Emotional Health · Money & Careers

Retiring and Unretiring: Blessing or Curse?

Not everyone reacts to retiring the same way. We have all heard a story of someone who retired after fifty years only to die the next week. We  are creatures of habit, and if we are to be successful in changing just one of those habits, especially one as ingrained as the habit of going to work daily for fifty years, it’s best to be prepared.

People in the workforce are, by necessity, action-oriented, and over the course of a lifetime, many get used to getting things done quickly. A full-time worker often crams social activities, grocery shopping, household chores, and other errands into a few short hours at the end of each day, or on weekends. This small amount of time is also our only opportunity for leisure time activities such as sports, entertainment, or hobbies, not to mention family time.

So we dream of retirement: time to take up painting, get those photo albums done, travel, and catch up with friends. You can wake up when you want, take classes, go out to lunch, or to the movies in the middle of a weekday! There’s all of a sudden so much choice in a life where previously there were many restrictions.

That is often the first problem that retirees complain about: too much choice. Deciding what to do and when to do it, especially if we have spent a lifetime with very little choice for a 40+ hour work week, can be daunting. It’s not uncommon for some people to become overwhelmed to the point of paralysis.

A related issue is lack of structure. People often wonder why, now that they have more time than ever before, they seem to be getting less and less done. Again, habit plays a big role. Think about it: all our lives we follow a pre-ordained structure, going from grade school to high school, then possibly college and grad school or straight to the workforce. Many of us have little or no experience with how to manage unstructured time. This is a skill that even those with experience, like writers or other self-employed people, struggle with. Why should it be easy for those who are dealing with it for the first time in their lives at age 65, or older?

Another challenge besides lack of focus and lack of structure is lack of purpose. When retiring, some are surprised to find that they miss the sense of purpose or usefulness that working gave them. Even dull or routine jobs afford a sense of being part of something larger, or providing a service. Being thrust suddenly into a world where serving our own needs is our only purpose can be disorienting.

Many people of retirement age are choosing to delay it or even go back into the workforce after retiring. Called sometimes “unretirement,”

“[It] is becoming more common, researchers report. A 2010 analysis by Nicole Maestas, an economist at Harvard Medical School, found that more than a quarter of retirees later resumed working. A more recent survey, from RAND Corporation, the nonprofit research firm, published in 2017, found almost 40 percent of workers over 65 had previously, at some point, retired.”

Using longitudinal data from a national Health and Retirement Study, Dr. Maestas reports that the decision to resume working is not always dependent on financial need, and often is more of a proactive, positive choice:

“The need for income does motivate some returning workers. . .(but)  longer lives, better health and less physically taxing jobs than in previous generations help provide that choice…You hear certain themes: A sense of purpose. Using your brain, social engagement. Earning money, while welcomed, rarely proved the primary incentive.”

Social engagement is crucial. Loneliness is not just painful, it is deadly. Some research indicates that social isolation can have a negative impact on our life span that is the equivalent of smoking. In the past fifty  years, work hours have increased from the halcyon days of 9 to 5, to the current situation: multiple jobs or much longer days and the technology to be in touch with work at all times. Work, for many, occupies so much time that it is our main source of social interaction.

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  • Risa Denenberg January 23, 2020 at 12:23 pm

    I realize this article is directed to a specific set of retirees with specific concerns. I do wish the idea that being alone equals loneliness would be shattered here, and elsewhere, as it perpetuates a myth. I just retired at 70, after a long satisfying career as a nurse. I would have enjoyed an earlier retirement, but opted to accrue enough savings to be comfortable, as suggested here. And I still work occasionally, and enjoy the benefit of working alongside people I like and admire. Easing out of work is a strategy that might help with making the transition easier. Still, the opportunity for solitude and being with oneself is underrated, yet it is what I cherish most about no longer going to work every day. I doubt if I am alone in this point of view.