Byline: Deputy Chief Gerry Bates, Ph.D. Health and Safety Officer Tucson (Ariz.) Fire Department
Members of the fire service, like many Americans, define themselves by their career. As a result, the decision of when and whether to retire from a lifetime of work can be one of the most significant decisions that a person can make. The reason is simply that you are trying to determine what to do with the last quarter to third of your life without the professional support system that has carried you throughout your entire working career.
Merrill Lynch estimates that roughly 75 million people in the United States will reach the normal retirement age of 65 by 2020. Barring any predisposing health conditions like cancer or a serious heart condition, the chances are that most of these people can expect to live until their mid-80s. This increased life expectancy makes the decisions related to retirement even more problematic. As you live longer, you place a greater stress on your savings, and the issue of long-term financial security becomes more acute.
The fire service has its own issues, however. What other job allows you the opportunity to quit at a relatively young age, start a brand-new career and still have a reasonable level of financial security? Why not take advantage of it?
While retirement from the fire service has advantages that retiring from other careers may lack, there has to be a downside. Unfortunately, there isn’t much information on retiring from the fire service, but there is a lot written about retirement from the military and law enforcement.
The fire service is similar in many ways to the military and law enforcement. Some of the shared characteristics include: working conditions involving high stress, emergency response, uniform service, semi-military organizational structure, close-knit work environment, organizational culture steeped in tradition and myth, and early retirement. Because the fire service exhibits many of the same characteristics as the other major public safety professions, it’s safe to assume that the fire service might have some of the same problems with retirement.
Research showed that retirement from the public safety professions does, indeed, present its own unique set of problems and challenges. In general, these problems and challenges revolve around the issues of early retirement; unique organizational culture; and a high-stress, emergency work environment.
Some of the problems of early retirement are fairly obvious. You have less time to save your money, you have more time to spend your money, and you reduce your ability to take advantage of the magic of compounding interest. However, there are some problems that are a little less obvious.
Some studies show that spouses exhibit the most dissatisfaction with their marriages between the ages of 40 and 55. Early retirees, if they have children, will find that those children are entering their teens and going through changes of their own. Just as teenagers are struggling with their own identities, they may encounter a parent who also is experiencing an identity crisis. This combination of a spouse’s low level of satisfaction, identity conflicts of the children and the real potential for financial problems can place the family of an early retiree at substantial risk.
Our work provides our lives with structure and stability, especially in the hierarchical structure that we generally work under. No matter our place in the organization, we always know where we stand. For officers who have autocratic power over their subordinates on a day-to-day basis and over the public in emergency situations, making the adjustment to the quiet life of a civilian can be tough.
For many of us, our work units are so tight that breaking away from them can be like a divorce. Have you ever tried to break up a crew that has been together for a long time? This difficulty in breaking away is only natural. We work together, eat together, take risks together and socialize together. Leaving this close-knit environment can result in a sense of isolation and be the cause of some very real psychological anxiety.
Research into military and law enforcement retirements prompted a look at the Tucson (Ariz.) Fire Department, a paid department with about 600 employees.
The department’s retirement program is based on a state-managed pension plan that is contributed to by police and fire personnel throughout the state. Members are eligible for retirement benefits after 20 years of employment, at which time they receive 50% of their average monthly salary. An employee who retires after 32 years of service is eligible to receive maximum benefits, which amounts to 80% of the average monthly salary.
The study consisted of a 55-question survey that was sent out to 100 randomly chosen Tucson Fire Department retirees, all of whom were men. Some had been retired since the mid-1960s, but most had retired in the last 15 years. The survey looked at eight general areas:
*General information about the person’s retirement.
*Reasons for his retirement.
*Perception of the success of his retirement.
*Amount of planning done for his retirement.
*Level of financial security.
*Level of activity.
*Perception of personal and social life.
*Perception of his health.
Of the 100 surveys sent out, 71 were returned. After compiling the data, I focused on the eight questions that dealt specifically with the issue of retirement satisfaction:
*How would you rate your retirement?
*Has your life improved, become worse or stayed the same?
*Were you glad to retire when you did?
*Did you ever wish you hadn’t retired?
*Do you ever miss being a firefighter?
*Do you feel your retirement has been stressful?
*Are you bored with your retirement?
*Have you accomplished those things that you had planned to do?
Twenty-three of the 71 gave positive responses to each of these questions, in the sense that their responses were consistent to their being happy with their retirement. This group was deemed the satisfied group. Thirty-two of the 71 gave negative responses to at least two of the questions; they were the less-satisfied group.
