#176 – Words That Shape Act III (Eliminate “Retirement”)

ESSENCE:  Words are important and powerful, and the culture of the world is filled with words that blind us to God’s purpose for work and business. In particular, the concept of “retirement” from “work” is built on a deception about the very nature of “work” and why we were created. Not only does “retirement” rob a person of their God-given purpose and the opportunity to be fully human, it robs the world of their God-given gifts of creativity and productivity that were meant to be used to love and serve others.  For faithful leaders seeking to lead with faithful integrity through business a better way, one priority should be eliminating the allure of “retirement”.  This requires addressing the brokenness of the workplace and work and helping people understand both the importance of work to their humanity and the dehumanizing effect of “retirement”.  We believe the concept of “repotting” is a wonderful alternative to “retirement”, but it requires a bigger concept of “work”–God’s original concept.

What we mean by “Act III” is that period in life after “middle age” when many people are winding down (or escaping) jobs or careers and wondering “what’s next”.  The Encyclopedia Brittanica says that “middle age” is “generally defined as being between the ages of 40 and 60“.  Some people continue in their jobs or careers for years or even decades after 60, but many choose to “retire” as fast as they can because they can’t wait to stop “working”.  If you have been reading our posts, you know we believe words are important and powerful. The word “retire” is toxic because it has the power to rob a person of their humanity–a humanity that requires work.

Refresher: The Power of Words

We have written several posts on the importance and power of words, including the power of words to shape work, shape identity, and shape organizational culture.  Words have the power to build up or tear down.  Words have the power to clarify or confuse.

There is a famous quote (attributed to various people in various forms) that essentially says our words become our actions, which become our habits, which become our values, which become our destiny.   In the words of Tony Robbins:

Words can not only create emotions, they create actions. And from our actions flow the results of our lives.

God created the universe by speaking, and Satan tried to tempt Jesus by twisting God’s word.   The Bible tells us that words have the power to create (Genesis 1:3; Hebrews 11:3), to effect change (Mark 11:23), to give life or bring death (Proverbs 18:21), to build up or corrupt (Ephesians 4:29), to bring health (Proverbs 16:24), and to destroy (Proverbs 11:9; Matthew 12:36-37).

The culture of the world is filled with words that blind us to God’s purpose for work and business.  In particular, the concept of “retirement” from “work” is built on a deception about the very nature of “work” and why we were created.

Refresher: The Nature of “Work” and our Role in the World

As we said way back in post #006 (The Basics–Fruit) and many times since, people are more “fully human” when engaged in meaningful work that unleashes their God-given productivity and creativity in a culture of Shalom built on Biblical principles of relationships, community and human dignity.  Curating such a work culture should be a priority for a faithful leader leading with faithful integrity through business a better way.

Work is Good. God created “work” as something “good” before the Fall, and God put us into the Garden to “work and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15).  You have probably heard that the Hebrew word avodah means work (Genesis 2:15), worship (Exodus 8:1) and service (Joshua 24:15).

Humans Were Created To Work. Humans were created in the image of a creative and productive God who displayed His “working nature” by creating for six days (and then resting), which means work is essential to our humanity in reflecting that nature.  Being “fully human” requires having an opportunity to reflect God’s image and reveal His Kingdom in all of life, including our work.

Work has intrinsic value in God’s Kingdom simply because it allows us to reflect our humanity (and work is necessary to express Imago Dei), apart from the product of that work.

Our Work Is Needed. The product of our work also has intrinsic Kingdom value because it is the way we fulfill the Creation Mandate in Genesis 1:28 to: “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”  In his book Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller says that with the Creation Mandate, God was “commissioning workers to carry on his work“.  Keller goes on to explain:

We are called to stand in for God here in the world, exercising stewardship over the rest of creation in his place as his vice-regents. . . .  This is a major part of what we were created to be.

