What Will You Do When You’re Retired?

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“If all the year were playing holidays, To sport would be as tedious as to work.” –Shakespeare

Mention “retirement” at the office. Most people will be conjuring visions of sun-drenched beaches, lush golf courses, soaring mountains, or shimmering pool sides. Everybody knows that retirement has to be awesome, because vacations are awesome, and retirement will be just like a vacation — only longer. Right?

Not exactly, in my experience. A satisfying retirement, I’ve found, is ultimately a new mixture or a re-purposing of the same ingredients that were in your working life.

What will be the right mixture for you? It’s worth thinking this through a bit before you actually pull the plug on your job. Leaving a career behind is a serious decision, so it’s only sensible to plan ahead. But, be realistic. Expect the unexpected. This is a big life change. Did graduation, marriage, kids, work, ever go exactly as you planned?

For some people, retirement might just mean bigger helpings of the usual leisure activities. And perhaps for some, as an antidote to years of stressful work life, that will be good enough. After decades of getting up to an alarm clock, commuting, dealing with schedules, agendas, priorities, goals and objectives — all set by somebody else, you might need a good long break, with nothing much to think about. But, in my experience, that period of unadulterated leisure eventually ends.

In truth, most people will need more out of retirement than pure leisure. Here, then, are the elements I believe make for a truly happy and satisfying retirement:

Fun — without question, retirement is a reward of sorts, for having worked long and hard, and been a wise steward of your money. You ought to get to do something now that is genuinely luxurious and fun, by your own standards. Otherwise you’re likely to feel cheated. The older generation in my own family did things like move to the beach, or build a homestead in a rural setting. For myself, I bought a small RV, relocated to our dream retirement town, upgraded all my outdoor gear, and spent even more time hiking, biking, and climbing.

Staying busy — in a satisfying job, most of us require a minimum of useful assignments to perform — reasonable tasks that interest us and match our skills. Retirement should be no different. The difference is that you are now 100% in charge of your assignments! And it makes no sense to be bored when you finally have the time and freedom to do whatever you want. Most people, given the opportunity, find meaningful activities. They travel, join, connect, learn, study — to get a fresh perspective on life. If that doesn’t work for you, you can always go back to work, on your own terms. Above all, don’t let yourself lose interest in life: what a waste!

Creativity — whether it be taking photographs, painting watercolors, blogging, writing that novel, or starting a small business, it is hard to envision a satisfying retirement that doesn’t involve an element of creativity. At last you are free to invest your time as you see best, beyond the strict rules of the workplace. Retirement is the perfect occasion to try your hand at expressing your individuality in something new in the world. Maybe you do it for the sheer joy of self-expression, or perhaps you have an eye on leaving a legacy that informs others. Either way, you are older and wiser, and can care less about measuring up to any standards other than your own now.

Productivity — just because you are no longer tied to a job, doesn’t mean you can no longer be, or won’t want to be, “productive.” What do we mean by that word? One dictionary definition reads “yielding results, benefits, or profits.” In the traditional work world, that usually means getting paid. But that may or may not be true in retirement. Making money is surely one useful measure of productivity: You create something of value for others, and they trade you money for it. But that’s not the only measure of productivity. Volunteer work or community activity can yield genuine results and benefits for others, that does not involve a profit. The main point may be to have goals, and make progress towards them. The psychology classic Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, reports on research showing that people are actually happier at work — stronger and more satisfied, less dull and apathetic — than in leisure! At work we are usually challenged to use our skills in achieving certain specific goals. And, in retirement, we don’t have to give up that satisfaction — but we do get to choose our own goals!

Service — the satisfying retirement lifestyles that I’ve observed, include some element of service. It just makes sense. We all know, deep down, that helping others is one of the most satisfying ways to spend our time. But in the hectic career and family years, we may not have as many opportunities for service outside the home. In retirement, at last you have the time and freedom to find your own best route to improving the world. Ideally that will be a path that truly leverages your own talents and passions. For some that might mean volunteering in the community. For others it might be signing on to political causes. For others it might be creating something of value and beauty.

In my own case, I’ve been able to combine my long-term interests in personal finance and writing, into a retirement avocation through my blog. Yes this is a business, and it makes a small profit on the side. But once you figure in the time I spend maintaining software, researching and writing posts, replying to comments and emails — I’m making a little above minimum wage! So it’s a labor of love that helps people and the world, and that’s what really matters to me.

Freedom — lastly, retirement should have an element of freedom, right? You are retiring from a workplace that somebody else created and structured, so that you can spend the rest of your life following your own passions on your own timetable. Sounds good. But, if you wind up locked into a web of social, service, or family obligations, you may not feel that retirement has accomplished much. You could just wind up trading one over-scheduled, over-committed life for another. Alas, I think this might be the greatest danger in most retirements — missing the sense of ‘space’ that this stage of life deserves and requires. Some people like being over-scheduled, but for me it squeezes out the taste of true personal freedom that ought to accompany financial freedom.

So, what’s my biggest challenge in retirement to date? Boredom is nowhere in sight for me. I’m constantly busy with creative, productive activities that are often of some service to others. And I’m generally having great fun doing it.

I’m embarrassed to admit, but I’ll be honest: My biggest challenge now is stress! Not that dismal, grinding stress of an unwanted job or work environment that drones on day after day. No, I’m talking about the stress of being pulled in a dozen different directions by people, activities, places that you all love.

Once there are no longer obstacles to pursing your dreams, you take on new interests and deepen old ones. The activities, projects, and goals that were impossible when you were working, now become possible, even necessary.

So I often feel like there isn’t enough time in the day to capitalize on every opportunity for fun, creativity, learning, service, experience, or connection. Thus I’ve had to cultivate a finely-tuned ability to say ‘NO,’ even when it’s uncomfortable or unprofitable, just to keep my sanity. (Apologies if you’ve been the recipient of one of those ‘NO’s — but now you understand why.)

And I’m still too busy in retirement! This is one of those problems that most people would love to have. So I’m not going to complain about it further. But, if you’re nearing retirement — You’ve been warned!

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