The individual responses of the satisfied and less-satisfied groups deserve further examination. A lot of little things popped out, but five factors really seemed to be significant.
Those who say they’re satisfied may not be. Although 95% of the retirees said that their retirement was successful, a look at other responses revealed that 45% had experienced some problems. This sense of dissatisfaction also showed up in written comments. Although some respondents said that they were satisfied, some of their comments showed how bitter they were about the job they had left and about life in general. One suggestion for this phenomenon may have hit the nail on the head: Firefighters are a proud lot, and nobody wants to admit that he may have screwed up the last third of his life.
The primary determinant of successful retirement is the level of emotional and financial planning. Of the satisfied people, 87% had a plan; only 68% of the less satisfied did. Just over 90% of the satisfied group felt that they were properly prepared, compared to 53% of the less-satisfied group. A large majority of the satisfied folks planned for at least two years for retirement, while the majority of the unsatisfied ones did not. Of those who were satisfied with their retirement, 91% indicated that they were financially prepared, and all thought they were emotionally prepared. These findings are consistent with just about any study on successful retirement in other fields.
A person’s rank at the time of retirement affects how that person adjusts socially. Officers, particularly chief officers, tend to feel a loss of friendships, prestige and self-esteem. For example, 38% of officers overall and 54% of chief officers indicated that they sensed a loss of prestige upon retiring, while no firefighters, engineers, paramedics or inspectors did. Self-esteem took less of a hit: 15% of officers overall and 27% of chief officers sensed a loss of self-esteem upon retiring. Once again, none of the non-officer ranks felt this loss. In the same vein, 77% of the promoted ranks visited stations after retirement, while only 45% of the firefighters did. This all seems to indicate that the higher one goes in the organization, the more one identifies with it and the harder it is to leave it behind.
Health makes a difference. Not quite as numerically significant, but consistent all through the study, was the relationship between the perception of good health and the level of retirement satisfaction. People who feel healthy tend to feel better about their retirement. These findings, too, are consistent with many life and retirement studies.
Some success factors may be totally out of a person’s control. A surprising number of people left the job to care for sick relatives. Eight of the 71 respondents, or a little over 10%, fell into this category. Several of these people indicated that they had some problems coping with retirement because of the lack of planning (in the case of sudden illness) and emotional stress. Catastrophic illness, either to the retiree or a family member, can lay waste to the best-laid plans.
In general, the findings in this study were consistent with most other retirement studies. Firefighters are people, and they face the same problems everyone else does, but some of those problems are amplified because of early retirement and the work environment. However, if you’re happy with your job, leave it of your own volition and have planned well for your leaving, you probably will be happy with your retirement.
With these parameters in mind, firefighters need to plan more actively for their retirement – the earlier the better. They need to take care of their health. Officers need to be aware that they may have some self-image problems when they leave. Departments are encouraged to look at these issues and provide appropriate counseling.
Satisfactory retirement can be summed up by this statement from a retired captain who completed the survey:
“Just as the Tucson Fire Department was a part of my life, retirement is a part of my life. I enjoyed the fire department and the guys and gals I worked with. I am now enjoying retirement life. Life has its ups and downs. If you waste your time worrying about what you missed, you’ll miss what you have. What a shame that would be.”
Deputy Chief Gerry Bates has been a member of the Tucson (Ariz.) Fire Department for 29 years. He is an EFO graduate and has a master’s degree in educational leadership and a Ph.D. in public administration. He is an instructor for the Arizona State Fire Marshal’s Office, Pima Community College and Arizona State University in the fields of leadership, conflict management and research writing. He is currently working as the department’s health and safety officer.
A relatively short history of retirement
Retirement from the working world, as we know it today, rarely occurred before the 20th century.
Older people were expected to work, and many held status in the community because of it. It wasn’t until much later, with the emergence of labor unions, that people’s and organizations’ perception of the older worker changed. Younger workers began resenting seniority-based systems, which kept them in lower-paying and less-influential positions, and management began questioning the value of the older employee in terms of productivity and salaries paid.
By the 1930s, compulsory retirement policies were becoming more and more common and many elderly workers were being forced out of their jobs. Organized pension systems were rare, and large numbers of these elderly workers were forced into poverty. In 1935, Congress passed the Social Security Act in response to this growing number of impoverished older people.
The modern concept of retirement came of age between 1965 and 1980, when legislation was passed to improve the financial status of retirees, pensions became a significant factor for providing retirement income, and people began to perceive retirement as something to look forward to.
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