A few years ago, when he was just past 65, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez was at a crossroads. Should he retire, after nearly 50 years as a journalist, or keep at it?
To find the answer and help others struggling with a similar question, Lopez — a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist — did what he does best: He turned it into a reporting exercise.
Lopez spent a year talking to happy and unhappy retirees, people nearing retirement, people who’ve vowed never to retire, retirement experts and 90-something Hollywood legends Mel Brooks, 96, and Norman Lear, 100, who continue to test new waters professionally.
Lopez’s research led to two results.
One is his new book, “Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement, From Some Who’ve Done It and Some Who Never Will.” (He has written six other books, including “The Soloist,” which became a film.)
The other result is the hybrid work schedule Lopez has worked out with the L.A. Times. Since July 2021, Lopez has been writing for the Times 75% of the time, with a corresponding 25% pay cut. He calls it “a work in progress.”
I recently spoke with Lopez, who just turned 69, to hear what he learned during his research that could help others figure out their transition to retirement, as well as how he came to the hybrid decision, what his wife and daughter think, and what he sees ahead for himself.
Highlights from our conversation:
There’s a line in your book where you had a conversation with your wife, Alison, a freelance writer, and told her that the pandemic was kind of a preview for what retirement might be like for the two of you, with both of you at home all the time. And she said: ‘If this is the preview, I don’t want to watch the movie.’
Thank God for Alison, because there’s one good line in the book, and it was hers.
She had a very real concern, and it was something that I didn’t give enough consideration to. And maybe other retirees don’t. And it’s that in retirement, everything will change — your relationship with your spouse; your relationship with your colleagues, who are now former colleagues; your relationship to the events of the world; your relationship with neighbors and with friends.
Suddenly, you’ve got a lot of extra time, and you have to anticipate that this may require some management of those things.
Was she just talking about the two of you sharing the same space if you retired?
There was another point behind her comment. I’ve been racing, racing, racing for 50 years, and one of the things I missed was developing a number of deep friendships. So, here I am approaching retirement. I’ve certainly got friends, but I don’t have deep friendships the way my wife does.
She made clear to me: “Don’t expect me to be your little retirement buddy and go everywhere and do everything you want to do. I’ve got my own life.”
Did she have advice about whether you should retire, how you should retire or when you should retire?
Well, she said it was up to me. Alison was certainly willing to accept my decision if it was to jump out of the plane and fully retire. But I knew that she thought that if I did that I would not be fulfilled.
And I think she was very relieved when my decision was the hybrid plan, because you get to do something you love but have time to explore other things.
It also gave us a little more financial comfort to still have a partial paycheck.
What did your daughter Caroline think about the idea of you possibly retiring full-time and being at home with Alison?
She said: “You guys are going to kill each other if you’re together all day.”
How do you think the pandemic has played into people choosing when, how or whether to retire?
Now we’ve got flex time and remote work and part-time and retirees and seniors revalued because younger people didn’t report back to jobs after they got used to pandemic shutdowns. So maybe that suggests that for me and for a lot of other people, there are more opportunities to kind of design our own Chapter 2.
At the beginning of the book, you said that when you started your yearlong quest, you had three reasons to retire and three not to retire. So, was it a toss-up? Or were you leaning one way over the other?
I would say that I was thinking of it as more of a binary consideration. I was not thinking of a hybrid thing. I was thinking: I need to figure out whether the next time a buyout offer comes along, it makes sense for me to do it. I really did not know.
At one point during the year, you could have taken a buyout like your editor did, but you didn’t. What made you decide not to?
Yeah, it would have added up to not quite a year’s pay, with healthcare.
I think maybe partly what held me back was a combination of: I still like what I get to do and I’m not quite sure that financially I’m ready to retire.
And then there were stories I worked on where I was reminded that I’ve got like a passport that takes me places where you knock on doors and people answer and they’re ready to tell you about their lives.
One of them was a desert ecologist I spent time with who was older than me and I was just so impressed by his work and his commitment to it. And I said: “You never think of retirement?” He said: “To do what?” And I said, “Well, any number of things.” And he said, “I can’t think of anything better to do than this.”
The same thing was said to me by Father Greg Boyle, who runs a nonprofit in L.A. where he takes kids who have been in trouble and tries to redirect their lives. I asked Father Greg, who is almost exactly my age, “Do you ever think about retirement?” And he said, “Why would I? If your work gives you a sense of purpose and keeps you connected to some greater force, why would you leave that?’”
I just thought: Those are persuasive arguments from my peers.
But don’t they also kind of presume that the only way you can find meaning and purpose and joy in life is to continue doing what you’ve been doing?
That’s a good point. There’s maybe time to find something I love just as much. Maybe I’d find mentoring young journalists just as fulfilling. And maybe a great way to end my career would be by helping to launch the careers of others to take the baton.
Maybe I end up joining a band and that’s my new thing. I still don’t know the answer.
Why did the L.A. Times allow you to switch to your new hybrid schedule, essentially transitioning to unretirement?
I’m coming up on 70, and I’m not going to be doing this forever, so they were okay with it. It’s also a tough time financially for newspapers. And shedding some salary is sometimes an idea that they’re willing to embrace because they’re trying to balance the books.
