A Renewed Conception of ‘Retirement’: Challenges and Opportunities

Often, retirement is viewed as a blissful reward for a lifetime of hard work. The conventional wisdom is that we wake up happy each day to an empty calendar, free of work constraints, infinite choices, and no work stress.

But this perception is currently evolving, as people look at their retirement as a ‘new phase’ in their lives. At the same time, transitioning to this new phase is a source of intense emotions related to a variety of factors: the loss of a long-held professional identity, the disruption of daily routines, the impact on relationships, financial concerns or even a feeling of isolation. Especially, for those of us who have built our lives primarily around work – ‘work is who we are’– the transition to retirement can leave us feeling like nobodies. The question is not only how you will spend your time, but also how you will replace the sense of purpose and belonging that work once provided? [Retired-who am I now?]

Today, with life expectancy on the rise – 30 years, or more, for a 60-year-old – the prospects of staying in relatively good health and getting another shot at a fulfilling and rewarding life is very real as we enter this ‘new phase’ of life. That's why the term ‘retirement’ is a misnomer. [‘Retire’ the concept of retirement]

As this increased longevity was unheard of a generation ago, we have no pre-established roadmap on how to enjoy this extra time with vibrancy and freedom. So, anyone approaching the age of 50 needs to start thinking ahead and planning the transition to minimize periods of suffering and wasted time.

The sources of stress associated with retirement

Identifying your sources of stress can help you take proactive steps to prepare for this significant life transition.

In an ideal world, we get to pick the circumstances and timing of our retirement. When you have planned your retirement and things go according to plan, excitement outweighs fear or anxiety. However, if you are forced to retire prematurely due to illness, caring for a family member or lay-off, you are likely to feel a great deal of stress because you weren't expecting it.

The shift from a 40- to 60-hour work week to an equivalent amount of free time can be a challenging adjustment to make when it comes to filling your time in a meaningful way. You also have to get used to the change of pace.

Many of our closest friends may be colleagues, and we might experience the loss of the bond that comes from working together.

Financial stress can increase in retirement, when people stop working and therefore relinquish their ability to grow their savings. As life expectancy increases, many people wonder if their savings will last for the remainder of their lives. And current economic downturns only exacerbate those fears.

Retirement can lead to feelings of social isolation. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, more American seniors live alone than anywhere else in the world: 27% of American adults over 60 live alone, compared with 16% in the rest of the 130 countries surveyed.

For many relationships, life after work brings an unexpected set of challenges

Retirement, like any major life transition such as marriage or the birth of a child, often entails destabilizing shifts that take many people by surprise. Although it's still rare for married couples over 60 to separate, the divorce rate in this age bracket is rising faster than in any other, as self-actualized [self-actualization] baby boomers reach retirement age and reassess their lives.

Relationships can experience an identity crisis. Retirement is a time when issues previously avoided – due to the distractions of work or child-rearing, or both – resurface. Disagreements arise about how to approach this new period of life. In fact, the retirement phase amplifies everything: the absence of true collaboration, friendship, a shared narrative. Some couples have coexisted on separate tracks for many years.

Many disagree about how to spend their time. "I can do whatever I want, but I don't have a partner for my activities," says Joe, a recently retired 65-year-old high school teacher whose wife doesn't share his passion for travel – a divergence that only really became apparent once the option became available. More time can lay bare the reality that some couples did better with less of it. And more time means more exposure to whatever irritating habits were easily endured in smaller doses.

Some couples have different views on how to approach their finances, which can be a source of tension. Financial worries can take away their serenity, and even those who are well prepared are often surprised to find that they have different instincts about how to manage their savings.

The best predictors of happiness in retirement – 'Identity Bridging' and 'Self-expansion'

Creating and engaging in ‘Identity Bridging’ is essential. It seems unlikely that a lifestyle primarily focused on leisure and recreation would be sufficient to provide previous high-achievers with a sense of purpose, belonging and fulfillment over an expectable 25-year period of reasonably good health.

It’s clear that they will need to broaden certain aspects of their identity through the acquisition of a robust ‘second identity’ outside of work. For example, if you were a financial advisor, but also sang in a choir on weekends, or practiced hang-gliding; all of which were important to you, then the pain of the loss of this first identity could be mitigated by the full emergence of the second. Research has shown, however, that a second identity has only a limited effect on happiness during this phase of life.

The ability of couples to help each other stretch, a concept social scientists call ‘self-expansion,’ also matters. Strong self-expansion or self-actualization [self-actualization] skills – the ability to make new friends or pick up new interests that require dedicated learning – correlate with everything from general well-being to weight loss to cognitive health. Unsurprisingly, researchers found in 2020 that couples who reported this type of reinforcement – encouraging each other to try something new, for example – were happier and much more resilient in the transition.

As we near or pass the age of 50-60, we have an opportunity to (re)discover "who am I now? What kind of work, challenge, purpose, or direction do I want now? Perhaps traditions have guided our past choices... we were raised to conform to what wasn't us – molded into someone who wasn't our "true self". Now we have the opportunity to "reset our priorities".

We have financial and human resources to draw on, as well as a lifetime of knowledge and know-how about how the world works.

Final thoughts

A societal trend is emerging: ‘new missions in the next phase of life’ are not only starting earlier, as early as age 50, but are becoming the way of life for everyone in the future. While these new callings may not be as long or linear as the first career, this second or even third phase of life will be part of the collective future of the more than 108 million people in the U.S. who are now 50 or over.

To stay relevant in a world of unprecedented longevity, individuals need to adopt new engagement strategies [‘Retire’ the concept of retirement]. This transition may be challenging, as it is a time of newfound uncertainty that can elicit strong emotions associated with the search for a new identity and lifestyle.

The opportunity to reinvent ourselves and embark on a completely new path at an advanced age exists and is thriving for many of us who have already taken the leap.

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