18 Sep The Retirement Paradox
December 1st, 1991 – It was five days after graduating the police academy, when I was out on patrol with my field training officer (T.O.). We just cleared a “loud party” call when my T.O. abruptly barked “Drive back to the station…we have to meet with the union rep.”
As I sat down to meet with the VP of the Police Officers Association, he started to rattle off some of my “benefits”. After 20 minutes of hearing about flexible benefits plan, deferred compensation, overtime calculations, standby pay and labor contracts, my head was hurting. All I could focus on was not “screwing up” the next call for service I went on and thereby upsetting my T.O. and affecting my evaluation for the shift. All of the “compensation” nonsense simply fell on deaf ears with me…until the union VP said something that I will never forget.
“Young man, it’s all about the pension! You gotta get your 30 years in and get that pension!”
If I am being truly honest, I really knew nothing about the retirement benefits of a law enforcement career before I applied, went through the academy and got out on the job. It just wasn’t on my radar. Like many 21-year olds, my mind was elsewhere.
However, over the course of my 27 year career, musings about retirement and “what we will do when we retire” and “how much we will travel” and “how amazing it will be” permeated the workplace; in hallways, around water-coolers and out in the field over the hoods of police cars on a very regular basis. It was, and still is, a constant conversation in this line of work, no matter what stage of the career you’re in, or what rank or position you hold.
Many police departments across the country enjoy a “defined benefit” retirement system. It is a wonderful benefit and certainly (in my humble and somewhat biased opinion) well deserved, based on the risks police officers take every day, not to mention the heavy toll it can take on one’s physical, mental and emotional health.
However, for as much as my colleagues daydreamed continuously about driving off into the sunset once they reach that magical retirement age, I noticed something peculiar happening as that fateful day drew nearer.
Anxiety, apprehension and in some cases, outright fear took hold and manifested themselves in almost every soon-to-be retiree. I was flummoxed how one can, seemingly overnight, transition from “I cannot wait to get out of this place” to “I am just not ready to pull the plug”. It was a monumental perspective shift and I witnessed many friends experience this mental anguish.
So, I started asking questions related to retirement…
- Why are you feeling anxious about retiring?
- What are you afraid of?
- Haven’t you been looking forward to this day for years?”
Many struggled to articulate the conflict at work within them, but all of the assorted answers I received boiled down to one overarching sentiment:
“Being a police officer is not just a job, it’s who I am.”
At the very least, this seems harmless and to some, it may seem incredibly noble and inspiring. To care that much about your career MUST mean you poured your heart and soul into the job.
But when you peel back the layers of that onion, you could find a lack of balance, a skewed perspective and a fixed mindset that can be detrimental to one’s own mental and emotional well-being.
With some of my coaching clients, who are in the middle to the last third of their careers, I am regularly reminding them of this phrase: “Being a police officer is an important part of who you are, but it should not be all of who you are.” If you are solely or primarily defined by your career as a police officer, it stands to reason you may struggle as that chapter in your life comes to a close. It is not easy to replace that sense of nobility and purpose, if that is all you have.
What are some aspects of your life that help round out your social identity?
Your family, friends, faith, hobbies, volunteerism, wanderlust, etc.?
Allow those other aspects of who you are to take a more prominent role in your life, long before you submit those retirement papers. If you do, it will make that transition so much smoother and make the finding of your new purpose that much easier.
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