Retirement: Trouble in Paradise?

Retirement: Trouble in Paradise?


I remember seeing it many times when I was a dispatcher for the Fire Department of New York City. Someone would pick up a copy of the latest department orders and read that a member who had recently “put in his papers” to retire after 20 or more years of service was now “unretiring.” “Will you look at this,” someone would say. “Lieutenant Whosis has pulled his papers. That’s strange. The last time I spoke with him, he couldn’t wait to get out!”

Strange? Not always. There are lots of reasons why a firefighter will return from retirement after years of dangerous service and, yes, even after years of looking forward to retirement. Sometimes, of course, a firefighter has specific, personal, logistical reasons to “unretire.”

Unforeseen bills suddenly crop up and “there’s no overtime on your pension”; a firefighter’s spouse is laid off and the best-laid financial plans soon go awry; or a court decision opens up a dormant promotion list allowing the firefighter to come back, serve time in a higher rank, and retire again soon with a larger pension.

But for the recently retired firefighter, the reason to come back isn’t always based on these practicalities. It’s not just that retirement wasn’t what it was cracked up to be in terms of positive reward for a lifetime of labor. It was worse than that! It wa: ; clearly a negative experience. In many cases it was—and members i af the “bravest” are not supposed to utter this word publicly—frig! itening!

When I was a dispatcher in the communk :ations center hearing about rece *ntly retired firefighters ck into the fire service, I thought o f it as a curiosity, but nothing n lore. In fact, like most young pe ople—indeed, much of society—I gave retirement very littie though t at all. I’m no longer a fire depar tment dispatcher, but I still often come in contact with recently reti red firefighters because I’m now working in the mental health field. Over the past few years, my job has been to help several of these firefighters—who thought nothing of braving burning buildings, icy rivers, and smoky basements—to cope with the far more challenging task of successfully adjusting to their retirement from the fire service.

Illustration by Art Arias

Why is accepting this foreseeable event more difficult for firefighters than dealing with unpredictable emergencies? Because firefighters are trained to deal with emergencies, but retirement gets little or no preparation time during their careers. You know how important it is to train for emergency incidents so you’ll be prepared once you arrive on the scene. Well, “retirement training” is just as important to prepare you for that phase of your life.

Retirement is far more stressful than most people realize. In fact, it’s one of the top 10 life stressors, according to a Stress Inventory Scale developed at the University of Washington. The scale shows that retirement is more stressful than pregnancy, change in health of a family member, death of a close friend, difficulties in sexual performance, foreclosure of a mortgage, the “flight from the nest” of a son or daughter, change in residence, and change in sleeping habits. And that’s for an average retirement, not a retirement from the fire service.

Generally, the problems associated with any retirement can be thought of under two general headings: losses and expectations. These two categories have substantially different implications for firefighters than they do for people who retire from other lines of work.

What’s different about a retirement from the fire service? Well, what’s different about the fire service? For starters, let’s look at what we call it: “the fire service.” Think about other “service” occupations. Retired insurance salespeople don’t say they were in the “insurance service.” Retired hotel managers don’t say they were in the “hotel service.”

No, the fire service is remarkably different. It provides its members with many supports—some obvious, others more subtle.

Let’s take a look at some of these supports, because that’s how we’ll begin to understand some of the losses a member sustains when he retires from the fire service.

  • Public attention. The firefighter receives some public attention because firefighting is a taxsupported service. Beyond that, though, is the spectacular public attention that the fire service elicits: the sirens, lights, and bells; the people getting out of the way when fire apparatus comes down the street; the news photos and the “film at 11”; and the buffs who follow the fire trucks. All of these things disappear with retirement.
  • Extended family. More than any other occupation, the fire service provides an “extended family” experience for its members. Firefighters eat meals together, sleep under the same roof, and share the same risks and losses. These are all things more characteristic of a family unit than a work group. Firefighters refer to their co-workers as “brothers.”
  • Additionally, firefighters and their actual families usually socialize together because of similar work schedules, shared (but usually unspoken) spousal fears, and (because of having similar salaries) membership in the same social class.