We do that by taking the raw materials God created and applying our image-bearing creativity and productivity to produce new things that bring and promote flourishing, including by allowing the development of culture, society and economic prosperity. Because we live in a broken world, we also fulfill the Creation Mandate with “work” that uses our gifts solve problems and “repair” the world–what is captured in the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam.  Fred Rogers (of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame) declared:

No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we all are called to be “tikkun olam”—repairers of creation.

Our Unique Gifts Are Needed. By our nature as creations in the image of God, and in order to equip us to fulfill the Creation Mandate by stewarding creation, we are given gifts of creativity and productivity through specific skills and physical and mental abilities.  For example, some are given a gift of physical strength, some an artistic ability, some a logical mind, some a mathematical mind, some a poetic mind, some a business mind, some a gift of nurture and care, some a gift of ideating, some a gift of craftsmanship, some a gift of executing, some a gift of elocution, and some athletic ability.

Work is the platform God created for putting these gifts to creative and productive use for His glory, and 1 Peter 4:10-11 declares that we are to use these gifts–the basis of our work and stewardship–“to serve one another”:

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace…in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.

Humans are meant to serve one another through work by applying their gifts to steward creation and promote flourishing of that creation.   When we reflect the image of God by exercising our God-given gifts through work to serve one another, we are also living out the commandments to love God and love one another.

“Work” is a vehicle for living out those commandments.

Refresher: Being Human

To understand why we think retirement robs us of our humanity, it is necessary to understand what we mean by “human”.

If you have been following our posts, you will know we believe that one of the three bigger WHYs of business a better way is to Humanize People.  We do not believe that being human is the same as being homo sapien.  A person can be more or less Humanized.

You might be asking, “I was born a human and have always been a human–what does it even mean to be Humanized?”  We were certainly created by God to be human–creations uniquely brought to life with divine breath (no other aspect of creation received divine breath) in the image of a creative, productive and relational God, made for a purpose and deserving of dignity and respect because we were created in God’s image.  It is “who we really are“, but not necessarily how we are living and working in broken workplaces that are part of a broken world.

Our friend Dr. Skip Moen argues that “humanness” is something we must choose to move toward in our lives:

We become human when we act as the Creator acts.  We earn humanity over the course of our lives.

He writes that “becoming human” is an act of free will.  We are born with everything we need to truly become who God created us to be, but being “human” means working toward reflecting our God-given characteristics in a broken world that is dehumanizing:

I can move toward God’s design innately implanted in me, or I can move away from His design, forging a self-made creature fashioned by lesser purposes.  I am equipped to manifest God’s design.  He has insured that I lack nothing necessary for this project.  But accomplishing the task of becoming human requires a continual connection to the Maker. . . .  The systems of this world are designed to remove your humanity because they are designed to remove you from a relationship with your Creator.  Whatever is self-driven leads to inhuman behavior.  True humanity is found in humble submission to the Creator.

Because we were created by God to reflect God’s image through work, working actually moves us in the direction of becoming more fully human.  Consider this observation by Jeff Van Duzer:

When humans engage in creative, meaningful work that grows out of relationships and gives back to the community they become more deeply human. (Jeff Van Duzer)

The Allure and Problem of “Retirement”

Merriam-Webster defines “retire” as “to withdraw from one’s position or occupation: conclude one’s working or professional career.”

If “work” is an essential vehicle for living out what we were created to be and do as humans–Imago Dei, the Creation Mandate and the commandments to love God and love another–then ceasing “work” necessarily leaves us without an essential tool for being fully human.

Yet, dreams of “retirement” fill the heads of most working Americans.  In a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet, less than 5% did not plan to “retire” because “they don’t think they’ll ever want to stop working.”  90% of those surveyed expected to “retire” and an additional 6% wanted to retire but didn’t think it would be financially possible.

Retirement as a Response To Brokenness.  We believe the reason many people are obsessed with “retirement” is because the work they are escaping barely resembles the work God designed to bring us life.  They are escaping what we have described as “toxic” work as usual, which is a by-product of business as usual.

