Asking the “WHY” of retirement

“I can’t wait to retire” or “I need to retire” – If I had a dime for every time I heard those phrases I’d retire (no, not really but it makes for a good opening…).  Today I thought we’d dissect the whole idea of retirement for a moment (which may feel a little superfluous to my already retired readers but stick with me – you might find an interesting tidbit.)

As I’ve mentioned in the past, retirement in America is really a construct invented in the 1930’s so not even 100 years ago against a few thousand years of civilization. Yes, the idea of leaving the work force, particularly for those in risky professions, has been around for years but life expectancy was below age 50 for much of our history so that’s not a particularly solid comparison. When we first really incorporated this idea of “retirement” into our culture, life expectancy was still less than 60 years old. Think of it this way, back then, you retired and died years before we even retire now. These days, you can be retired for 30 years which is a really, really long time….

Unfortunately, what we are finding is that we weren’t really made for long-term retirements – humans do better with structure and purpose, not to mention the fact that our eyes, ears, knees, hips, and teeth haven’t evolved to accommodate an 80+ year lifespan. If you really want to be depressed, take a gander at the depression rates for retirees. In years long gone, everyone was expected to participate in society, regardless of age. Some (smarter) societies incorporated older people as the statesmen, or elders, and harvested their knowledge. Curiously, there are pockets of the world even today where “retirement” is a relatively unused word and where, interestingly, dementia rates are much lower. The highest rates of Alzheimer’s in the world are in North America and Western Europe which, coincidentally, are also areas of the world most wedded to the idea of retirement.  Are there other factors that influence these rates, of course, but this particular correlation is striking.

If you have some time before pulling the proverbial trigger, consider spending a chunk of it mentally preparing for retirement (yes, I’m looking at you, gentlemen). A number of years ago, I came across a study done in Northern Europe (Sweden?) that found that having six social circles in place led to a more successful retirement and aging. Take a quiet moment and count – how many social circles do you have? For many, many people who arrive at my office, the concept of retirement, at least initially, is less of a financial issue and more of “I need a change” issue. In fact, a good many people can financially retire with some minor fiscal adjustments (whether they are willing to make them or not is a whole other missive). Those who know me know that I often ask “what are you going to do in retirement” and “why do you want to retire” during our Retirement Readiness conversations. Ask yourself – Are your looking to retire, or to just not do “this” or “that” anymore?

Every magazine targeted at people over the age of 50 has run at least one, and probably more, article about changing how we think about retirement – encouraging people to stop thinking about “retirement” and start thinking about “just doing something else” for a while. If you can’t stand your job, what would you rather do? Do a little research and find out what someone doing that something earns then spend some time “trying out” that income level (assuming that this “new something” is at a lower pay level than you currently have but is more satisfying emotionally). Studies show that our level of happiness doesn’t increase significantly when we make more than $75k/yr.  For some, that means stepping back and examining our happiness definition.

Harry Chapin sings “we give up our sunshine to buy what we need” so, as you look at your retirement goal, consider: Would you leave your current position for something more fulfilling if you needed less income? Yes, I completely realize that after 15+ years in this industry, I was lucky enough to be able to transition into a working environment that I am passionate about, so it really doesn’t feel like work (okay, MOST days it doesn’t feel like work…). That being said, there was a certain amount of soul searching to decide how much I “needed” in life so that I could find more sunshine, whether that sunshine is the sun outside or the joy of helping someone with their finances.

Regardless of your age, take some time to think about “retirement” and not in the way that every advertisement you see shapes it. Forget all that marketing (done mostly by investment firms). If you love your job – fabulous! If you wake up in the morning dreading the thought of doing “this” again, perhaps redefining how you are spending your days can provide you with the opportunity to change your retirement paradigm. There is something quite remarkable about “retiring” into something you’ll be happier doing much, much later in life.

Happy pondering…