t help wondering what would have happened if the younger Ermine had picked up Gail Sheehy’s signal earlier. I can’t even take solace in the thought that others didn’t see that coming – Jim at SMHD saw the writing on the wall in his thirties,

I used to worry about losing my job in my fifties quite a bit, and it was quite a driver behind the saving and investing that I did in my thirties and forties.


and I am a similar age. Jim may have been ahead of the curve here. The Cambridge alumnus magazine4 Cam 81 has a spine chilling vision of the ‘new normal’ global economy 3.0 where everybody should worry about losing their jobs, pretty much stick your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye. It’s automation wot’s doing it, and

the reason firms in high-income countries want to pursue automation is because they are under competitive pressure from foreign imports.

A deadly economic flat spin coming our way. But hell, the bear case always sounds smarter, so let’s all whistle a dancing tune and invoke the optimist’s cure-all ‘human ingenuity’ and hope it doesn’t happen, eh? Having seen Sheehy be right on the economic forces, I figured I would see what she had to say about the more personal future.

Sheehy on the ages of (wo)man

First a caveat – some of her work seems to draw heavily on Carl Jung’s psychology. I find Jung an inspirational and accurate mapping for the course of my own development, but this may not be universal. If I look at my closer peer group the mapping is close, but if I look at, say, my mother, it isn’t. She was way ahead of my lifestage development in her 30s and 40s, but I’d say she dropped back after her 40s. Looking at other people, often people stall at one of the stages, recoiling from the change needed. I’d hazard a guess that retirement is one life stage where many people stall mentally at the change from working to non-working, I can think of several family members who shied at that stage.

M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled is a much more lyrical description of the life journey, with a flow that Sheehy’s writing doesn’t have. I don’t find her as bad as this LA Times review, but it’s not a book I can read in long runs. She coarsely divides modern adult life into provisional adulthood (18 to 30), first adulthood (30 to 45) and second adulthood 45+ . Her description of provisional adulthood makes more sense of the cultural changes of people under 30. When I was that age, it was expected that children would leave the parental home when they left school, at 18 at the latest. This was the general norm – many left at 16 to start work, and going to university was vaguely effete and unmanly, considerably less than half of my grammar school even applied. It was a source of pain to me to have to go back to my parents’ place after university because I was unemployed for six months, and it took just over a year before I left home for the last time at 23.

So I look now where you have young adults of almost 30 living with their parents and think to myself WTF, do these guys have no self-respect? But these are anachronistic standards, and with the longer life expectancy and greater material wealth perhaps 30 is the new 20. Sheehy’s description of provisional adulthood matches modern Britain much better than my recollection of my 20s. People start earning a living later in life than my cohort, as well as starting off life with a negative balance from all that student debt. 5

In the FIRE community First Adulthood seems to be the period when many want to earn their fortunes, I don’t think it’s coincidental that retiring by 45 is a goal 😉 It also coincides with the period when many have children, though the end date is fuzzy. Previous generations that expected their children to be financially self-sufficient by 18 would have managed that if they had their kids by 27, but two things about the modern world run against that goal. One is that many children don’t seem to become self-sufficient until about 30, and the other is that the average age of mothers is about 30, which probably pushes the 45 target out to about 60 nowadays.

Second adulthood

I bought Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul researching this because I found Sheehy’s concept of the second adulthood very reminiscent of Jung’s work. I should have read it much earlier6

Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning—for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie. I have given psychological treatment to too many people of advancing years, and have looked too often into the secret chambers of their souls, not to be moved by this fundamental truth.

Carl Jung Modern Man in Search of a Soul

Gail Sheehy’s book has case studies of people as they rattle across the railroad switches into the second adulthood, the Turning Inwards. Jung has these too, with a sharp humour –

The very frequent neurotic disturbances of adult years have this in common, that they betray the attempt to carry the psychic dispositions of youth beyond the threshold of the so-called years of discretion. Who does not know those touching old gentlemen who must always warm up the dish of their student days, who can fan the flames of life only by reminiscences of their heroic youth—and who for the rest, are stuck in a hopelessly wooden philistinism?