In your new schedule, is it the same day every week you’re not working, or certain months of the year?
The way I do it is if I feel like I want to take a week off, I tell my editor. If I want to take a month off, I tell my editor. It’s throughout the year, whenever it looks like I’m ready for a little bit more time off. And then I just keep a running count of the weeks.
I’m in good shape this year because my year starts in July, and I’ve only had one week off. I’ve got 11 weeks off between now and next July.
Seems like you’ve been working full-time lately.
So, the deal when I’m working is “just keep writing whatever you’ve got as often as you can.” When I work, it’s like I worked when I was 20 and 40 and 50 and 60. It’s a full workweek, but I just get out of class more often and get to go to recess.
I hope you take that time off that you’re deserved.
Yeah. I took a walk yesterday with my former editor who keeps telling me that she fears that I’m going to work as much as I used to because there’s always breaking news in L.A. — and I’m going to be doing it for 25% less pay.
But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I mean, I’ve got things to do with my time off, and that’s part of why I wanted it.
What kinds of things?
Our daughter went away to college in Ohio at Denison, and she’s a tennis player there. So, my wife and I had the chance — because of my new schedule — to get on a plane and see her play.
Tell me about the genesis of the book. What made you want to write it?
Like all good ideas that I execute, they don’t originate with me. [Laughs.]
On the very eve of the pandemic, my book agent, David Black, was visiting L.A. from New York. We had a talk about where we are in our lives, and I told him that I was beginning to think about retirement, but I was really conflicted. He’s also a boomer and he perked up and said that he was hearing those same conversations.
And I said: “All of my peers are having that conversation, especially given that in my industry there are these annual buyout offers.” And if you’ve been around a while, the terms of the buyouts were pretty attractive.
What did he say?
He said: “Well then, if that’s what you’re thinking, why not just do it?”
And I said: “Because I love what I do, and given the decline of the news industry, I feel all the more privileged, and lucky to still be able to do it.”
Sure, there are a lot of pressures. But, I said, “I think that is oxygen for me that kind of keeps me alive and I’m not sure who I would be in retirement.”
And how did that conversation turn into the book?
He said, “You should take a year and do what you do — interview people and make a decision and write a book about this.”
And I said, “Who would care whether I retire or not?”
And his answer was: “Roughly 75 million people’ [the boomer generation]. David said: “10,000 people a day turn 65 in the United States.” And that just really floored me.
How do you think the book can help others deciding whether, or how, to retire?
I think the book might be valuable to people who are wondering what questions to even consider. You can’t tell any one person whether it’s time for them to retire. But you can get them thinking about the right questions to ask themselves.
How did you start your year of research to figure out your answer?
We have a retirement community, south of Los Angeles, called Leisure World Seal Beach, where you have several thousand retirees or near-retirees living.
And I knew they had a community newspaper. So, I asked if I could write a guest column saying that I was considering retirement and might be a neighbor of yours one day and does anybody have any advice?
What did you hear?
I got dozens of responses. I really learned a lot from them. Their experiences ranged from very successful retirement to very disappointing retirement.
One of the first people who wrote to me said: ‘I don’t know anybody here for whom retirement worked out just the way they planned.’
That was when I really believed that the book could work.
Who else did you want to interview?
I knew then that I wanted to interview the happily retired, the miserably retired, the lonely and depressed, the people who wished they had retired earlier and the people who couldn’t afford to retire and wished that they could.
So, it became a fun year for me. Each time I met with somebody, I learned something more.
Were you leaning in one direction or another about whether to retire?
For the first six months of working on the book, I kind of zigzagged — I wavered.
And then at the halfway point when a friend died, who was exactly my age, of cardiac arrest — I had once suffered cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated — that’s what I thought was the first true sign of which way I need to go.
What were you thinking then?
It could be over any minute, and I need to pull out now while I can. Maybe I don’t have enough to be set financially, but I’ll have Social Security and a couple of tiny pensions and I can just make it work.
But I don’t want to be one of those people who never gets to that list of things you’ve always wanted to do because health gets in the way, whether it’s physical health or cognitive loss.
My parents lived into their mid-80s, but I would say the last 10 years or so, for each of them, were years of decline. And I thought, “I’m getting awfully close to where they weren’t able to do the things that they wanted to do and the things that I think I want to do.”
You also interviewed retirement experts for the book. What did they tell you?
One of the best sources of information and wisdom was Nancy Schlossberg, who’s written about retirement as one of the major transitions in our lives. She’s in her 90s.
She told me: “The thing that I can guarantee you is that nothing is guaranteed. You’ll have loss that you did not anticipate or weren’t ready for. You’ll have new surprises that you never would’ve imagined. You can map it all out and you should, but you have to anticipate that there are going to be things that come up that you don’t anticipate.”
She thought you were going to be one particular type of retiree. What type?
Yeah. She has divided retirees into six groups and said that I was going to be what she refers to as a “continuer.”
