Today we continue our series on the book The Retirement Maze: What You Should Know Before and After You Retire.
We’ve already covered The Problems with Retirement in this series, so if you missed it, you may want to go back and read it before reading this post.
As I’ve noted, I have a love-hate relationship with this book. But do like it for discussing retirement issues that are generally glossed over by other books (even if this book does go a bit overboard with the negatives).
I’ll be sharing key passages from the book as well as my thoughts on them.
Here we go…
Here’s a part that I actually liked about the book — its discussion of the definition of retirement.
I generally agree with what they say, contrary to how the retirement police define it.
Here are some highlights from the book:
What exactly does it mean to be retired? How would we best define the very term that our entire project hinged on? In fact, arriving at a good work definition of retirement turned out to be a researcher’s nightmare. The main issue is that many retirees continue to work, often for pay, but they still consider themselves retired. So, to conduct a truly comprehensive study of all retirees, we had to include both those who are working and not working.
This brings us to another problem: how do you differentiate working retirees from nonretirees still in the workforce? We had to make sure we got this right; that we had retirees — working and nonworking — and nonretirees correctly classified, or our data would be useless. This is a very important issue for our research and a problem faced by other social scientists, so we had to come up with a sensible solution.
Social scientists believe that the definition of retirement has blurred, but it may be more accurate to say that the concept of retirement has evolved. Retirement is no longer seen as the complete end of work after a career of full-time jobs; instead, work is now seen as one potential element of the retiree lifestyle. However, there is a very important psychological distinction between employees still in the workforce and retirees who hold jobs. Working retirees tend to be less emotionally invested in their jobs and have more say as to the terms of their employment, such as the types of tests performed or the number of hours worked. Also, retirees think of themselves as retirees. These distinctions — how they look at themselves and their jobs — are keys to coming up with a meaningful definition as to who is a retiree and who is a worker.
In large part, then, retirement is a state of mind — to be retired, one must believe he or she is retired, and that became part of our definition (along with having left their full-time career). Obviously, there are objective components to being retired: things like age and the termination of a long-term career clearly provide clues to someone’s retirement status. But the subjective component, a personal sense or feeling that one is in fact retired, even if they are still working, has to be considered.
My thoughts here:
- I’m in agreement with their definition for the most part. The retirement police (RP) like to separate retirement from work, but their reasoning often falls apart. If someone earns nothing from any active pursuit, then that’s pretty clear. But what about someone who owns rental properties and manages them? What about someone who has a hobby and makes $1,000 a year? Or $10,000 a year? Or someone who blogs for fun and happens to make much more? There’s no real cutoff and even the RP have issues clearly explaining their own definition.
- In fact, working in retirement offers many benefits, and not just monetary ones. Working creates social connections and keeps your mind active, two areas that need to be addressed in retirement. And as we discussed in the first post in this series, a lot of people have their identities locked into what they do for a living — so working a bit (maybe a day or two a week) helps them retain those benefits but also get to live the retirement life as well.
- The definition of retirement has most certainly blurred, evolved, or whatever — it’s changed. In fact, it’s still changing to a point where someone says “I’m retired” and a legitimate question is “What does that mean exactly?” Different people have different responses, all of which are still labelled “retirement”. It will probably be like this for some time until a sort of equilibrium sets in and we all have a common understanding of the word again.
- “Working retirees tend to be less emotionally invested in their jobs and have more say as to the terms of their employment, such as the types of tests performed or the number of hours worked.” I have heard this from a number of retirees still working (and read it as well). It’s amazing the leverage you have when you don’t need the money. Hahaha. You can often dictate when you work, how you work, what projects you work on, etc. And if the employer doesn’t like it, they can lump it. LOL.
- “Having left their full-time career.” A lot of people define retirement this way as well, and I’m ok with that. For instance, I worked 28 years in a career and then left it, so I retired, even though I still may do (other) work and bring in income. Totally fine with this line of thinking.
Measuring Happiness Retirement
Once the book’s authors set a definition of retirement, they then needed to determine how they were going to measure happiness (what they call “subjective well-being“) in retirement.
Here’s how they got there:
Beyond health and wealth, subjective well-being is affected by many other factors. Productivity, self-esteem, feeling in control, having a sense of purpose, feeling connected to others, and the quality of other elements in one’s life contribute to a person’s overall subjective well-being. That being said, in order to make sure we covered all the elements that might play into subjective well-being, or happiness, we asked retirees how they felt about all the specific aspects of their day-to-day lives and how they felt about themselves.
