I don’t mean to start this blog post off with a downer, but its impetus is in some way due to the sudden death of a friend of ours this past weekend. Along with shock and sorrow, the news got me thinking about the many opportunities for retired people in our community to get involved in new and abiding interests and to develop new friends in the process. This is how we became friends with this lovely man we’ve just lost, through community bridge groups, which led to many shared experiences and happy occasions.
Retirement is the one phase of life that arrives with little to no planning for what we’re going to do when we get up in the morning. When we’re very little, we learn everything we need to start our lives as students in school. When we’re in school, we learn what is needed (hopefully) to become successful participants in the workforce. When we are in the workforce, we learn (with varying degrees of success) to prepare financially for life past a paycheque, our retirement. But we never really learn what is required to have a successful retirement. We are never given the lecture on thinking about what you would do when you wake up if you didn’t have to go to school or to work. Interesting.
People have many different ideas of what their lives in retirement will be like. Many people are just counting the days until they can spend winters in Florida. Many are looking forward to playing golf or tennis every day. Many have other interests that they are looking forward to being able to give far more time to once they have that luxury. But others haven’t given it much thought at all, and many of those are quite nervous about what in heaven’s name they will do with all that time. All that time at home, just hanging on them like a dead weight. This question should be considered long before retirement hits, but it doesn’t seem to be a main topic for retirement planning, as opposed to financial planning.
Financial planning is obviously critical, but it’s not enough. Necessary but not sufficient. It’s true that financial planning can take on a life of its own for some people, so much so that one of their favourite pastimes is checking their financial charts. It’s important to have a pastime, but although poring over financial statements works for some, as I happen to know from experience, that probably isn’t going to sustain most people. And most people will not be able to play golf forever. So why, aside from financial planning, is the question of preparing for a successful retirement so rarely addressed? Why do so many people approach retirement worried about what they’ll do with themselves if they don’t have to go to work?
Perhaps we as a society just haven’t made the mental switch from when our life expectancy was much lower, when we thought of retirement as being a time when you had a few years to wind down before you died. These days people who retire at 55 may live for another 40 years. That’s significantly longer than they would have worked. Put that in your pipe and smoke it! Even those who retire at 70 – and that will undoubtedly become more the norm – may have 25 years or more of quality life. Such a period of time, such an opportunity, surely deserves as much thought as planning for our careers. Maybe there are no de rigour workshops about planning for life satisfaction in retirement, as opposed to financial planning, because there’s no money in it!
So, what’s in store in these golden years? Well, lots of opportunity. The joys and sorrows of life, for sure, but also lots of opportunity. And the opportunities will change depending on many factors, including what your health and stamina can support. A plan that works for you when you’re in your 60s may need to be re-evaluated when you reach your 70s, and then again in your 80s.
One thing to keep in mind are the lessons learned from the U-curve, which tells us that we get happier as we get older. Now that’s worth celebrating, especially if you’re old enough to be on the right-hand side of the curve. According to the research that produced this curve, as we leave our late 40s/early 50s we start to shed the pressures that we put on ourselves in trying to prove ourselves to others. We shed ambition for ambition’s sake, accept the vagaries of life, and appreciate what we have. In other words, we mellow. [There’s an excellent discussion of the U-curve in the Economist , as well as a new book called The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.]
Knowing that you are entering the happiest phase of life in retirement is all the more reason to make it the best it can be. The other lesson to add to this potential nirvana is the main result of – get this – a 75-year study at Harvard, carried out on an equal number of poor subjects and wealthy subjects. This study, which must break a record for the length of a longitudinal study, tells us that the single greatest key to a happy and healthy life is having quality relationships with other people. If we approach retirement confident that we are entering our happiest phase of life and will be even happier – and healthier – if we spend time nurturing their closest relationships, then surely we have the beginnings of a plan. And I’ll go further and observe that if we have done a good job at cultivating a healthy work-life balance during our working years, then we should be home free.
Hmm, work-life balance. That’s an expression more and more people are calling an oxymoron. And I get that. As an admitted workaholic during my working days, I understand that achieving a work-life balance is easier said than done. And I completely agree, in response to what I can hear you saying, that home life and kids’ schedules on top of work responsibilities are more challenging than they were in “my day”. So let’s think of it this way. Our very early years are considered as preparation for the important stage of schooling. Our school days are considered as preparation for the important stage of work. And, therefore, we should consider our working life as preparation for the next stage – retirement. You can think of developing a healthy work-life balance as required homework for Retirement Preparation 101.
- Ensure that you are nurturing important relationships while you’re still at work. This sounds easy, but actually it’s not without its challenges. You need to work at it. I had expected to see more of my “old” (aka long-time) friends when I retired, but of course, they had their own schedules and their own routines that I had to slowly work into. I hadn’t thought of that!! And to keep up with former colleagues who you miss takes nurturing on your part. They’re still very busy!
- Develop or at least identify non-work related interests while you’re still working. This will give you at least a starting point when your time is your own. Some interests may develop into passions, while others may end up being discarded. Along the way, you’ll learn new things, meet new people, and find out more about your hidden talents.
- If there are things you’ve always wanted to do, don’t put them off. Not to be a downer, but you never know when you will no longer be able to do what’s on your bucket list. Travel, sports, hiking, etc. all require varying levels of health, physical fitness, and just plain energy. Don’t live with regret. Start your bucket list while you’re still working, then keep at it. If you finish your bucket list, you can always make a new one! [If you don’t have a bucket list, start one. What do you really want to do sometime? See the Grand Canyon? Go to pitching school in Florida? Make your first quilt? Learn to paint? Start a blog?!]
- Get to know about recreation and volunteer activities in your community while you’re still working. There’s no time like the present to get involved in recreational activities or volunteer opportunities in your community. But if work, family, and commuting currently consume 24/7, then at least find out about what’s available in your community prior to saying your last farewell at the office. The possibilities are endless, and it might just be that the skills that have served you so well in the workplace are just what a non-profit – or for-profit organization is looking for. [And there’s always bowling, bridge, and line dancing, as sung with gentle humour in David Myles’ fabulous song “I’m getting old, but I’m not old yet”.]
- Part-time work may be just what the doctor ordered. For all kinds of reasons – financial, demand for your skills and experience, a means to keep in touch with others, personal satisfaction – part-time work can be a huge win-win. Make use of those skills you’ve spent all those years honing. But try to make it on your own terms!
- Spend more time during your working years enjoying yourself and those around you. It’s good practice for those happy aging years to come! Try saying to yourself, “It just doesn’t matter that much.” Try, “I can’t win every battle.”
My theory is that you have a responsibility to yourself to work hard to achieve a healthy work-life balance if for no other reason than to be well prepared for a healthy retirement. Give it a try, I think you’ll like it!
P.S. Retirement is worth practicing for. 🙂