Work as usual has become a burden that people can’t wait to “retire” from rather than a Humanizing blessing and reflection of God’s character.  The perception of work as a burden can occur among both those people who view work as a “job” and those people who view work as a “career”.

For those who view work as a “career”, work can become a burden as the means to acquire idols and identities.  The American culture of achievement and the American marketing message of “more and bigger” can put tremendous pressure on people to work longer and harder to “climb the ladder”, “fit in” or “keep up with the Jones’s”.  For those chasing idols, retirement is marketed as the final big achievement–earning the right to spend Act III on a golf course in some sunny locale or at a luxurious “retirement” community where everything is done for you.

For those who view work as a “job”, work can be perceived as little more than a necessity–“necessary” to pay the mortgage, “necessary” to put food on the table, “necessary” to avoid getting fired.  People in “jobs” are more likely to have no sense of a greater vision, may not to feel valued by their employers and not to feel they have a voice–the three keys to feeling connected and engaged according to Michael Stallard in his book Connection Culture. Retirement can become the “escape”.

This lack of connection and engagement and desire for “escape” occurs also in “career” jobs. In earlier posts, we noted that worker engagement statistics suggest only 10% of workers are effectively mobilized–experiencing an essential part of their humanity through their work–their expression of creativity and productivity.  The remaining 90% are experiencing varying levels of dehumanization.

Our cultural obsession with finding “Work-life Balance” is perhaps the best indicator that work has ceased to be the blessing God intended and has become a burden.  We no longer view work as part of our life–part of the rhythm of life.  Because it has become all-consuming and spiritually unfulfilling, we see it as something that keeps us from life–an oppositional force.

Is it any wonder that people long to “retire” and spend their remaining years as far from God’s life-giving gift of work as possible.

Retirement as a Misunderstanding of Work.  “Retirement” is also alluring because our culture has defined “work” in a very narrow way that does not reflect God’s design.  In the kingdom of the world, “productivity” and “provision” are inextricably bound, and “work” is something we do in exchange for money, because we “need” the money to survive and, for some, because it is a source of power and status.

Retirement promises the end of “work” and the beginning of “life”–the ultimate “Work-Life Balance”.

In God’s Kingdom, “productivity” and “provision” are decoupled.  God’s people are Humanized by being obedient to God’s commands, leaving the outcome and their provision to God.  Those commands include the avodah “work” that makes us fully human–work, worship, service.  It is anything we do to use our God-given gifts of creativity and productivity to fulfill the Creation Mandate or live out the commandments to love God and love our neighbor–in the words of 1 Peter “to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

In God’s Kingdom, a job or career is simply a distribution mechanism through which God fulfills His promise of provision.  Those who have received enough wealth to “retire” have simply had their provision “paid forward”.  The obligation of obedience through life-fulfilling avodah “work” is not extinguished.

Not only does “retirement” rob a person of their God-given purpose and the opportunity to be fully human, it robs the world (including the rest of us humans) of their God-given given gifts of creativity and productivity that were meant to be used to fulfill the Creation Mandate and to live out the commandment to love others, including by “repairing” the world.

Sometimes it's good to be ``repotted``. (Dr. Justin Hecht)

Act III in a Business a Better Way World

For faithful leaders seeking to lead with faithful integrity through business a better way, one priority should be eliminating the allure of “retirement”.  This requires addressing the brokenness of the workplace and work and helping remove the deceptive veil that keeps people from understanding God’s original design for work, its importance to their humanity, and the dehumanizing effect of “retirement”.

Humanize Work. Fixing the brokenness of the workplace and work is the subject of all our posts–helping faithful leaders move from business as usual to business a better way in alignment with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities.  The focus of this post is providing Act III alternatives to “retirement” from “work”.  One alternative is to continue working in a Humanizing workplace, which requires business a better way.  Another alternative is “retiring” not from work itself but merely from a specific job or career and “repotting”.

