Retirement ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, if they’re not careful, a lot of folks will crack once they retire.
Perhaps no other stage of life triggers such intense feelings of excitement and liberation, on the one hand, but, on the other, fear and anxiety. Retirement for many entails a leap of faith after decades of routine. You’re not simply at work Friday, doing your job, and retired Monday, dancing for joy, though. Retirement is a major transition that unfolds over many years, as we move from the life we know into the life we will get to know.
Many pre-retirees do not fully comprehend how dramatically their lives will change.
“I struggled with it,” Nancy Schlossberg says of retiring more than two decades ago from a university teaching career. “It wasn’t what I expected.”
And she’s an expert on transitions and how to navigate them; the author of “Too Young to Be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as You Age” and other books on aging, and creator of a respected academic theory about transitions.
A few lucky souls know exactly what their retirement looks like. The rest of us figure it out as we go. If we go, that is. Many people are simply not psychologically ready to retire, even if they’re financially able. Their job is their identity. They believe that “I work, therefore I am,” and its plaintive corollary, “Without work, what am I?”
Research shows that adjusting to retirement is difficult for such people, who report more boredom, anxiety, restlessness and feelings of uselessness. Retired men, for example, were found to be 40% more likely than employed men to experience depression, and the greatest increase in suicide rates between 2000 and 2016 occurred among 45- to 64-year old men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sociologist Phyllis Moen suggested that “people spend more time planning a wedding than planning retirement,” says Schlossberg, who at 89 years old enjoys a prolific second act as an author and public speaker. “It’s very important to think about your identity and what you’re losing, and how you get a new identity. What would give you a sense of meaning and purpose?”
“Visualize the kind of person you want to become [in retirement], share it with other people and get their feedback.”
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are ways to carry the relevancy of your work life into retirement. Constructing a framework for your retirement should start at least three to five years before the planned date. Assessment and course correction occurs about a year before. A year or so after retirement, the honeymoon period will likely have waned; it’s time then to review how things are going. Give yourself another couple of years for retired life to become your new normal. That’s a six- to eight-year journey that will require flexibility and resilience.
“This is an entirely new experience,” says gerontologist Ken Dychtwald, co-author of the 1989 best seller “Age Wave” and founder of a consulting firm that bears the same name. “You’ve been in patterns for decades. How is a person to know what will satisfy them?”
Start by finding your spot on the retirement transition curve. Dychtwald has identified five phases of retirement: imagination (15 to five years before retirement); anticipation (five years prior); liberation (first year of retirement); reorientation (years 2 to 15); and reconciliation (more than 15 years after retirement).
Three years to retirement: anticipation
You’re past the imagination stage and its fantasies, hopes and wishes. The anticipation stage is reality. Friends are retiring; you’re tired of working, the finish line is in sight. It’s time to seek wise advice on how to handle feelings about leaving regular employment and the supportive social network it typically provides.
Set aside any money concerns for now. Of course, money matters, but there’s plenty of guidance for retirees about your financial portfolio; not so much about your emotional portfolio.
“People make the decision to retire based on an economic state rather than a life state,” says retirement coach Mitch Anthony, who teaches investment advisers to help clients plan their life in addition to their finances. “Retirement is a mental-health consideration,” he adds. “We’ve treated it as if it’s something you have to do, then, ‘Do you have enough money?’ — and conversation over.”
Being emotionally grounded going into retirement will likely lead to better, more mindful financial decisions in retirement. Moreover, retired life may require less money than you expect. Find purpose and ways to feel relevant, and your financial plan will seem like a piece of retirement cake.
In this anticipation stage, ask yourself how you’ll spend time in retirement, which could span 25 years or longer. What activities, interests and lifestyle would be compatible?
One way to answer that question is to think about retirement not as the end of work but as the start of a late-career transition. “Use some of the tools you might use in conceptualizing a career,” says gerontologist Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University. “What are my aptitudes? What are things I like to do?”
Retired men are 40% more likely than employed men to experience depression.
