I’ve been thinking about Tom Brady’s unexpected unretirement announcement, my focus helped along by all the conversations about it taking place everywhere I’ve gone today.

“Wouldn’t it be (funny/awful/something) if he came back and had a horrible season?”

“I thought this might happen. Didn’t you?”

“Why would you come back if you had all that money and had retired on such a high note?”

Who knows what Brady was thinking just over a month ago when as football’s GOAT — greatest of all time — he announced he was leaving the National Football League. Now, he says he’s realized he belongs on the field and he’s not ready to hang it up after all.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are reportedly thrilled to have the famed quarterback — who’ll turn 45 in August — back on the roster. What’s not to love?

As CBS Sports and others have endlessly reported this week, during the 2021 regular season Brady led the NFL in completions, attempts, pass yards and pass touchdowns. All this after more than two decades in pro football, which is a pretty remarkable run.

You have to cheer for the guy who shows no signs of burning out and demonstrates a work ethic and determination that is sometimes daunting to pull off for even the most enthusiastic employee.

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While I don’t pretend to be an expert on football, I do know quite a lot about retirement, though I’ve never had the privilege.

I know, for instance, that for a lot of people retirement turns out to be less joyful than they had imagined. Over the course of 30 years covering aging issues, I’ve had scores of people counsel me not to hang up my career until I’m sure I won’t want to try to get it back. If you’re not Tom Brady, it can be very hard to step back into the workplace at the same level you occupied when you left it.

There are pesky issues like the salary you grew one cost-of-living increase or raise at a time. Or the skepticism that younger bosses may hold about your ability to keep up despite the vast experience you bring.

Coming back to work after retirement can be a want — or a need. People try to come back because they find they’re bored without regular work, whether part time or full time. Those folks have an easier time than the ones who come back because they miscalculated how much money they’d need to sustain a desirable lifestyle once they retire. Members of that second camp sometimes have to settle for jobs that otherwise might not appeal.

Another group comes back to work because retirement has stripped them of a component of their identity that it turns out they need. That’s reportedly particularly true of men who’ve been important politicians or business leaders or sports heroes, among others. Some find it very difficult to live more ordinary lives outside the circle of their particular spotlight.

Did Tom Brady discover after 40 days that he’d somehow become less relevant? I doubt it. And his 44 years is hardly an aging milestone by any measure outside of realms that hammer the body like professional sports or law enforcement.

But I doubt if being a major sports figure protects one from making a too-quick decision on when to step out entirely and forever. So within even a few days or weeks of vacationing and relaxing and thinking about the future, I think one probably knows if retirement was a bad call. I’ve heard from lots of retirees who wish they’d waited a little longer or worked through their retirement plans a little more carefully on the front end.

Unlike a lot of folks who step out of the work world and then change their minds, Brady’s road back seems pretty easy. Mere hours after his unretirement announcement, he’s being welcomed and his employer is shifting plans to fold him back in.

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Matthew S. Rutledge, a research fellow at Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, told me just last week that for many workers who retire, that doesn’t happen. It’s hard to come back — especially if one actually used the word “retire.”  

When you declare yourself out once, there might be a suspicion it won’t take much to declare it again and really mean it. Employers might be a bit leery. There’s some security in choosing instead an up-and-comer with many work years ahead.

Like most people, I’m happy to see Tom Brady back. I like the outliers who push limits and prove no one else can set yours, so I wish him well.

But the tale of retirement is still cautionary for most of us. And I wish the road back for older workers was just a little easier, too.

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