The book, About Schmidt, by Louis Begley, upon which the movie is based, has other insights into retirement than those explored in the film. In one passage, Schmidt's oldest friend, Gil, chastises Schmidt for his decision to retire.
"I told you to take a leave for as long as necessary after Mary, and not even think of retiring. There is a race of men—all federal and state and bank employees, and most dentists—who are born to retire. They aspire to retirement from the moment they are born. Youth, sex, work, are only the necessary intermediate states: progresses from larva to pupa to nymph until, at last, the miracle of metamorphosis is complete and gives the world the retired butterfly. Golf clubs, funny shoes, and designer sunglasses for the dentist, campers and gas-fired barbecue sets for the employees at the low end of the pay scale! You and I belong to a grander race. We need to be kneaded by misfortune and modern medicine before we are ready. Praised be to the Lord, I am happy to announce that you strike me as unripe for a living death. What you need is a job. I'm going to think one up for you."
We would take Gil's admonition one step further: As far as we're concerned, no one, even the dentists and state workers, is fit for retirement. Retirement is an artificial concept and one that for new elders is becoming obsolete.
What is retirement for, anyway? When we grow old, how exactly do we grow? Why do we hear so much about "staying" young and so little about growing old?
Because we have grown up in such a youth-driven culture, we face both an opportunity and a danger as we consider retiring. The opportunity clearly is that we can look and feel and act younger than our parents' generation. The danger, however, is that we will shun the value and meaning of aging. Popular culture reveals a deep denial about aging, a denial far deeper than our wrinkles. Even our aging comics are in denial when it comes to aging. Bill Cosby, in his bestseller, Time Flies, draws a gloomy self-portrait of aging by deciding that he needs help "either from a divinity or a drugstore." Page after page Cosby laments the passing of his athletic prowess and the arrival of his paunch.
Stripped of its humor, this is our culture's general wisdom about aging: Resist it at all costs! In writing the book Age Wave, Dr. Ken Dycthwald was shocked at how deep our anti-aging bias is. He "quickly learned something very interesting about how Americans want to think about aging: they don't."
Caught up in the eternal quest to stay young, we are unaware of the growth and transcendence possible in the second half of life. As Stephen Levine writes in his book Who Dies? "We live in a strange land where one is punished for being old."
In our study of new elders, we are struck by the similarity between what happens around retirement and what happens to those who experience "near-death experiences." After undergoing calamities like September 11, 2001, or accidents that brought them to the edge of life, people report value shifts in their lives that are similar to many experiencing retirement. During profound transitions people go "higher" and they go "deeper" in their experience of life.
They go higher in terms of their appreciation for nature and the beauty and interconnectedness of all life. They go deeper in terms of renewing their relationship with God or a spiritual presence in their lives. Together, they claim a generally heightened awareness of the spiritual purpose and meaning of life.
In his 30s Richard began his studies of elders, and he read Ernest Becker's Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Denial of Death. He recalls, "I was fascinated with what Becker called 'the real dilemma of existence, the one of the mortal animal who at the same time is conscious of his mortality.'"
At the same time he read Becker's work, Richard attended a program by the eminent death and dying expert, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and something clicked. Kübler-Ross's stages of dying, starting with denial (stage 1) and ending with acceptance (stage 5) come only after deep, often painful transformation experiences that fit perfectly with Richard's observation of his life and the lives of his coaching clients. Learning about the process of death seemed to be an essential part of all life transitions, as well as of growing up.