To Retire or Not to Retire – That is the Question

To Retire or Not to Retire – That is the Question

It seems like more and more of our relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues are stepping forward and announcing their leap into retirement. Heck, even the thought enters our minds on occasion – especially after an especially stressful, frustrating or aggravating day on the job. Given we are the oldest state in the nation with the largest proportion of citizens 50 years of age and older, the topic of retirement is likely to be on the lips, if not in the minds, of a lot of Mainers.

We thought it timely to share some thoughts about the “retirement” decision and what we would encourage everyone to consider before making a decision as important as this one. For many, the thought of retirement means reaching the finish line – a rite of passage that they have been anticipating for a long time. For others, retirement is less about a well-earned ticket to a life of leisure and contentment and more about an inevitable sense of loss and the feeling that a life that has been so planned and predictable up until this point will now bring uncertainty and inevitable boredom. The latter remains especially true for those who have seen themselves to be the traditional family providers and breadwinners. For those workaholics among us who have defined themselves in large part by their professional and workplace identity, retirement may well represent a new world that is very unfamiliar to them. We suggest it is those who need to be especially mindful of preparing carefully for the change.

On average, men decide to retire at 64 years of age and women at 62 years of age. We can all expect increased opportunities and options for retirees in the years ahead since large proportions of us will be healthier, more educated, and more mobile than any generation prior. The only thing that will stop us from making the most of our “golden” years in large part will be ourselves!

It has long been thought that women more than men are able to embrace their later years with enthusiasm and optimism. Women can say that their children are grown and that they are now established in their community with a rich network of friends and confidants to support them in making the most of their “golden years.” Men, as a rule, have not created and nurtured equally supportive networks of friends for themselves and after leaving their jobs often times quickly lose contact with their closest male (and female) working counterparts. Take note! – that is why the retirement years can be more challenging for men if they have not prepared adequately for them.

Why is there so much turmoil during a time in life that should bring so much happiness? There are many different theories on why we tend to “rediscover” ourselves and choose different paths to travel at this point in our lives. First, we are no longer daily caretakers for our children, so for many, the label of parent in the traditional sense of the word, no longer applies. Second, for many, we are no longer workers, or bosses or leaders, so we may experience a kind of identity crisis because we don’t have the day to day responsibility of tending to issues in the workplace which means, like it or not, we can now concentrate on our own personal needs and wants.
For those considering moving into this new phase in life what steps can we take to maximize the likelihood of a successful transition from worker and/or parent to retiree?

We propose four simple rules of thumb – 1) Remember to plan for your future; 2) Be true to yourself; 3) Be adventurous and explore; and 4) Allow yourself to make mistakes.

Retirement Rule #1 – Remember to plan for your future

Any reputable retirement counselor should make it clear that successful retirement planning is more than just a financial affair. Yes, insuring you have the needed assets to live the quality of life you want for yourself is very important. But preparing adequately for your physical, social, and emotional well-being is also important. We suggest that you try to plan for a future that provides you with as many of the benefits as possible that were important to you in your work life including: a sense of identity; a role and function to play; opportunities for social interaction, some structure and regulation to each day, financial security, and a source of meaning,

Retirement Rule #2 – Be true to yourself

Sit down and have a heart to heart with yourself. Ask yourself, what do I want to get out of what could be as much as one third of my life outside of the workplace. Can I afford to retire? Where do I want to live? Do I want to travel? How will I spend my time? Do I want to be close to family? Do I want to volunteer my time in the community or hold down a part-time job? Don’t assume anything at this point in your life. Give yourself the freedom to try everything all over again as if it were the first time or determine that you are going to embark on experiences yet to be tried. Listen to what others have to say, but, listen most intently to what your inner voice is telling you.

Retirement Rule #3 – Be adventurous and explore

So now that you have had a conversation with yourself, what have you determined will be your first big adventure? Or maybe it is a more modest undertaking like renewing your library card and catching up on all those novels you have been meaning to dive in to, or dusting off that old mountain bike that you have had sitting in the garage, or learning to brew beer or whittle small models of wildlife. It’s all good. For many, it means revisiting or first creating your “bucket list” of goals, dreams, hopes, and simple pleasures yet to be realized.

Finding out who you are as a non-working person does not mean that you need to take a round-the-world trip that costs tens of thousands of dollars. You can find new and interesting things to do right in your own backyard. It is great if you have a friend, spouse, or partner to share in these new adventures but if you don’t that is OK too. Part of this phase of life may be finding out that you are OK with trying things on your own. You may also find that after trying out retirement for a little while that part of your exploration is deciding that you still want to work. You could decide to start a new business or go back to school and learn a new trade or take a course just for the fun of it. You could work part-time which is the most popular form of employment for older adults. In fact, recent polls indicate that some 63% of older adults plan to continue to work in retirement.

Retirement Rule #4 – Allow yourself to make mistakes

You should view retirement no differently than learning to parallel-park, cross country ski or prepare an awesome meal. You will likely need to practice to get it right. Sometimes you will make the right choices and sometimes you will have missteps. But just like parallel parking, you can always take another shot. Don’t be discouraged if you have a hard time finding your way in the beginning. This is a very long journey that you are on: it probably took you many years to feel comfortable in your career and you should allow yourself the same latitude now in this phase of life. The fact is, those who are standing on the threshold of retirement, can expect to live up to a third of their lives as so-called retirees. That’s plenty of time to learn how to get it right. The most important part is to enjoy the ride!

Retirement Rule #5 – Stay Connected/Stay Apart

We’re offering advice here that may sound contradictory. First, many people will miss the companionship of coworkers once they retire, especially if they live alone. Although they may appreciate the quiet, alone time, we are social beasts and isolation isn’t healthy. So, once you fill up on the novelty of sleeping in and doing things on your own, consider re-connecting with friends and family and making new connections through classes, book groups and clubs of all sorts. If you’re married or partnered or living with family members, take the opportunity to do fun things with each one of them. But the “stay apart” advice refers to the fact that your spouse may appreciate some of their “alone time”. Your retirement can stress them if you’re always hanging around and they’re not used to it. Be careful not to shadow them like a lost puppy when you’re bored or you will drive him or her crazy. So get out on your own once in a while.

Len Kaye

About Len Kaye

Dr. Lenard W. Kaye is Professor of Social Work at the University of Maine School of Social Work and Director of the UMaine Center on Aging.