Mike Kueber's Blog

July 21, 2012

Retirement and “Death of a Salesman”

Filed under: Movie reviews,Retirement — Mike Kueber @ 9:15 pm
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I recently watched the 1985 movie adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, having been prompted by seeing Miller in the movie My Week with Marilyn (he was Marilyn’s husband at the time).  In the movie, I saw Miller’s intellectualism in stark contrast to Monroe’s ditziness; others might characterize the couple as the beauty and the beast.    

Miller wrote Death of a Salesman before he met Monroe, and it was a great success on Broadway in 1949 with Lee J. Cobb playing the aging salesman, Willy Loman.  The play has been back to Broadway four times since – George C. Scott in 1975, Dustin Hoffman in 1984, Brian Dennehy in 1999, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in 2012. 

There have been four major movie adaptations of the play, with Fredric March starring as Willy in the first one, followed by Cobb (1966), Hoffman (1985), and Dennehy (2000) reprising their stage roles.  I decided to watch the Hoffman adaptation because the Rotten Tomato critics gave it 100% (albeit only eight reviews) and the audience gave it 74%.

Hoffman’s Willy Loman is a pathetic, pitiful, tragic man whose middling career as a salesman is coming to an inglorious end without anything to show for it – he has saved no money for retirement and his two grown boys are disappointing under-achievers.  And to make matters worse, Willy seems to be experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Although Hoffman’s Loman is irritable, narcissistic, and a self-described zero, he is also sympathetic.  And he is all too real.  From a financial perspective, people like Willy are why America needs Social Security and Medicare to provide a safety net for old people.  From a psychological perspective, people like Willy think they are special, but eventually they have to come to terms with their failure to achieve.  Often they respond by shifting their dreams to their children, who also fail to achieve, and the result is bitterness and cynicism. 

People in the 21st century have a lot of advantages over the Willy Lomans of the late 40s.  Yes, learning to deal with disappointment and lack of success will always be difficult, but the modern safety net (Medicare and an improved Social Security) would have alleviated much of Loman’s stress.  And most importantly, people today have benefited from all sorts of guidance, information, and insights to help them prepare mentally, physically, financially, emotionally, and spiritually for the transition to retirement.

In spite of this preparation, I have found two aspects of retirement especially perplexing.  The first is the need to be productive.  In hindsight, I admit that I have previously read about this issue, but I failed to appreciate its power.  I suspect that I was hit particularly hard because, having grown up on a farm, there are few qualities as important to a farmboy as being productive.  Plus, I took early retirement at the age of 55, so I probably had more energy than the typical retiree.  As I mentioned in this blog early in the year, I have concluded that I will be unable to flourish personally until I get more productive, so that is now on my to-do list.

The second aspect of retirement that is perplexing is shifting from a life as a saver to a life as a spender.  Because we have been educated so thoroughly on the need to save for retirement, especially toward the end of our careers, it is not easy for our minds to suddenly shift to saving nothing.  I have many friends who either brag or admit that they haven’t touched their 401k although they have been retired for several years. 

One of my friends who took early retirement is considering returning to work for financial reasons.  When I pointed out to him that he doesn’t have any financial reasons for returning to work, he admitted that he doesn’t need the money, but the money is nice and the work isn’t bad. 

That makes sense.  There is no right or wrong answer for everyone; individuals need to decide what is best for themselves.  I told my friend that, contrary to prevailing corporate wisdom, there is nothing wrong or unhealthy with wanting to work no matter how old you are.  If he would rather work than not work, go for it.  But there is a problem with wanting more money than you reasonably need (or being unable to spend the money you have saved).  That suggests to me an unhealthy love of money.  I’m not criticizing such people, but I think they would benefit from thinking deeply about whether that is a characteristic they should attempt to jettison.


1 Comment »

  1. my dad said things like: “don’t be in a rush to work because you have to work until you die” and “the work ethic gives people a reason to get up in the morning”

    he made me read death of a salesman so I would know that I would run out of energy around age 55, and so I would save 10% of my gross income my whole.

    Comment by q — July 23, 2012 @ 12:45 am | Reply

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