For instance, if you climbed the corporate ladder, you likely had a mentor and learned how successful people got that way by observing and asking questions. Do the same around your retirement. Find people with a few years of experience living the retirement life you want, and learn how they got it. Asking for direction is a sign of strength, not weakness.
“Identifying goals in retirement and having perseverance in pursuing them leads to better retirement,” says Pillemer. “Visualize the kind of person you want to become, share it with other people and get their feedback — especially people who have successfully made the transition.”
One year to retirement: check-in
It’s time for a pre-flight review. Says Norman Abeles, emeritus professor of psychology at Michigan State University and an expert on aging: “Develop concrete steps. What am I going to do the week after I retire? How about six months after that? Talk with your partner — what are the two of you going to do together? After you visit the grandchildren and have done the traveling, what are you going to do day by day?”
One helpful preparation tool comes from transition expert Schlossberg: the “four S’s” of coping with life changes and assessing your social and emotional strengths and weaknesses. These include: your situation with work and family at the time of the transition; your sense of self (outlook, resilience, spirituality); support (self-esteem, social network, role models) and strategy (optimism, reframing, self-management).
Realize there’s a light at the end of the retirement tunnel. “There will be many surprises along the way, but over a couple of years you will develop a new sense of purpose, a new sense of who you are, and a new way of negotiating relationships and building new ones,” says Schlossberg:
Year 1 of retirement: liberation
You made it; you’re free to be…who, exactly? Schlossberg has identified several types of retirees: “adventurers” who shake things up; “searchers” looking to fit in; “easy gliders” who live one day at a time; “involved spectators” who are still connected to their careers; and two kinds of “retreaters” — those who pause to regroup and those who essentially don’t leave their rocking chair.
You may take on several of these personas, especially in that initial, exciting honeymoon period when being old is new again. Studies show that older people tend to be happier than younger people, reporting greater psychological well-being and life satisfaction. “Learn to have fun again, to make new friends, to have less structure, to try something and fail at it,” says Dychtwald.
At the same time, the loss of structure and routine understandably can bring up sadness and depression. “Ask retirees what they miss most, and No. 1 is the social connection, the stimulation, the action,” Dychtwald says. “People don’t think that through.”
Be resilient and resourceful. Maintain social contacts, stay physically active, practice self-compassion and consider part-time work.
“Not only do you have the possibility of doing something new; you have to have at least some sense of what the choices might be and which might be a match for you,” says Dychtwald. “Stop, take a deep breath and look inside. Meet the modern age halfway.”
Three years post-retirement: reorientation
The honeymoon’s over. It’s been over for a while, in fact. By now, ideally, you’re a year or so into the reorientation stage of retirement. You’ve taken twists and turns, and, finally, you’re settling in.
“The most important thing people need is to reframe their mindset in terms of what they have to offer the world, and their perspective on aging,” says Chip Conley, author of “Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder.” After selling the successful boutique hotel chain he founded, Conley, 58, is now a strategic adviser to Airbnb, the worldwide home-sharing company.
Conley views retirement as a time to reinvent yourself and pursue what you’ve always wanted but never dared to chase. Increasingly, older people are doing just that.
According to the Kauffman Index of Startup Activity, entrepreneurship in the U.S. is growing fastest among people over age 55. “Instead of being the end of the book, retirement is an added chapter,” says Conley, who in his new role calls himself a “mentern” — a mentor to younger colleagues and an intern who is eager to learn.
As the reorientation stage unfolds over a decade or two, people start paying attention to their legacy, which ushers in the reconciliation stage. Your legacy is not the material wealth you leave in a will; it’s how you will be remembered. This is a literal opportunity of a lifetime — the chance to distribute the wealth of knowledge, depth and wisdom you’ve acquired just by being alive.
“The storyline of retirement will be less about winding things up and more about transforming oneself,” says Dychtwald. “Rather than just becoming elderly, we become elders — wise, well-traveled and deeply experienced.”
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