Chapter 1: The Joy and Challenge of Life After Work 1 The Joy and Challenge of Life After Work
Now that you can do whatever you want, what do you want to do?
Retirement challenges us like nothing else. We have to reinvent our lives. One day we’re part of the vast American workforce—living by the clock, attacking new projects, and focusing our minds and skills. The next day we can sleep until noon if it pleases us. Then we bound out of bed, free at last, ready for coffee and lunch and… what?
Successful retirement—whenever it occurs—turns out to be work of another kind. The future now is almost as blank a slate as it was when you were 18 and wondering what was going to happen to you. Fifty years later, you’re fortified with knowledge and experience but with no place to take it. You might have a partner in life, children, grandchildren, status in your community, and a dog that loves you. Still, you have seven days a week and 52 weeks a year to fill. No sane human being can watch that much television or play that much golf. Maybe you’ll be able to stay at work well past normal retirement age, perhaps with shortened hours. But the last day of work can’t be held off forever. You need an action plan to transition into this new phase of life.
You also need a financial plan to make the most of the income and savings that you have available. That’s what most of this book is about. “Money can’t buy happiness,” they say, but it sure can buy food, shelter, heat, phone service, streaming movies on all our new devices, and gas for the car. A little extra buys plane tickets, ball games, concerts, and long-term peace of mind. It’s hard to be happy if you’re always worried about the bills. Learning how to stretch your available income and rightsize your life are the first steps toward retiring well. Even if retirement seems far away, steps you take now—to save and invest—can greatly improve your standard of living when your paycheck eventually stops.
But before I talk money, I’d like to talk about the nonfinancial challenges of life after full-time work. They’re huge and, for most people, unexpected. We fling ourselves into leisure as if a grand vacation lay ahead. But permanent vacations can get pretty boring. When we were working, we had a sense of accomplishment and a place in the world, even if—at the end—we couldn’t wait to quit. Now, having shut that door, we need another place. What are we retiring to?
Eventually, when you look back on your transition from work to retirement, you’ll think of it as perhaps the most creative period of your life. Most of us still need an active sense of social worth. But instead of getting it from a workplace, ready-made, we have to make it ourselves. The challenge is to discover new interests, new places, and new friends. Your weeks should fill up again with projects, meetings, entertainments, family visits, and events—activities you choose yourself, to gladden your days and give purpose to your life. You’ll probably take on these projects at a leisurely pace. You won’t want to be busy every minute. But neither will you want to look at a daily calendar that’s blank.
It takes time to move from the worker role to the role of engaged individual citizen. How long the transition takes will depend on your personal initiative and will. The faster you can bury the old “workplace you” and rise to a new “liberated you,” the more content you’re going to be.
Not everyone moves into retirement willingly. You might lose your job and spend some unhappy weeks or months rehashing that stressful time. Your health (or your spouse’s health) might be dicey, which, for now, completely occupies your mind. The departure from work might have been so sudden that you had no time to prepare emotionally.
Widows, widowers, and the divorced face similar problems. They’ve been forcibly “retired” from married life and now face their own blank slates.
No matter how you get there, you (and your partner, if you have one) will have to figure out how to build another life. The questions will be the same for everyone.
Who are you, anyway?
For so much of our lives, we identify ourselves with our jobs. “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m a teacher.” “I’m an operations manager.” “I work for IBM.” Those who have young children might also say “I’m a mother” or “I’m a father.” Our jobs and family responsibilities give us meaning. When we quit, or the children grow up, there’s an instant loss of status that few of us are truly prepared for. We’re in a new role—that of citizen-retiree. It’s an empty vessel until we fill it up.
What are you going to do with the rest of your life?
