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In a recent column, I wrote about how workers handle the departure of a colleague, looking largely at the psychological impact of losing a friend at work.
Several readers responded to that column by asking: What about people who retire? What about the emotions and changes they experience after leaving the workforce?
One reader wrote: “I retired three years ago and experienced some dramatic emotional changes. … When you consider retirement, you are often frustrated with being hassled by visitors to your office, constant calls or emails. Then there is that one Monday morning when no one cares what you think.”
This wasn’t an issue I had thought about, for the column or for myself. I always imagined that, when the day arrives, I would simply retire, adopt the title of America’s Most-Beloved Workplace Advice Columnist Emeritus and relax.
Like many people my age — I’m 44 — I’ve focused on the financial steps necessary to one day be able to retire but never considered that emotional and psychological preparation is also necessary.
“People really fail to think about retirement,” said Jill Steinberg, a California-based clinical psychologist who focuses on the psychology of retirement. “They don’t actually think about what they’re going to do and what retirement will look like. So people fail to plan or ask themselves, ‘What am I going to do with my time?'”
Based on her research and extensive interviews with retirees, Steinberg launched myretirementworks.com, which houses a wealth of information and resources to help people chart a path to a happy retirement.
And that charting should begin many years before you even nail down a retirement date.
“Some people say you should start thinking about retirement as soon as you start working,” Steinberg said. “Not just the finances. How you lead your life is going to affect how you retire. Start thinking early on in your life. Other people who were successful in retirement said it took them at least 10 years.”
There was a time when we viewed retirement more generically: You work up until a certain age, then you retire and play golf or tennis or you just sit around and savor your golden years.
But now people are living longer, and many retire in excellent health and with considerable drive to pursue other goals. So that has made retirement a much more individualized experience.
“There are those few people who are ready to retire, and they retire on a given day and they’re done and they’re fine with that,” said Kenneth Shultz, a psychology professor at California State University at San Bernardino. “For most people, though, there has to be some bridge or transition from working full time to not working at all.”
Some will start to cut back their hours in the years leading up to retirement, giving themselves time to launch other endeavors, anything from taking college courses to seeking part-time work in other fields or exploring volunteer opportunities.
“That’s why it’s so important to start thinking about it ahead of time,” Shultz said. “If you are able to get a phased type retirement or bridge employment, that helps you start to check out other options of what other things you might enjoy.”
Steinberg agreed that a slower transition to retirement is ideal.
“Don’t just go cold turkey,” she said. “Some people have said they made a 10-year plan that involved eventually taking a position with less responsibility so there was time to start taking classes and planning. Someone else took on some positions in volunteer work that fit with her passion so when she retired she had that waiting for her.”
More than ever, our identities are wrapped up in what we do for a living. Even if you’ve nailed down what Shultz calls the “health and wealth” aspects of retirement preparation, your sense of self has to be prepared for a significant change.
“Being identified by our work, our sense of self and who we are, it’s hard to be in your home and not have someone call you or not get that respect you’re used to,” Steinberg said. “That’s why the word ‘retiring’ doesn’t mean what we used to think. Someone who is working part time can still be retiring. It’s a gamut. Retirement is a whole range of things now. Some of the people I’ve interviewed did not call themselves retired even though they were working a fraction of the time that they were working before. Other people didn’t even know when they stopped working. It was a transition, not something black and white.”
The overarching point here, I believe, is that we should be looking ahead, even if the point we’re looking toward seems remarkably distant. And we should recognize that there are no right or wrong ways to retire. You have to do what makes you feel satisfied and whole and not feel constrained by anyone else’s perception of what retirement should look like.
If you want to work up until a certain day and then drop everything and play golf, go for it. If you want to keep working, even if it’s fewer hours or even for less pay, go forth and prosper. If you and your spouse want to travel the world and have the resources to do so, have a blast, and please bring me some souvenirs.
Volunteer. Start a business. Write a book. Do whatever is in your heart.
But recognize, no matter what age you are, that finding what’s in your heart doesn’t always come easy. It takes self-reflection and planning. There’s no time like the present for that.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.
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