An Alternative to Retirement: “Repotting”.  Retirement marks an end with no natural “next” because it comes from an understanding that “work” is over.  While retirement may be a long-sought idol or escape, it can also be uncomfortable.  It is uncomfortable because we were not designed to stop “working”–to stop using our God-given gifts to love God and love and serve others.

At a recent event about living Act III, a Jungian analyst, Dr. Justin Hecht, talked about “repotting”.  In reference to his own move from California to Massachusetts, he quoted his father as saying:

Sometimes it’s good to be repotted.

When you “repot” a plant, you bring it with its root-structure intact.  It is not starting from scratch–it is preserving the benefits of past growth and development and moving them to a new home where they can continue to flourish.  Often, repotting involves moving a plant that has reached its growth potential in its existing environment and bringing it into a larger pot where it can grow beyond the limitations of its old home.

We believe the concept of “repotting” is a wonderful alternative to “retirement”.  Whereas retirement marks an end with no natural “next”, repotting marks a new start.  Although repotting can occur at any Act in a life, repotting in Act III likely requires a broader understanding of “work” than the world’s narrow concept of activity in exchange for money. It requires separating “productivity” from “provision”.

The world tells us that jobs and careers are the source of “provision” for life.  The Bible tells us that God is our source of provision.  The world tells us that amassing sufficient provision to “retire” relieves us of the obligation to be productive.  The Bible offers no end to obedience to God’s commands–obedience to use our God-given gifts to fulfill the Creation Mandate and live out the commandments to love God and love and serve others.  Repotting allows that separation.  We merely change the nature of our productivity.

Of course, many people who “retire” actually do “repot” by turning to creative and productive activities that fit a broader Biblical concept of workactivities such as volunteering for charities, caring for aging parents, caring for grandchildren, or adding to the beauty of the world through hobbies like painting, crafts or music.  But they usually do not think of these activities as “work” because of how the world tightly links the ideas of “productivity” and “provision”.  Someone employed by a charity, employed to care for the elderly, employed to care for children or employed to create art–doing the exact same activities–would call it “work” because they are paid.  In God’s Kingdom, it is “work” for anyone who does it.

With repotting, the angst of using the word “retired” is gone.  A person may have “retired” from one pot, but they are then “repotted” and taking their God-given gifts to a new pot.  The new pot is “work” based upon the nature of the activity rather than the nature of the reward.

With “repotting”, gifts such as physical strength, artistic ability, a logical mind, a mathematical mind, a poetic mind, a business mind, nurture and care, ideating, craftsmanship, executing, elocution, and athletic ability may have new (and potentially more appreciative) beneficiaries, but they are not lost to the world.  They are not wasted in an inhuman and misguided pursuit of a “life” of leisure–either as an idol or an escape.   They are available to beautify the world and, in the process, glorify God.

Faithful leaders leading with faithful integrity can lift the world’s deceptive veil by changing their vocabulary around “work” and “retirement” and offering opportunities for their employees to understand God’s original purpose for work and for them–helping to renew the minds of the humans entrusted to the faithful leader’s stewardship and care.

PERSONAL NOTE (from PM):  The Act III panel took place as part of my Harvard College 40th Reunion last week.  I owe a huge thanks to Justin Hecht and the other panelists (Charles Fishman, Frenesa Hall, and Ingrid Jacobson) for planting the idea of “repotting” (pun intended).

Given that our class has apparently officially crossed from “middle age” to Act III (thanks a lot Justin for making us face that), the subject of retirement found its way into our Class survey.  Our class’s responses to the retirement questions did not align with the results of the Harris Poll referenced above.  The Harris Poll found that 76% of respondents wanted to retire by age 65, whereas for our class it was only 38%.

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Photo Credit: Original photo by feey on Unsplash
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