A 3G retirement (golf, gossip, and grandchildren) isn’t always enough, cute as the grandchildren are. Most retirees today are vigorous, mentally alert, and eager to jump into something active and interesting. We have skills, smarts, and dreams. At work, we were accomplishing stuff, even if we got tired of it. As parents, we had the critical job of raising responsible adults. But what are we accomplishing now? Loss of meaning and purpose throws some retirees into depression, even those who thought they couldn’t wait to start a leisured life. If you spend your hours in front of a laptop or TV set, you’re likely to—quite literally—bore yourself to death. You’ll need all your imagination and energy to discover a new role.
Where will you find friends?
When you worked, you made social contact simply by doing your job every day. You had people to chat with or complain about, customers to call on, and lunches with colleagues. When your job ends, however, your workaday friends are likely to fall away. You need to get out of the house and do things, not just for fun and intellectual interest but for the social companionship, too. Women are better at this than men, but it can be a challenge for both.
THE FIVE STAGES OF RETIREMENT
The gerontology researcher Robert Atchley studied the transition from working life to leisure. Retirement, he said, is a process, not an event. Some people hustle through the stages. Others take months, even years, to reach serenity. The better you manage the first stage, the faster your progress is likely to be.
Stage 1: Preretirement. You gradually disengage from work. You’re still doing your job, but your imagination moves ahead. You talk with friends about their own plans for life after work and ask retired friends what they’re up to now. You put together a budget to see if, and when, you can afford to leave your paycheck behind. If you’re married, you have many talks with your spouse about how you each expect retirement to work—your hopes and fears, where you’ll live, what you’ll do with your time, whether you’ll both retire at the same time and, if not, what the expectations will be. You think about what you might do next. If you hope for part-time work, now’s the time to start making the contacts. There might be a project you can do for your current employer or others in your business. If you’re being laid off, do your best to think about your next life, not your past one. You’re not “unemployed” (bad place), you’re “semiretired” (better place). Forward is your only choice.
Stage 2: The Honeymoon. You’re free! No more deadlines or office stress. You’ll do some of the things you’ve been meaning to get to—clean the closets, paint the porch, take a trip. If you already have a lot of interests, you might step up your engagement with them. If you’ve led a high-pressure work life, you might simply rest with your feet up, read, go fishing, take walks, or watch ball games. Assuming that your retirement was planned, you’re happy, happy, happy with your decision. Your honeymoon can last for many months, provided that you’re moving quickly toward your other interests. But it might last only a week or two if you have nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Stage 3: Disenchantment. Gradually, your days come to seem a little bit empty. You feel a loss of status, if you identified strongly with your job. To the younger, working world, you’re obsolete. Even if you retired gladly, your new activities might not be as fulfilling as you’d hoped. You see fewer people and feel more isolated, especially if your spouse or partner is still working. You might notice that money is going out the door faster than you planned. “I’m failing at retirement,” one friend told me gloomily.
If you retired specifically to do something else, such as starting a business or taking up teaching, you might skip Stage 3 or pass through it pretty quickly. Ditto if you’re an outgoing person who loves discovering new things. If not, disenchantment might catch you by surprise and slow down your adjustment. You’re not so eager to get out of bed and can’t figure out how to spend your afternoons. You join a club or half try to volunteer for a local organization but it doesn’t work out. If your health is poor, you might come to feel that your life is effectively over. You’re just taking up space. For some, Stage 3 might last a year or more while you obsess over what you “used to be.”
Stage 4: Reorientation. It dawns on you how bored (and boring) you’ve become. Emotionally, you’re finally ready to advance. Some retirees will go back to work. For the rest, it’s like retiring all over again but with a more realistic eye. You take stock of your income and expenses and rightsize your life financially. You evaluate your experiments with new activities and start to engage more deeply with the one that interests you the most. One is all you need; others will come along. So will friends, who, like you, have retired and are looking for people to pal with. Your lingering work-life persona is finally being put to bed. You feel yourself growing into your new role.
