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Paul Andersen: Fair game

Paul Andersen
Aspen CO, Colorado

I cringe when I hear of wealthy retirees traveling the world like grand Pooh-Bahs, luxuriating in easy mobility and ready access to the Edens of the world. Something bothers me about it, and it’s not envy.

Retirees who are on permanent vacation are on a flight from reality into a fairyland of retirement fantasies often described by exotic travels. You may see them sipping mai-tais on a tropical beach, taking cruises on floating mega-hotels, golfing in artificial desert oases, gaping at penguins on the Arctic ice, and traveling hither-and-yon to do it all.

What puts me at odds about luxurious retirement is the enormous gulf between resource-intensive leisure and real world issues, namely climate change and peak oil. Full-time adult play comes with a high price, especially when it involves constant travel.

Retirees defend the right to squander by saying they worked for it, they saved for it, and they earned it. It is their right to live out their hopes and dreams, many of which are defined by material gratification. The only problem is that the world has changed since those coveted nest eggs began to accumulate.

When you look at a retirement account, it has to be seen for what it is ” potential. A retirement account provides the potential for dreams. But when those dreams involve world travel and high living, the potential also equates to carbon output and energy consumption.

Retirement lifestyles are not lived in vacuums. They impinge on global limits and scarcities while their beneficiaries find enchantment in distant destinations. So what are retirees with large nest eggs supposed to spend their hard-earned savings on other than themselves? Isn’t that the whole idea of retirement? This is an important question.

Just because a retirement account was started back in 1970 doesn’t mean it’s not tied to current global realities in 2008. There is no rolling back the calendar just because it suits retirees with sumptuous tastes and entitlements. Global issues are not what they were when most retirement accounts began, but they should weigh heavily in how those funds are spent today.

When rich retirees call the world their playground, their globe-trotting carbon footprints begin to look like Bigfoot’s. And when they do it in lavish style, with natural resources at their beck and call, their golden years can become tarnished.

The harsh truth is that many retirees might not feel deeply invested in the impacts of their choices. Given their advanced ages, they might not see any reason to limit their pleasures for future concerns that won’t directly affect them. Often, the older people get, the shorter their vision becomes. And when a collective myopia focuses on economic privilege, excess materialism and the pursuit of frivolity, you have to wonder if something is lost with age.

I suppose it all depends on how you view the future. If you see no limits to energy or carbon, then you can recklessly exploit the full resource value of your retirement fund, taking the license to travel, have fun, treat yourself, luxuriate. It’s human nature, so surrender to it.

But if personal happiness is at the heart of your retirement fund, consider a different approach. When you look at the ancient Greek ideal of happiness, it isn’t found in jetting around the world on nonstop flights to the next plush accommodations. The Greek ideal of happiness is found in the pursuit of wisdom, not frequent flyer miles.

Imagine dedicating the last decade or so of your life striving for wisdom. That would make you a philosopher, which Socrates defined as the highest happiness of all. Imagine bypassing the material stuff, the frivolous diversions, the luxuries ” in short, the life of a philistine ” and striving for something deeper and far more gratifying.

There is a choice in how retirement is taken. That choice requires honestly facing the future, building a worthwhile legacy, and following an ethical path into the final grand adventure ” where you won’t need airlines, cruise ships or plush hotels.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.


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