Although I have roughly grasped both authors’ summary of the meaning of the second adulthood, it’s hard to put across without having some experience of the transition. The essential problem is that the requirements of work, and outer worldly success demand a high price at the beginning of the first adulthood

We wholly overlook the essential fact that the achievements which society rewards are won at the cost of a diminution of personality. Many—far too many—aspects of life which should also have been experienced lie in the lumber-room among dusty memories. Sometimes, even, they are glowing coals under grey ashes.

I would say that for educated professionals, the effect of having to suppress parts of themselves is much worse now than it was, with the increasing pace, instability and competitiveness in the workplace. But even from my childhood living in a primarily blue-collar neighbourhood, I saw some of those glowing coals of the inferior functions, there was one guy who was a metal-basher by day but made exquisitely detailed ships in a bottle in his time off work, and grunts who swept floors and shifted boxes by day and painted watercolours by night.

That diminution of personality has its cost, and this backs up in the psyche, and seeks a way out. An increasingly toxic workplace is having an effect on employees mental health, it’s not that surprising that those that can get out want out earlier.

early retirees get to define their second adulthood at the right time in life

Normal retirement at State Pension age of 67 is a bit late to begin the second adulthood, so early retirees have an opportunity to engage with this change more actively. What makes this hard is many people identify with work as providing a meaning for life. People ask “what do you do” at parties, not “what do you stand for”. Erich Fromm identified that to be is more important than to have, I’d extend that what you are is more important than what you do.

Change is always difficult, particularly after decades of working most of your waking hours. However, the ‘and then what’ comes to all early retirees, particularly if their friends and acquaintances are still at work. I parried this for a while, using practical and mechanical skills on the farm. And yet if I stood back and measured my progress in the terms of work skills, it has been a gradual slide into irrelevance. I look at articles about engineering, even specialisms I had been in, and I am drifting way behind the leading edge of the curve.

That’s fine with me now. A commenter observed offline that scientists and engineers do their best work in the first half of life. I didn’t really want to hear that then, perhaps I retained some of the Calvinist you are what you do. I parked that for a while. Then an opportunity came up for us to change direction. For sure, I learn new things post work, but across a broader spectrum. What I do now lies more on the inferior axis, aesthetic and visual balance judgement calls, sounds, and every so often, people. It’s just as well that I don’t need to earn money doing these, because this is my weak hand. When I look at The Canny Contractor’s What’s your Why it doesn’t ring true for me, though I have no issue with the philosophy and it’s a great article. It’s a younger person’s fight, that one 😉 I do not need to strengthen the stronger hand. I need to improve the weaker hand, atrophied from thirty years of being in the shadows. These aspects of life will never be as strong as in people born with more aptitude, but I will gain balance in life, and I have been lucky enough to have the privilege of having this choice. For that freedom I am grateful.

What Mrs Ermine was doing was moving in a direction she wasn’t that attracted to, and she was similarly developing other interests. Perhaps she hears the call of Thoreau’s distant drummer

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

We moved westwards, to somewhere we had been fond of for many years. It’s further away from the madding noise and gravitational pull of London. Every time I wanted to get to some of England’s ancient stones, I had to go halfway round the M25, and if I never see that motorway again it will still be too soon. Any change does also have losses, but it is good seeing some of the gains.

CAM81 has a piece On Age, which gave me pause for thought. The intro starts off with a fellow who is 85

“The Cambridge input lasts at least a lifetime. Whatever sized smoking volcano we  once were, we are not automatically extinct the moment we reach 65…”

This fellow is 85 – “Life for me is like a football game, it has two halves. At 85, I’ve been out of corporate life longer than I was in it”

I find it hard to imagine my 85 year old self, and it is very possible I will never get to know him, but there is something invigorating about his approach to a game of two halves. Neither team nor game are the same in the second half; as Jung intimated, not realising that can lead to disappointment for some.