Stage 5: Stability. You’ve got it together. You’re finding new purpose and feeling productive again. You’re happy (or at least satisfied) with your life and are living within your means. Along with new interests, you’ve discovered ordinary pleasures, such as browsing in a library or taking walks with a friend. Some retirees get to this stage pretty quickly—in fact, directly from the honeymoon. Others take years. You’ll know you’ve arrived when all your thoughts are forward-looking and your days feel full.
MAKE YOUR PLAN: IT’S LIBERATING!
The transition from work to “freedom” is harder than most of us realize until we get there. It starts with clearing the old stuff out of your head—your work, routines, and expectations of status. They get in the way of your life ahead. Post-work, you can do anything that’s within your budget and physical capabilities.
When your calendar is blank and you’re wondering what to do, it seems natural to start a list.
You might begin by asking yourself what makes you happy—not only today but what made you happy in the past. It might be something you haven’t done for 30 years. Never mind. Write it down. You’re trying to capture anything—specific activities, experiences, relationships—that once put a smile on your face.
From there, branch out to everything you’ve ever thought of doing. No idea is trivial. Maybe you’d like to improve your tennis or golf. Read all of Charles Dickens. Research your family’s roots. Get a puppy and train it. Learn woodworking. Take cooking classes. Take dance classes. Join a singing group (or start one). Join a weight-loss group or exercise class. Learn photography, including the art of editing photos digitally. Teach Sunday school. Take music lessons, maybe on an instrument you used to play before you got so busy. Join a bridge group. Join a chess club. Give parties. Learn another language. Walk a long mountain trail. Learn local history. Run for local office or join a political campaign team. Start a website to share your professional expertise. Join an investment club. Get more involved with your place of worship. Start a local newsletter. Coach sandlot baseball. Throw pots. Paint. (President George W. Bush started painting lessons when he left office.) Volunteer for a worthy cause. Start (or join) a protest group. Go fishing. Tie flies for people who fish. Create gardens for yourself and your friends. Become a local tour guide or docent in a museum. Make beautiful holiday and birthday cards. Learn computer skills. Sign up for Skype or use the FaceTime app so you can talk to your children and grandchildren long distance, free. Run a charity fund drive. Make jewelry. Breed cats. Become a discount coupon maven. Join a yoga class. Sort the family photos and put them online. Attend local concerts and lectures. Write your autobiography. Have regular dinners with friends. Spend quality time with your spouse or children. Join AmeriCorps, for civic opportunities. Teach English as a second language. Start a wine-tasting group. Try out for a local amateur theater production or offer to paint scenery. Find a bird-watching pal. Travel—be it cruises, visits to children, group tours, or day trips to interesting places near your home. Restore furniture or an old car. Manage garage sales for neighbors. Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth. If you move to a retirement community, a wide range of attractive activities usually comes with the contract.
You might enjoy going back to school. Some retirees work toward college or advanced degrees, others audit courses. A school near you might offer extension courses to adults (type “Lifetime Learning Institute” into your search engine for local opportunities). Free or low-fee college courses are available online: Scroll through the offerings at edX.org, Coursera.org, Udemy.com, and Udacity.com as well as the online courses from Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Duke, the University of California, Berkeley, and others (for a long list of what is available, go to MOOC-list.com). Some courses are live; you have to be at your laptop at certain hours and complete assignments (although not necessarily submit to tests). Others let you listen to lectures whenever you want.
Finally, make a list of your skills. Are you good with your hands or with computers? Do you know finance? Can you organize groups? Create marketing campaigns? Work well with children? You have a lot to offer your community that it can use. A focus on skills can help direct you to volunteer groups that would be thrilled to have you. Businesspeople might join a local SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), an organization that helps small businesses get started or expand. Financial people might assist a nonprofit with its books, investments, and fund drives, or study to be a financial planner with an emphasis on retirement prep. Those who drive a mean hammer might volunteer with a local Habitat for Humanity. If you’re good with people, you might become a health or social service aide. A skills list helps you assess job prospects, too.