You know, it’s interesting that she, Mel Brooks and Norman Lear had different advice for me, but there’s an intersection at which they said: “Look, you’re a curious person. You still seem to have your wits about you, and you write books and columns. You’re talking about not working anymore. But you may be cursed. You’re not ever getting away from this.”
And that’s kind of what Nancy’s continuer notion is about. She said that I might write freelance stories occasionally. I might write books. I might become a mentor. I might visit and speak to writing classes. And that may be me in Chapter 2 of my life.
What do you think of that?
I would say that’s probably a pretty good observation. I wonder if I might like to go at least a while — a month, six months, a year — with a vow to not write anything or think about any stories just to see how that feels.
Although Mel Brooks and Norman Lear told me, “Good luck with that.”
Norman Lear told you he’s never retired because, for him, it’s all about “going on to the next.” But you wrote that you weren’t sure that you knew what you wanted your “next” to be. Can you talk about that?
What I took from Norman Lear’s comments was: Don’t overthink this. What you did yesterday doesn’t matter. Don’t worry too much about next week. If you wake up and you’ve got an urge, then act on it.
When he wakes up, what drags him out of bed is the same thing that has dragged him out of bed for 80 years, which is that he is got a story in his head. And he is thinking of ways to tell it. It might be a TV show, and it might be a movie, but he can’t wait to share his latest thoughts with his colleagues at his company.
I don’t know that I want to wake up still beholden. I may get that urge, but I might want to ignore it.
Why might you want to ignore that urge?
I feel like I’ve missed things in life because I’ve been racing to the next column.
My son, who’s a librarian, was once asking me about the next book I would be working on. I said, “I don’t know if I’m going to write any more books.” And he said, “Why not?” And I said: “We have a limited amount of time on this Earth, and I’m not so sure that I’d rather write mediocre books than read and reread great books.”
If I made up a list of all of the greatest books, I wouldn’t have time now to read all of them.
What else do you want to do with your new free time in semiretirement?
I don’t know.
As I sit here, I’m looking at my guitar and it’s 5 feet away from me…
I’ve been acting on the advice of Rabbi Naomi Levy, who said: “If you’re idealizing a specific kind of retirement in which you’re going to learn to fly a plane or play guitar, you should, in advance of your full retirement, carve out enough time to sample these things and make sure you really want to do them.”
And I’m loving the progress I’ve made in a year on my guitar. I’m not so sure that when I’m fully retired, that I’m going to want to race to my computer. I might first want to race to my guitar.
I’m kind of willing to accept that this next phase might be filled with surprise. I’ve had no space for surprise for 50 years — to just get up and act on an instinct.
The other possibility is that I might never, ever completely retire. I’ve been toying with the idea and speaking to editors about instead of chasing every scandal at City Hall or going deep into every local election, I might become an aging columnist.
Do you think you will?
Yeah. I even have a name for it — Golden State — because I’m in California and because I’ve now entered the golden state, which isn’t always so golden.
I like that better than “silver tsunami,” a phrase I hear a lot.
I pitched a podcast idea on aging to the L.A. Times, and we have a television station, Spectrum News, who’s interested in me doing a monthly or twice-a-month segment on aging-related issues.
I would like the idea of building up a foundation of knowledge and kind of chronicling my own advance into my 70s and beyond.
You could have decided that you’d just keep working full-on five days a week all year long. Why cut back?
Well, I really took Rabbi Levy’s advice to heart, which was to find time to sample those things that you think you might want to do.
And the other thing was wanting to support my daughter as a college tennis player, because it’s a small window.
I want to finally study language. I want to finally take up music. I love to cook. I’m not a bad cook, but I have no formal training. And I thought: Wouldn’t it be great to have some formal training, which I’d be able to take advantage of the rest of my life?
And none of those things would fit into schedule that I had. So, I needed a break from it.
I think that my next likely move is to ask the L.A. Times to let me go down to working two-thirds of the year. And if that works, then I’ll see if they’ll let me go down to half. So, I’ll take these gradual steps, maybe finally segueing into a man of leisure who maybe has a book project in the works and who writes maybe a couple times a year — an op-ed or something — for the L.A. Times or some other publication.
How’s your health playing into your retirement decisions?
In the last month, I’ve discovered that my heart condition has gotten a little bit more serious. I’ve now gone from arrhythmia to full-on atrial fibrillation and new meds to get used to. Those are urgent reminders that our time is limited. And it’s important for me to carve maybe even a little more time out of my work.
Do you struggle with identity in this new phase of life?
Right now, my identity is pretty much as a columnist, to be a bit of a truth teller, to speak for people who don’t have megaphones. I don’t have a problem with my next identity being a guy who makes progress on the guitar and is ready to play weddings and whatever.
I’d like to create some new identities. I haven’t given up on the idea of living abroad, and that would make for a completely new identity.
Retirement is just like life. You’ve got to keep adapting.
How has Alison been feeling things are going for the two of you since you’ve been working at this new schedule?
We’ve given each other a lot of space, and I think it’s working out all right. I think this phase is going really well.
You know what? I’ve got to say that I did my homework, which I don’t always do for big decisions. I went to school on the experience of others and came up with a plan that so far has really worked for me and for Alison. I couldn’t be happier.