  1. they are inferior in me, as in underdeveloped, not inferior in general value. I have no desire to live in a world populated with people exactly like me ;) 
  2. and yet unfortunate too – these bookshops are a major pain in my attempt to keep my books down to one big Ikea bookshelf and switch to Kindle. One has Experiment in Depth for £3 as a tatty secondhand real book, as opposed to the astronomical £31 for the Kindle book 
  3. I have a special place reserved in Hell for Peter Drucker and everything he stands for. He seems to have single-handedly developed everything that has made the workplace more and more ghastly since I started work. I feel that the world would be a much happier, if less efficient place had he not been born. 
  4. I was not up to the mark to get into Cambridge, but Mrs Ermine was, which is how I get to read that 
  5. If only we could call it a graduate tax, we might avoid normalising debt. The taboo around tax is greater than that about debt, sadly. 
  6. It comes with a warning, however. Those in the first half of life with a materialist rationalist view of the world should save your money, it will stick in your craw 😉 The use of soul in the title is a clear warning, and while Jung doesn’t particularly care what you believe in, or whether it’s objectively true so you can run with the flying spaghetti monster, but his exposition of the problem in chapter 5 “The Stages of Life” won’t please. 

16 thoughts on “Winter solstice thoughts on reinventing oneself in retirement”

  1. The Winter Solstice marks my anniversary of retirement (13 years on now) and I try to mark it with some blog comments of my own. You certainly mirror many of my thoughts (although in more depth and with arguably more eloquence.)
    In my third stage – or maybe 7th if Shakespeare is right – I do value the opportunity to learn more about economics, history, philosophy. Those were things I had to shove aside to figure out chemistry and physics back in the day. However I am still fundamentally a STEM person – I enjoyed brushing up my optics to figure out what was going on in my recent cataract surgery. That STEM background makes me an interesting grandpa and a useful IT person in the neighborhood so who am I to argue?
    I don’t think I ever failed in my career due to lack of technical competence – it was all the goal setting and matrix management crap that I couldn’t swallow. That stuff seems to be more necessary today than ever before so I’m glad to be passing from the scene.
    Jung, Peck, and Steven Covey I admire – Drucker, Tom Peters, and McKinsey – pah.
    I’m happy you are rediscovering yourself in a new and more agreeable venue. Moving from the city to a small town far away was one of the most delightful aspects of leaving the workforce for good.


    1. > I don’t think I ever failed in my career due to lack of technical competence – it was all the goal setting and matrix management crap that I couldn’t swallow.

      Me too with all that – and like you I am just so glad to be shot of that. I think it’s connected with Drucker’s communication exhortation, but all I saw with performance management statements was favouring blowhards and the self-promoters.

      Downsizing the place I lived was also a treat – it is easier to get to know people, and is closer to the natural world. But it does run against the general ethos of big is better and the concentration into networking and cities, so it came as a surprise to me!


  2. Marvellous Ermine! And for me, much more interesting and relevant than some arcane details about the UK tax system or investment. This one is another keeper.

    I was a great fan of Joseph Campbell years ago and read his “Hero With a Thousand Faces” at a time in my late 20s when I was facing a major career transition for a desirable and much more lucrative path from which I retired at 52 last year. I found it a great help for my inner spirit and my internal doubts about my abilities.

    Regarding your books and trying to limit it to one large IKEA bookcase and a Kindle – give up man! I capitulated to my books a few years ago after similar attempts to reduce their quantity. I grew up in a house full of books (my father was a rocket engineer who had dabbled in eastern mysticism as a younger man, so there was a wide and interesting range of reading). Now I accept, I just love books and reading. Great piles of them on tables and on the floor and jammed in to many bookcases. Moving house, which is something I did many, many times over the last few years (as well as continents) is a pain, but…. I love books.

    Some time ago I was a bit inspired by one of those American downsizing bloggers (moved in to a 44 sq m apartment for a few years and then a 30 sq m place, so I did make an effort and achieved some success, although back to a “normal” sized dwelling now). One of these bloggers was the “Hundred Things Challenge” or some similar sounding name. I thought, how the hell can I manage that with all these books? Problem solved; the author said that one of his hundred things was “one library” 😉


  3. A very well written piece, echoing some of the thoughts that ricochet around the space between my constantly growing (and even hairy?) ears. I actually enjoy the detailed tax and financial input as much as the self discovery stuff. My I wish you seasons greetings and thank you for this years entertainment, education and thought provoking insights. Hope Santa brings you something nice!


