Plan Ahead to Beat Retirement Blues
As retirement approaches, we take serious stock of our lives and ultimately realize there are things that are more important to us than work and money.
This is particularly true as people around us die or get sick, and we get closer to intimations of our own mortality. Meeting our personal values becomes more important than ever, and there is only a finite amount of time left to pursue unfinished dreams. We may feel healthy now, but we worry that this won't always be the case.
At this time in our lives, differences between partners can also become very apparent, and stressful, especially if both people are used to working full-time. The rhythm of this phase of life is fundamentally different, with different kinds of responsibilities, different expectations and often less structure to the day.
Your idea of retirement might involve adventure travel, a return to music studies or volunteering as a mentor for your people, while your partner might prefer wintering near a beach in Florida and doing consulting work on the side. "My husband and I have never really spent any unstructured time together in the past 20 years, other than on vacation," one woman recently told me. "We have never developed a way of being together without external time constraints. We're going to have this blank canvas. How are we going to fill it?"
Previous generations believed that at a certain point in life it becomes too late to do this or that. The generation approaching retirement age today seems much less likely to give up on unfinished dreams and unfinished work. Many return to old hobbies, begin to write seriously, build furniture, paint or sculpt, take up outdoors activities, mentor young people, or get involved in alternative education programs. Others focus on more traditional retirement choices, such as traveling, playing sports, spending time with children and grandchildren, and volunteering for local charities and community services.
There is no right time to make a transition. It all depends on your work, your health, your life situation and your finances. However, if you work for an organization - as opposed to being self-employed - start thinking about this as early as you can, so you can control decisions about leaving the workplace and how you're going to spend your time afterwards.
Many people forced into early retirement as part of a corporate downsizing are left floundering. With no plan for organizing their time and no ability to develop a new source of identity, they often sink into depression.
Planning for the next phase means thinking about the arena where you want to contribute, how you want to live and where you want to live. Consider the following points:
- Be realistic about your finances.
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, think about how much money you really need, and how much you can expect to bring in from other sources. Some people err on the side of being too conservative, overestimating how much money they're actually going to require. Others don't pay enough attention to this issue.
- Initiate a dialogue with your spouse or partner.
It's often necessary to renegotiate your relationship and invent new ways of being together.
How much time do you normally spend with your spouse? If you have both been working full-time, this life transition can put a strain on your relationship. This phase of life represents a psychological change, and it may not be realistic to expect your partner to be changing in the same ways as you are. Your partner's identity may still be tied to work, while yours has expanded. You want to play, to test yourself in new ways, to make a contribution. Or you may both be ready to begin phasing down, but discover than you have very different ideas on what that might involve. You want to go to live in the country to raise sheep, but your partner wants to get a loft downtown and be part of café society.
Sometimes, fearing disapproval, people hold back from discussing with their partner what they really want to do. But avoiding the issue now is only storing up problems for the future. People often seek the help of a third-party counsellor at this stage to have an opportunity to talk about what they are feeling and what their new needs are.
- Explore your freedom.
At this point in their life, people usually feel good about themselves. They know who they are, and no longer feel a need to try to please other people, whether it's being responsible for kids, helping elderly parents, or "doing the right thing at work."
People who have made emotionally healthy life transitions are free from worrying about the consequences of making a mistake or facing disapproval. This provides a great opportunity to test themselves in new ways, whether it's developing artistic talents, testing their physical limits, or putting themselves in a dangerous situation. That freedom can be both exciting and frightening, because work and meeting other people's needs have been the centerpieces of your life. Many people ask, "What am I going to do now?" It's almost like being an adolescent all over again, asking "what am I going to be?"
- Look at unfinished business.
Review where you have been, where you are now, where you would like to go, and what is still missing in your life. Are there some pieces of yourself you have left behind that you would like to retrieve? People get back in touch with their past by buying a motorcycle, or visiting friends from previous phases of their lives. For people with spiritual inclinations, this is a time to nurture and reflect on that aspect of their personality. Lives and careers do tend to come full circle. As we finish our careers, we tend to move into areas that reaffirm and reintegrate early impulses.
- Rethink what's rewarding.
Allow yourself to think about activities that have no reward other than the pleasure they give you. Some retired people find it difficult to enjoy being "non-productive." They are unable to develop an image of themselves that does not have some kind of work at its core. One person, for example, will only read nonfiction during the day, telling himself it improves his mind: fiction is reserved for evenings and weekends.
- Rehearse now.
People who make the most successful transition to retirement not only think through their options, but also engage in rehearsal. They try out new roles in advance to see how well they fit, and whether they are meaningful and energizing - volunteering, doing small consulting assignments, teaching part-time, taking up new artistic pursuits, and so on. In the process they begin to let go of notions of external rewards for their activities and find satisfaction from being in the world, doing productive things and being themselves.
- Think about the consequences of not moving on.
How will you feel if you continue working the same way you always have? What opportunities will you be giving up? This phase is one in which you still have the financial, physical and emotional wherewithal to be actively engaged in the world. This is real time, it's not a dress rehearsal. Embrace this life transition.
Published in the Globe and Mail April 3, 2002. Written by Barbara Moses, PhD, an organizational career management consultant, speaker and author. Barbara can be reached at www.bbmcareerdev.com. Her latest book is The Good News About Careers: How You'll Be Working In The Next Decade.