And then here’s what they did:
Our nationwide survey was conducted via the Internet among the approximately 1,500 retirees and 400 people who are of the same age and other demographic characteristics as our retirees but still working. We realized that our decision to conduct online interviews may raise a few eyebrows, primarily among other researchers, because of concerns regarding sample representativeness and scientific “control.” These are two elements required in a research project for it to produce meaningful results.
I’m not going to debate whether their survey was “good” or not. They did get input from a large number of people, so if anything their information is at least directionally correct. I can work with that.
What I will have some issue with is their conclusions from that data. We’ll argue those points when we get to them.
For now, let’s end with this final part of the introduction section (or at least what I consider introducing the topic, methodology, etc.) and then we can move on.
In summary, retirement has become a real option for many people, driven by the prospect of improved health and healthcare, greater financial security, and its evolution to include working under circumstances more favorable than a full-time job. But it’s also a movement that may have been forced by changes in corporate employment policies and practices, unspoken as these may be. Nevertheless, one can also speculate that the drive to retire may be tied to a desire to get the most out of our lives. It can be argued that the prosperity of modern times, occasional economic downturns notwithstanding, has given us more freedom to think about living in terms of personal happiness and not just in terms of filling basic needs than might have been the case for people up to the middle of the last century.
But however one gets to retirement — whether forced by job circumstances or chosen because it’s seen as offering a better lifestyle — a surprising number of issues can blindside a retiree, possibly leading to disenchantment down the road.
A few thoughts here:
- Yes, retirement has morphed and we can now “work” and still be “retired”. Are we living in great times or what? LOL.
- Some people don’t retire voluntarily. Their jobs are eliminated or they are forced to quit and can’t find work. These retirements usually don’t go as well as the retirements where people quit work on their own terms and timing.
- “The drive to retire may be tied to a desire to get the most out of our lives.” I agree with this. I think people are getting past working for 45 years and then having a decade or so to do what they want. They want to do more of what they want to do for a longer period of time.
- “A surprising number of issues can blindside a retiree.” I guess we’ll see. None of the issues they present are ones that can’t be planned for and addressed prior to retirement, so none of these issues is close to insurmountable. I guess they do blindside the unprepared…that is likely true.
- “Possibly leading to disenchantment.” They are wordsmithing again — “possibly”. Or, as I prefer to think of it…possibly not. Hahahahaha.
Problems Retirees Face
The book makes the jump here into the meat of its presentation, beginning with this:
When the day of the retirement actually arrives, most retirees tend to start out on a positive note. They are likely to feel a sense of freedom and a respite from day-to-day pressures, as though a burden had been lifted from their shoulders. They may feel as though they’ve reclaimed ownership of their life, that time is their own to use however they desire. It is a time to finally catch one’s breath and chill out for a while.
Unfortunately, within a relatively short time, many retirees begin to sense some uneasiness. After the initial sense of relief, sooner or later they begin to realize that there’s more to retirement than the simplistic “stop work, go play.” Although retirement is a relatively pressure-free way of living, and many adults truly look forward to it, studies have found that as many as 33% of retirees have difficulty adjusting to the lifestyle. Furthermore, as we mentioned very early on, even those who claim to enjoy their retirement may not be content 100% of the time. They are instead likely to sense some discomfort from time to time, however short lived, as they adapt to a life without work.
Some thoughts from me:
- “Most retirees tend to start out on a positive note.” Yep, that’s what happened to me.
- “They are likely to feel a sense of freedom and a respite from day-to-day pressures, as though a burden had been lifted from their shoulders.” Yep, that’s what happened to me.
- “They may feel as though they’ve reclaimed ownership of their life, that time is their own to use however they desire.” Yep, that’s what happened to me.
- “It is a time to finally catch one’s breath and chill out for a while.” Yep, that’s what happened to me.
- “Unfortunately, within a relatively short time, many retirees begin to sense some uneasiness.” Incorrect. Unless their definition of “relatively short time” is longer than five years — because I haven’t experienced any uneasiness yet related to disliking retirement. The first few days of retirement were strange, that’s for sure, since I wasn’t doing something (going to work) that I had done for 28 years. But those feelings ended within the first week and pure joy set in. From there on it’s been smooth sailing!