  • External definition of the sense of self. Firefighters have jackets, shirts, hats, belt buckles, rings, tie clips, and license plates that identify them as members of a specific, highly regarded occupational group. They receive a lot of esteem from this group association. Many small towns in this country have firefighter plaques or even monuments. And in even the most desperate urban neighborhoods, where other public servants such as police officers and social service inspectors might face hassles, “the firefighter is always coming to help you.”

The roots of this identification run deep. Just look, for example, at the number of firefighters who turn up in children’s books. “I want to be a firefighter when 1 grow up” is an early childhood fantasy for many children.

Even adults have good feelings toward people in this job. Think of all the firefighters featured in commercials, where they’re shown as the epitome of camaradarie at work and after work. This is such a positive image that companies spend a lot of money to have their products connected with it in the mind of the consumer.

Remember, firefighters also have had these fantasies, have read these books as children, and see these advertisements now. And while they may scoff at the usually inaccurate portrayal of their jobs on television, there’s part of them that enjoys the acclaim.

The very strength of these supports gives you an idea of how deep the sense of loss is for the fire service retiree.

Planning and expectations

It’s clear that the popular expectations for retirement just don’t apply to most firefighters, either. The major difference is the age of the fire service retiree. Because the job is so physically demanding, firefighters have the opportunity to retire after 20 or 25 years of service. This puts the average fire service retiree in the mid-40s to early 50s age group—considerably younger than this country’s business retiree. That should tell you something right there. If most people in the business world don’t retire until they’re 65, it suggests they’re still productive for another 10 to 15 years after the average firefighter has retired.

Not only are most people quite productive when they’re between their late 40s and mid 60s, but this productivity is a sign of mental health at this stage. Psychologist Erik Erikson, for instance, sees a person’s life as occurring in eight stages, each of which is characterized by a central developmental task. Most of the adult years are devoted to establishing a sense of generativity—that is, productivity and satisfaction with life. Later in adult life (closer to society’s average retirement age of 65), the developmental task changes to ego integrity, satisfaction that life has been lived in a meaningful way and with some success.

Each developmental task has an opposite state. For the adult developmental task of generativity, the alternative is stagnation, which is characterized by self-absorption, a lack of productivity, and an unkind or competitive attitude toward one’s children or others. Obviously, this is a mentally unhealthy state. However, it’s the very state of the fire service retiree who has many productive years left to live and no way to express that productivity.

A person forms expectations of retirement by gathering impressions from retired persons, coworkers, company officials, Social Security personnel, reading materials, and radio and television presentations. But virtually all these sources present a “sit back and enjoy it” view of retirement appropriate for older adults who are past the generative stage. If you look into the literature on retirement, you’ll find that much of it is found in either gerontological or financial journals. You’re not likely to find that the needs of a 40to 50-yearold firefighter will be addressed in a journal on retirement. And it’s difficult to interest a person who has another 15 or 20 productive years ahead in the difficulties of living on a fixed income.

In general, people begin to show an anticipatory interest in retirement at least 15 years before they actually retire. This means people in the business world begin thinking about retirement at about age 50. So one would be tempted to recommend that firefighters start thinking about retirement 5 to 10 years into their careers.

As far as it goes, that’s not bad advice. But, in addition to the timing, the firefighter also must consider the goals of retirement planning. For the average preretiree, planning covers things like income investments, relocation, proximity to good health care facilities, and cultivation of hobbies. You’ll note that these plans don’t include an outlet for the productive activities that the average retiring firefighter needs to feel fulfilled.

How should you prepare for retirement? The same way you would address any new situation. Gather the best information available, look at your options, weigh the possible outcomes, and then set goals and move toward them.

After you’ve juggled the variables, go for it!

You can start getting information with this article. Then, move on to other, more specific sources of data. Check with firefighters who’ve retired from your department. See what they have to say about their adjustment processes and the planning they did.

