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The Downside of Retirement

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Early retirement has been good, in general. I reached my goal of financial independence after years of frugality and hard work. It’s fun being here and writing about the details. But, while I’d like to say I’m so much happier now, in reality, I’m probably not….

Don’t get me wrong: I have a great life. Waking up each morning with personal and financial freedom beats the alternative. But the years before of raising a family and working a steady job also had their rewards, even though some of the joys were too subtle and familiar to appreciate at the time.

Yes, retiring is great fun for most people, at first. You’ve finally reached your life-long goal. You have all the time and money you require. No more answering to a boss. No more meetings. No more deadlines. Life is a full-time vacation — travel, learn, enjoy. What could be hard about that?

But, once you’re fully settled in, retirement can be a scary proposition. Fact is, you’ve closed out a major chapter of your life. And the next one is entirely up to you. Nobody else can take on that responsibility. Meanwhile, the final chapter, just over the hill, doesn’t look like much fun….

Money Enough?

As I explore in my recent book, most of us can achieve enough financial certainty to make the retirement decision. But, when you’ve got 30 to 40 or more years to live, you can never be absolutely certain that your money will last. You will have some money concerns in retirement, just as you did earlier in life. If you plan well, those concerns will be about lifestyle tradeoffs, rather than about feeding yourself. But they may never fully go away.

When you retire, especially early, there is the danger of leaving unearned money, and what it could buy, on the table. Fact is, there are some areas where you’ll have fewer money concerns while you’re still working full time. For example, if you spend on a vacation, or a home improvement, or have a health emergency, you’re likely to feel you can always work another year to pay for it. Once retired, you no longer have that option.

Yes, you can work part-time in retirement to relieve some financial concerns. But don’t count too heavily on that plan. I have an ideal retirement gig — writing a blog on my own schedule. But it took two years to begin turning a small profit. And my pay rate in retirement is a fraction of what I made in the corporate world. Plus, I work far fewer hours. The end result: In a good year, this blog brings in about one-fifth of my previous salary. And who knows how long I’ll keep it up? Conclusion: If there is a big financial hole to fill in your portfolio, part-time work in retirement is not the solution!

You will still need to deal with fears of the future in retirement. No matter how well you’ve prepared, you will probably have fewer resources to deal with what comes than if you were working full time. You will have to accept, to some degree, the lifestyle you planned at your retirement date. Sure, if the market does well, you might be able to splurge. But better not count on it. Rather, prepare to have your lifestyle capped in your golden years. It could even be reduced. For some, that might feel like a trap. But, for others, it is a welcome simplification.

Blank Slate

Retirement, at whatever age, is preceded by financial independence. That sounds good, on paper. What could be wrong with being able to support yourself without working? But, as Todd Tresidder points out, there are downsides: “…one of the little-discussed aspects of attaining financial freedom is how your life changes from pre-determined to self-determined. You don’t get to follow the default script imposed by society because financial freedom obliterates the script and leaves a void in its place.”

It’s up to you to fill that void. Having the wealth to live however you choose means you’re out of excuses for those parts of your life that aren’t measuring up. You can’t blame your job for being out of shape or unhealthy. You can’t blame your kids for not pursuing a creative passion. You can’t blame the pressure to climb the corporate ladder for not taking time to develop relationships. The responsibility for what you become now rests squarely on your own shoulders.

Traveling and recreation are common retirement pursuits. They are certainly an important element of happiness. But they aren’t the whole story. It is exciting to explore beautiful new places. But, after a while, the good times and beautiful scenery may not be enough, unless they serve a meaningful purpose. Most of us need more….

When you lose the career structure and purpose you’ve enjoyed for so many years, you will have to invent and supply your own. Maybe it will be related to your previous profession — consulting or speaking — or maybe it will be something completely different — volunteering or pursuing a creative passion. The challenge is trying to stay relevant to a society that is increasingly younger than you. It’s not easy, but there are many examples of “elder statesmen,” from all walks of life, public and personal, who have remained vital and relevant to the end.

My grandfather, a retired Navy admiral, spearheaded recycling efforts in his retirement community. My father, also a retired Navy officer, was heavily involved in a major church construction project until shortly before his passing.

Transitions

You can’t fully appreciate some things in life until they’re over.

It is easier to find meaning when working and raising kids. Having families is our biological purpose on earth, and once that purpose is in the rear-view mirror, relevance can be a struggle. The empty nest can seem like an empty horizon.

The crux of this transition may be saying goodbye to the family home. While downsizing can be liberating, it can also be depressing: I will never forget the last few days in our home of 17 years, following an unexpectedly quick sale….

After the yard sale, the Goodwill pick up, and the movers, we were left with roomfuls of scattered possessions, memories of much of our adult life spent there, raising our son. The last day culminated in an all-nighter of packing and cleaning. At 3:00 am in the morning my wife tearfully packed boxes in the living room, while I drove 30-gallon garbage bags to the dumpster at the nearby convenience store. We finally cleared the house and caught a couple hours of fitful sleep in our van out back. In the morning we turned the key in the lock and headed to the closing, down the familiar driveway for the last time. It was traumatic.

Retirement is one signal that life is changing permanently. Financial independence doesn’t exempt you from loss: Parents, family, friends, will age and pass on. How we deal with old age, sickness, and death is a personal matter. It helps to have some faith, a higher purpose, and family and friends for support, but it’s hard.

You may have desperately wanted your career to be over, to get out of the rat race. But what comes next? Even the rat race is not entirely bad — it provided income, meaning, relationships, and activity that were central to your life. When it’s gone, it can leave an unfilled hole, if you aren’t careful.

Once retired, memories of the past can be distracting. You will need to put energy into facing forward, looking up, and seeking out the best in life.

De-retiring

Retirement is usually a one-way decision. Going back to work in your main career is unlikely to be an option after you’ve been retired for long.

That said, some prominent early retirees have “de-retired.” Even some traditional retirees wind up hating the blank slate of retirement and eventually return to some form of their previous career.

For some people, “de-retiring” or returning to work is the solution to generating more connection and meaning in their lives. And there is no shame in returning to work, if that’s best for you.

But can people really only be happy when working? And what happens when you are no longer physically able?

Loving Where You’re At

As Scott Burns writes, “Our unrelenting culture of self and youth leads us to focus on achievement and productivity.” But there is no need to fear retirement. He adds that “surveys have routinely shown that old age is a period of freedom and happiness for many, while youth is often burdened with depression and anxiety.”

In the end, every stage of life has its joys and challenges. There is no point in either rushing or resisting retirement. Retirement is not inherently better than what came before. It’s just different.

I sometimes wonder what I’d choose if I could go back in time and re-live my life. Of course I’d love to have my energetic, pain-free, youthful body back. If only I could have that, along with the financial independence and wisdom I’ve earned over so many years. But, that’s probably not how the magic would work….

If I was given the chance to go back and live my life again, I think I’d decline. I don’t want to learn all those hard lessons over. In truth, despite the downsides of retirement, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

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