Rethink retirement attitudes

It's late February, the groundhog has poked his head out and back in again, and now it's time for the IRS agents to do the same. In other words, it's time to plan your taxes. For most of us, that really means it's time to plan our retirement spending.
As an employment counselor, retirement matters to me. Not only is it the opposite of working, but for a fair number of my clients, it is the engine driving the career-planning train.
They are beginning with the end in mind, to borrow a phrase from Steven Covey. In some cases, this means choosing work as something to retire from rather than something to work at. This is the epitome of living in the future rather than the present.
Never mind the philosophical arguments against this approach. As my readers remind me frequently, not all of us have the luxury of a well-paid, meaningful job. Some of us put in the hours now so we can enjoy a better life later.
What I question are the assumptions inherent in the concept of retirement.
Leading assumptions
Here are a few of the things I would like to discuss more before we all panic about putting away "enough" money for our later years.
UBasing income needs on current lifestyles.
Whenever I see an article about retirement, it seems to include the phrase, "to maintain your current lifestyle." The goal is to save enough money that you can live the same way after you retire as you are living now. Why would you want to do that?
When (if) I retire, I either want to live a lot better, or else a lot differently. But I certainly won't structure my life with the same constraints as I do while working. Here are just a few ways my working lifestyle costs me money:
Traveling during peak vacation seasons. Buying convenience foods. Buying clothes for work. Buying gifts instead of making them. Going to movies and plays at full price.
UThe role of health-care expenses in our future budgets.
To oversimplify an incredibly complex subject, I wonder why so many of us save money for future poor health -- and a poor health-care system -- as if these things were inevitable. What if more of us put some of that energy into political activity to encourage faster, better solutions to the crisis that is building?
At the very least, what if more of us worked harder at staying healthy now?
There is something sadly ironic about sitting in an office chair an extra two hours to earn the overtime to pay for future health-care services.
UWhy retire at all?
The biggest issue I have with the common concept of retirement is ... the common concept of retirement. What, exactly, are we trying to get out of doing? If our work is so awful, is there a chance of changing it now for something less onerous? If we did that, would retirement still seem so imperative?
What next?
And even if the cessation of work is alluring, I'm wondering, what will each day hold? Golf, watching television, dining out, travel -- simply consuming experiences is quickly tiring for most of us. We're culturally programmed to be producers as well as consumers.
In a spiritual context, I once heard a preacher ask his audience of senior citizens, "Do you really think God brought you this far in life to sit in a rocking chair? He has plans for you. Go do something with your life."
To be sure, the texts of our major religions are filled with great works performed by elders. Even our capitalist lore is filled with accounts of seniors accomplishing great business feats.
So why do we assume that we will grow old and stop producing? It's one thing to plan for potential downturns in your health or life circumstances. But I think it's possible to develop a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you spend all your health and energy preparing to live with decreased health and energy, guess what? You really are all worn out by the time you get there.
Despite all the planning tools and consultants available to us, most of us can only guess at how much money we'll need later. We have even less certainty about the medical assistance we might need. One thing we can be sure of is that we'll wish we had friends, interests and health.
While you're planning your IRA contribution this year, put some thought into these other funds. A few dollars spent now to take a friend out to dinner might pay the biggest dividends of all.
XAmy Lindgren, the owner of a career-consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn., can be reached at