- “There’s more to retirement than the simplistic stop work, go play.” I would agree with this. Not very many people can spend 30 years on vacation, so you need other things in your life — things you should know about, investigate, and try before you get close to retirement. So, you know, you have something you know you enjoy to do with all your time. Sheesh, this seems like I’m discussing Life 101. I would think we’d be past this by the time we reach 60!
- “Many adults truly look forward to it.” I would say “most” adults truly look forward to it.
- “As many as 33% of retirees have difficulty adjusting to the lifestyle.” The “as many as” part leads me to believe that one study found 33% have difficulty but that all the other studies found less than 33% have problems. Oh, and for some reverse math, if 33% have difficulty, then 67% don’t have difficulty. So we could say “most” don’t have difficulty or “a majority” don’t have difficulty. Already their claims that retirement unhappiness is widespread are falling apart.
- “Even those who claim to enjoy their retirement may not be content 100% of the time.” They are trying so hard to make a mountain out of a molehill. Is anyone in any situation in life “content 100% of the time”? I think not. That said, I’m content 95%+ of the time in retirement which is about 20 points higher than when I was working! Hahahaha.
- “They are instead likely to sense some discomfort from time to time, however short lived, as they adapt to a life without work.” Have I ever sensed discomfort since I retired? Of course. But that’s usually due to the spicy food I had the night before. Ha! Have I ever sensed discomfort about a life without work since I retired? Not for one second.
More on a Failed Retirement
We’ll wrap up today’s post by sharing a quote from Rob, one of the author’s of this book.
In the first post, we detailed Rob’s failed retirement and I broke down what I thought went wrong.
Now he adds his own thoughts on why he couldn’t make retirement work:
But thinking back on those days, I now realize that I made a mistake. Despite the fact that I’m big on planning, I didn’t use that time to lay out the specific steps that I would follow in retirement. I was so in love with the idea of having stress free days and being able to do whatever I wanted to do that I didn’t bother to think about what I actually would do when I was no longer working. I had some general ideas but nothing specific.
So after I retired and the joy of having no stress was gone, other problems set in — no structure, nothing meaningful in my life. I felt disconnected, no place to go, no direction, isolated. Then there was the boredom of nothing to do, a boredom that was at a whole different level from what I felt after the many years of doing my job. The emotional issues I dealt with during that time were pretty intense and wholly unexpected and, in retrospect, also very stressful.
- I won’t dive into all the reasons Rob failed, but there were many, all of which were avoidable. You can read my thoughts on them in the post The Retirement Maze, The Problems with Retirement.
- Yes, he failed to plan. That’s probably the biggest mistake. If he had planned, he would have been ready for the issues he faced and probably would have had a great retirement.
- Unfortunately, Rob is not alone. “I was so in love with the idea of having stress free days and being able to do whatever I wanted to do that I didn’t bother to think about what I actually would do when I was no longer working.” This describes a decent number of people — my guess would be 25% to 50% of new retirees — who don’t even give a thought to what they’ll do when they retire. They simply assume they’ll figure it out once they get there. After all, how hard could it be to do whatever you want to do? Turns out it’s much harder than many realize.
- “No structure.” This still kills me. How could a successful business person not be able to create his own life structure without work doing it for him? It seems like a crazy concept to me, but that’s what happened.
- “Nothing meaningful in my life.” This is what happens when your work is everything to you and you retire. You are then left with nothing meaningful in your life. He spent all his time at work for years (probably decades) and had nothing else — no family, no friends, no interests, nothing at all that made his life meaningful. How sad.
- He basically lost it. He was so connected to his work that when it was gone, so was his life. Everything fell apart. He had NOTHING. It’s pretty pathetic IMO. How can one person be so wrapped up in something that if that thing goes away, he’s crushed and can’t go on? If his one thing was a person (like a spouse) I could see that from a certain perspective (though you still need to go on), but for something like work (and especially market research! UGH!) I just don’t see how this happens.
We’ll stop here for today and get back at it next time.
For the next post in this series, see The Retirement Maze, Why Work Works.
It seems by the ongoing theme of “Retirement Police” throughout your columns that it really bothers you. I totally get it, but I think part of the pushback is the attempt of redefining a word to mean something different than what it traditionally meant. I’m okay with words changing their meaning, but the overall attempt at ambiguity with the word “retirement” is what I think people find confusing.