You might not find your next life’s work immediately—a delay that risks dumping you, grumpily, into the depressive Stage 3. But keep trying things out. One of them will click.
To get yourself moving, set up an engagement calendar—one of those month-at-a-glance hanging calendars or the calendar on your laptop or phone. Put something useful or interesting into your schedule every day. It might be work around the house (sort out the garage, repair the screens), ordinary errands (shopping, doctor’s appointment), community activities (club meetings, volunteer days), hobbies (consult your “makes me happy” list), or personal enrichment (reading, study). You might undertake weekly mini-explorations of nearby towns—to visit a new park, a small museum, a used-book store. It takes as little as one activity, plus normal chores, to structure your day. Something you have to do (or want to do) that gets you up in the morning. On some of your days, puttering works, too.
Regular activities also have the virtue of bringing you new friends as well as renewing relationships with friends who weren’t also business colleagues. As often as possible, your calendar should include things you do with other people rather than things you do alone. If you like playing Scrabble or backgammon, find a challenging partner rather than spend hours playing anonymously online. If you like to walk, find a walking partner. Cooks might find a cooking partner.
Have I mentioned exercise? One of the best things you can do for yourself is to join a gym, even if (like me) you’ve resisted exercise all your life. A vigorous workout greatly improves your general health, appearance, and well-being. It holds down doctor bills, takes off pounds, and keeps your joints and muscles moving. Exercise classes are also great opportunities for socializing. Instead of grumbling about the office you can grumble about your abs.
If you’re not yet online, a world awaits you. From your laptop, iPad, or iPhone you can follow the news, communicate with family and friends, plan a trip, take a free online college course, research any subject that interests you, find answers to medical questions, follow your investments, shop, get book recommendations, nail the bargain plane tickets sold to people who can travel at the last moment, and find a vacation condo to rent for a month. For travel with a purpose, check the opportunities at RoadScholar.org (formerly Elderhostel). An Internet search for “senior travel” will turn up organizations such as Senior Cycling and ElderTreks. These and similar groups offer adventurous trips in the United States and abroad—always with a good mattress and bathroom at the end of the day. We’re past the age of going “scout.”
THE WORLD OF THE SEMIRETIRED
For some, volunteering and leisure time interests aren’t nearly enough. You spent your life working and miss the buzz. Doing part-time work or starting a home business is a terrific transition from full-time work to, eventually, full-time leisure. It’s also the answer for people who need income to tide themselves over to their Social Security checks.
Some companies hire their own retirees for consulting or project work, but don’t limit yourself to the sort of thing you did before. People, organizational, communication, mechanical, carpentry, sales, or management skills are transferable to many types of businesses and nonprofits. Active volunteering might lead to a paid job at the institution. Many seniors work in retail. PatinaSolutions.com and YourEncore.com connect businesspeople and professionals with firms in need of consulting help. The health professions are seeking recruits, especially people interested in working with the elderly. Local vocational schools offer short-term training for a wide variety of jobs. Online hiring halls such as Craigslist.com and SeniorJobBank.org list opportunities nearby. Locally, follow your interests: gardeners might find part-time work at a nursery they patronize, tinkerers at a hardware store.
Anyone who wants a job has to be computer literate. Small shops might welcome you with only a printed resume, but larger employers expect to receive job applications by email. If they’re interested, they’ll turn to the Web to learn more about you. Older professionals and businesspeople, in particular, should post their resumes and personal profiles on LinkedIn.com and set up a Facebook page. The managers who do the hiring—almost certainly younger than you—will check them just to see if you understand modern communications. If you’re not on the Web, you’re invisible.
Alternatively, you might start your own business. I can’t find good numbers on how many retirees do so, but a 2009 “recareering” study done by the Urban Institute for AARP gives you a hint. Of people in midlife who retired from their previous jobs and changed careers, about 31 percent say they went from working for other people to working for themselves.