If at all possible, see if you can get your department to have retired firefighters set up a transition help team for new retirees. You use the buddy system for new firefighters; why not consider the same system for your “probationary pensioners”? This new support system can help you plan for the three major considerations of retirement:

  • Second career. Several years ago, a program was established in New York City that provided federal funds for police officers and firefighters to enroll in nursing school. Hundreds of graduates of that program are now practicing nursing throughout the country— long after they’ve completed their “first career.”
  • The participants in this program had to make a large investment of time while they were still holding full-time jobs and, in most cases, raising families. But the payoff is that they now have a marketable skill and a profession that’s in demand in all areas of the country. They could leave public service and move anywhere in the United States knowing they would have a productive way to spend their time, as well as a source of income besides their pension checks.

    Obviously, there are many questions to ask when you’re trying to plan the rest of your life. Do you want to do something for which you need specialized training? Can you obtain this training in your area? While you’re still on the job? Can you afford it? Is there scholarship money available from your department? Will there be a market for your product or services? Will this market be geographically limited? (An accountant, nurse, or attorney can work almost anywhere; a person who designs and installs security systems generally won’t find many jobs in a rural area.)

    Is the return worth the investment of time and money needed? Consider here not only the time spent in training or planning, but also the time lost that you could spend elsewhere, such as with your kids. And, finally, although financial planning is necessary when it comes to retirement, don’t consider the “return” in monetary terms only. If you’re not going to make a whole lot of money as a glassblower but will really enjoy it, it’s probably worth buying the equipment.

    After you’ve juggled all these variables for a while, sought out the best data and opportunities, and made a choice, go for it! And remember, if you find you don’t like what you’re doing, there’s still time to change, as long as you start your planning early.

  • Leisure skills. Mention the idea of leisure skills to a firefighter and the first response you’ll get is, “Hey, I know how to have a good time!” But any retirement planning calls for an objective assessment of leisure skills.
  • List them. How do you spend your off-duty time? How much of this time is spent in fire service-related activity?

    List your friends and acquaintances. How many of them aren’t part of the the fire service? Now, don’t think I’m recommending that you totally divorce yourself from all aspects of the fire service and everybody you ever met there. Far from it. But just remember, “You can’t go home again.”

    A 38-year-old firefighter who retired on a job-related injury told me that, when he went back to visit his old firehouse, “there were a lot of kids there! I didn’t know half the officers and most of the crews. The kitchen, the housewatch, the poles—they were all the same. But the spirit was different. I don’t think I’ll go back there.”

    Of course, he did go back for more visits and to show his children where he used to work. But he went back with different expectations. He adjusted to the reality that the past was in the past.

    You, too, should begin to adjust your expectations now. That doesn’t mean you should never set foot inside a firehouse again. It means you should correctly assess just how much importance that part of your life has and be able to provide balance for the changes that are coming.

  • Financial planning. This is an absolute necessity. You can accurately consider any retraining plans as part of your financial planning because you can reasonably anticipate an income from the practice of your new skills. Check to see where the balance of your mortgage payments are in relation to your projected eligibility for retirement. Given the age at which many firefighters retire, a likely conflict may be providing for your kids’ college educations. More than once, I’ve heard an active firefighter say, “I’d love to get out, but who’ll pay the tuition bills?” Meet with a financial adviser and outline your concerns and needs.

A final thought about retirement planning for firefighters: We all know the statistics about the dangers of this profession. An injury can suddenly bring you face to face with retirement far sooner than you expected. If you’re forced to retire because of a disability, you’ll have to cope with all the retirement adjustments plus your physical or emotional condition. In other words, you’ll have to come to grips with multiple life changes concurrently.

So, without becoming morbid or negative, you should always do your retirement planning with the thought that you may need to put your plans into action at any time. And, like anything else for which you drill as part of your profession, this will make it easier to deal with whenever it may come.

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