My default is to follow the IRS. They are pretty clear on what is a hobby and what is income, and which kinds of income can\cannot be considered for 401k\solo IRA contribution. My current benchmark is if one has money coming in that a portion can be contributed to a 401k\IRA\solo IRA, then one is not retired. Motivation, mandates to perform that work or need for that income is irrelevant.
I’m not trying to define income, I’m trying to let people know that you can “work” in “retirement”.
Almost all the newer books on retirement allow for “work” in “retirement” (meaning you can do both), so the traditional definition of retirement is changing quickly.
I am really enjoying this book review and your perspective on the various points made by the book.
My father worked until he was 71; extremely successful businessman, very respected among his peers, which was apparent at his wake when people waited hours to pay their respect. However, he really had no plans for post-work and passed away at age 75. I would argue that he failed in retirement and this motivated my desire to NOT fail in retirement.
I notice how you consider yourself retired, yet you have been running ESIMONEY for how many years??…so, are you truly “retired” ? LOL
Honestly, believe I can answer my own question.
It strikes me that you are doing what you love to do…in spite of a paycheck. In other words, you would do ESI for free…maybe, at a loss too.
To me, the best definition of retirement is doing what I want in spite of a paycheck.
Yep, you nailed it.
I retired from working at a career I liked but didn’t enjoy completely (does anyone like all aspects of their job?).
Now I work at things I really do enjoy — writing and talking about money and helping people get better with it. What’s not to love? 🙂
When my parents finally retired, they sat around and basically watched TV all day. I think they both defined themselves by their work. My mom, who was probably clinically depressed her whole life seemed miserable. I know my dad wanted to travel, but they had no money to do so. After a few years, I remember my dad talking about going back to work again because he was unhappy and bored.
My parents were not good with money either, they always seemed to be on a perpetual gerbil wheel of not having enough. They both were born in the 30s so had a bit of that depression-era mindset, so spending money on going out to eat, or just a nice coffee at Starbucks, seemed wasteful. I think after all the years of working, the saving grace was that they had state jobs with pensions attached to them, so they were able to live on that and their social security.
It actually made me think that retirement was a bad thing until I got into my 50s and realized that life is what you make of it. I don’t believe you need a ton of money once you retire, but you definitely need to have things to do that give you a sense of purpose and a game plan. My parents were like lost souls. I remember spending time with them and feeling depressed in that house. We used to say to them, why not sell the home and downsize? Their home was a fixer that became overwhelming to keep up with as they got older.
Maybe some people are stuck in a box and the box is comfortable to them even though it is uncomfortable in a lot of other ways. I see this with a lot of boomers like myself.
Here’s the tough thing — most people are like your parents in that they don’t have a plan for what to do with their retirement time.
And they don’t think they need a plan because either “we’ll figure it out when we get there” or “who plans for leisure? No one!”
But they do need a plan and do need help creating one…they just don’t know it. This sets so many people up for a bad retirement.
I do feel sorry for Rob, I’m like you, retired for over five years now and I haven’t yet felt the hint of any existential dread slipping up on me. I designed the life I’m living and make conscious decisions like my recent cutting back on paid consulting in favor of more volunteer mentoring. And in the future if something isn’t serving me I’ll adjust again. Life isn’t that hard, compared to running an oil refinery its actually much easier to run my individual life. I have my wonderful best friend/wife, great grown kids and lots of active enjoyable hobbies. And lots of volunteer work because I just can’t play pickleball and tennis every hour of the day(almost but not quite), I think I gain by giving back to help others too. Its strange that your life and mine have been this good and his was a train wreck in comparison. I don’t know if a failure to plan is enough of an explanation. Some people aren’t cut out to live happy lives, which is sad, but we all know people like that.
JeffB MI20 says
It’s sad that retired people with no plan can’t even manage to find a thousand volunteering opportunities to get involved and find something to get them out of the house.
That is such a good point!
What does a plan for leisure look like? I know I have a bunch of different activities I would like to do, physical activity, hobbies, learning musical instruments, … a bunch. But, I don’t have a schedule of exactly when to do them. Is this a setup for failure? How much really needs to be planned or scheduled? Thanks for any insight.
In my experience, you simply need to 1) have the activities and 2) do them once you retire. I don’t think a schedule in advance is a must.
Also, learn to be flexible. Having a routine in retirement is great IMO, but it might take you several tries to get one that you really like.