Finding the right business idea takes time. Again, turn to lists. Write down lots of ideas, no matter how far-out they seem. Test them against your interests, abilities, and professional or social contacts, then winnow them down. A high percentage of retirement businesses take advantage of the knowledge and connections that the retiree already has. If your mind is a blank, I recommend a search of SideHusl.com. It lists some 300 websites offering money-making opportunities, along with an evaluation of how much you’re likely to earn and how well workers are treated.
Many good books have been written about starting and running a small business. You might find a course for entrepreneurs at your local community college or the business school at a nearby university. There you’ll learn not only from the teachers but from other business owners who are taking classes, too. Legal, sales tax, bookkeeping, and similar unfamiliar issues become manageable when you talk with people who have solved them.
One warning before you launch: Have a plan B. What will you do if the business doesn’t work? You can probably afford to lose a small investment, but don’t endanger your home or wipe out your retirement savings. Always look ahead to what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life.
RETIREMENT FOR TWO
Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk to each other. That’s what every financial planner tells me that couples need to do when retirement first springs to mind. Single people need to think only about themselves when making plans. Couples, however, are making a dual decision. Are you both ready for retirement? If so, what next? If you both work and one of you isn’t ready to quit, how will you handle the relationship? How will a homemaker feel when his or her partner is suddenly home all day? How will the new retiree feel if the partner cheerfully leaves every morning for work?
Spouses or partners often assume that they both see retirement the same way and that’s not necessarily so. When they start talking, they might be surprised—pleasantly or otherwise—by what the other thinks. For example, a husband might expect his working wife to retire when he does, when in fact she’s perfectly happy with her job. A wife at home might think her husband should work a few more years so they can accumulate more savings. Each spouse might have a different dream about where and how to live. One partner might have secretly run up debt that now has to be confessed.
These can be rough conversations if your differences are large. Somehow you need to get to the same page. The quality of your retirement will depend not only on finding new things to do but on developing new ways of living with each other.
Retirement gets simpler when both members of a working couple quit at the same time. You can travel when you want, make daytime social plans, share household chores and projects, or move somewhere else. A vibrant retirement life means keeping each other excited about what’s happening every day.
If only one of you retires, however, you need to develop some ground rules. For example, the spouse or partner at home will typically take on more household chores. (When my late husband retired, our son took him into the laundry room and said, “Dad, this is a washing machine.”) In return, the spouse at work should try to find more evening and weekend time for things you can do together. Most importantly, the spouse at home shouldn’t pressure the working spouse to quit. If you pout long and hard enough, you might get your way, but your spouse won’t be a happy partner down the road. Why should a wife give up her work to husband-sit (or vice versa)? As the retired spouse, you should make your own schedule, find your own friends, get your own life, even take your own trips. Eventually, your partner will be ready for leisure, too.
A full-time homemaker is in a different position. She (it’s usually a she) has reinvented her life since the day she “retired” as an all-day parent. She might have gone to work full- or part-time or deeply involved herself as a volunteer. Her days have structure—shopping, cleaning, friends, hobbies, meetings, exercise, walking the dog. The last thing she needs is a crabby husband demanding to be entertained or ordering her around the way he ordered subordinates at work. On the other hand, she can’t pretend that he isn’t there. Talk, talk, talk about it. You’re entering this new life together. A husband’s free time, shared with his homemaker wife, can help her get out of a rut that she hadn’t noticed—charting new directions for you both.
Not everyone can expect a bouncing, lively retirement life. Your health, or your spouse’s or partner’s health, might be poor. But even folks with limitations find positive ways to spend their time—connecting with friends, playing cards, learning things on the Internet, taking short day trips.
Whatever your situation, happiness lies in letting go of the past. All that matters now is who you are in the moment. Retirement is an adventure, demanding all of your creativity and force. So keep experimenting and dare to be glad. No one but you can invent your new life.