  4. The quotation from Jung about changes in perspective in one’s later years seemed very familiar – then I remembered I used it in my parting speech at my retirement do. No wonder my daughter thinks I should be cast in the next Grumpy Old Men series.

    I think there is a lot in it though. Thinking again about life’s stages brought to mind an art history lecture I saw years ago. The painting discussed in the lecture shows a man’s head from three aspects: looking to the past, at the present, and into the future. I did a bit of googling and found this is Titian’s ‘Prudence and the three-headed beast’ (I think – I didn’t recall the lion and dogs underneath the portraits). There is an interesting article about it here that even argues for its interpretation in terms of prudent financial planning and, via the idea of a ‘memory theatre’, links it to Turing’s Universal Machine. Probably stretching it a bit there, but an interesting idea.

    I’m still working on what to do with life 2.0, but I think I was right to get on with it when I did. It makes sense, to me at least, to change trains while there is still enough track left to make the onward journey interesting.


  5. Coursera, EdX, Futurelearn. As a former software engineer I have particularly enjoyed dabbling in new things that are completely outside my past experience. Everything from Buddhism to classical music to game theory to psychology.

    Right, off to find Jung’s book now; thanks for the pointer. I have always filed him in the ‘too dense’ pile. Looks like that may no longer be appropriate.


    1. A lot of Jung is dense – the autobiography Memories Dreams Reflections is reasonably accessible.

      Much teaching i nthe modern world is visual, but I came to the conclusion I learn more by reading than hearing. I have mixed results with MOOCs, but I suspect it’s my nonvisual learnign style that’s the issue.


  6. I’m a Cam alumnus. I’d no idea “we” have a magazine and a website. I think I’ll continue to lie low; I don’t want begging letters.

    Come to think of it, I noticed the other day that my pile of College magazines had stopped growing a few years ago. Could I be officially dead? I don’t think so: nobody has yet tried to diddle my ‘widow’ on behalf of either College or University.

    Anyway, may I recommend a book to give context to a couple of thousand years of history, and to provoke merry chuckles of incredulity? Read Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity. They did what? They believed what? Endless fun.


    1. I think if they let idle browsers like me in the website is safe enough 😉 Thanks for the recommendation – Amazon seems to have it cheap enough, though not sadly my library.


  7. Maybe time does cast a rosy glow, eh? I wish I were able to look at my so-called career right now with your philosophical acceptance.
    Alas, when it comes to me vs the workplace, it’s not the swinging axe of redundancies, nor the management by objectives, but the everyday garden variety stupidity that kills me. Also, meaningless hours spent in meetings with talentless hot air filled non-entities who require my pleasure to witness their pissing matches with other equally talentless non-entities. And when it comes to managing people… Well.
    Really, Ermine, I doubt I could ever come to view these gulag years as anything other than the gulag years. Time will tell, I suppose 😉


    1. There was far less of the everyday stupidity in the first couple of decades of my career. It only really started to escalate by the late 1990s in my industry. But heck, I was still bitching about it in 2015 three years after quitting so while time is a great healer it does indeed take time.

      Curiously for an introvert, I got on okay with managing people, but I was lucky enough to get the job of workpackage leader for a couple of EU RACE research projects, which were technically interesting, I had just about enough experience to lead and present and made some great friends that stuck – one of them visited me last month.

      But hey, you don’t exactly see me rushing back into the workplace, eh, so it wasn’t that good. Armed with the FU money the first tosspot perfromance management review I’d take where I had to enumerate my core competences I would pull the big red get be outta here – EJECT handle. There’s more to life than work.


      1. I don’t know if being an introvert is much of an impediment when it comes to people management. I’m quite strongly extroverted, and I don’t believe it makes me any better at it. If anything, it made things more difficult for me in the beginning, before I learned to stop trying to be mates with my reports.
        Being an extrovert merely means that you’re more likely to commit murder than suicide 😉


  8. Careful what you wish for.. My current set-up is with a tiny startup where I’m surrounded by off-the-scale geniuses. Sometimes you dream of some talentless hot-air in a meeting just so you could take a breather.. The pace is terrifying and relentless. I think its going to make for a good chapter in the memoirs though?


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