December 28, 2017

Why is The Prospect of Retirement Scary?


I have been blogging on this subject long enough to know that not everyone has a satisfying retirement. The post, When Retirement Becomes Less Than You Dreamed, generated a lot of comments and e-mails from those who have found all of this to be a bit of a struggle.

Some of the reasons are obvious: financial, medical, maybe relationship struggles. But, I wondered why folks who don't have any particular stumbling block still are hesitant, maybe even fearful about the whole idea of retirement.  I have receieved enough correspondence to know there are plenty of people who refuse to even consider leaving work, not because they need the money or are even in love with the job, but because they are nervous about what may lie ahead.

I wondered what may be some of the underlying concerns. What causes someone to avoid leaving the 9-5 world even if he or she can? A couple of possibilities came to mind:

* A Lifetime of Conditioning. It starts with kindergarten. That was followed with twelve years of High School, maybe four or more years of College or vocational training. Then, we had to find a job to pay off a student loan, or support ourselves and maybe a family. 

For 60 years we have been moving in one direction: forward. We have been taught to achieve, produce, learn, provide, succeed. We have been told that we must keep our commitments. Our days and weeks and years are mostly controlled by others.

Then, one day, that stops. The path we have been on since our childhood ends. The way we have been conditioned to live loses its moorings. The concessions we have made and the trade of our time for money is over. Now what are we supposed to do? What are the new rules?

* Doubt in Ourselves. No matter how self-confident or in control we appear to others, all of us harbor doubts. It is not hard to convince ourselves that the perfect retirement plan may not be so great. Being retired means we will have to be in control of everything, every day. If we have any questions about our ability to fill our time, stay happy and engaged, and be around another person all the time, thoughts of retirement can raise some serious doubts in our mind.

* Doubt in Others. The fine folks in Washington may decide to unravel the rules that we have played by to get to this point in our life. Talk of changing Medicare or Social Security can unsettle even the most confident of us. A major upheaval of the financial markets is very much out of our control and can have life-altering consequences. Without an income, a recovery is very difficult. If we have relationship problems then we aren't really sure how he or she will react to the loss of a regular paycheck and routine.


I can see these three reasons, or others I may not have thought of, as being a stumbling block to someone on the cusp of retirement. I do not suggest they be ignored or promise everything will be fine. Any one of them can be a legitimate concern.

I hope all the posts on this blog and the very fine readers who participate with comments and shared experiences can help someone tackle an issue like this and feel comfortable about moving forward. As always, if you have a particular concern, please feel free to send me an e-mail. The address is available at the top of this page.



15 comments:

  1. In my case I would agree completely with your first and third points (a lifetime of conditioning and absolute no faith in politicians of either side). I think you hit the nail as far as the major reason for many/most to be fearful. Maybe I could add another - fear of aging. Let's face it, it can be a milestone that many might hate in that it signifies advancing years. Now if you are lucky enough to have significant assets and you are able to go out at a very early age this would not be the case, but in your 50s and 60s it will feel differently. Just another thought.

    Happy New Year to you and Betty, as well as all your readers, Bob.

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    1. Fear of aging...excellent observation, Chuck. Reaching retirement age, regardless of when it is, does signify the crossing of a major line. It is hard to be retired and still think of yourself as middle age.

      I will have a post coming soon about invisibility: too often older folks are unseen by the rest of society. Retirement from the work force may be part of the reason.

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  2. Really enjoyed your last 2 posts. Extremely close to home. I often thought about my college choice ( where to go/ what to major) for many years. Yes, I had a remarkable career. Yes, I earned a PhD and loved what it took. Yes, I always worked at
    top 25 universities, and worked with really bright people. Yes, I would love to go back and redo my undergrad days and this time really pay attention, that would be a true gift.

    When you traveled for business, I did as well. But, I was fortunate, in that when I had to travel on university business for a week or more, I was able to bring my wife and 2 kids—even if we had to pull them out of school.

    No, never had any fear of retirement. Just fear of what I would do. Now, at 76 love to travel and see friends and grandkids. And family. Working to stay active and healthy.
    You stay healthy and keep posting!

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    1. Traveling with the family must have been a very nice perk, though, in my case mom and the kids would have been bored silly since I spent all day in meetings and client dinners.

      I plan on staying health for quite some time, Jack. Off to the gym in a few hours for some weight training.

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  3. Very interesting post! Other sources of fear: an identity tied closely to the job, a belief that when you retire, you die, and a fear of financial catastrophe, even when comfortable.

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    1. All true. The fear of running out of money even if you have plenty, seems to be a basic human condition.

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  4. Why do people find the prospect of retirement scary? I would say it's basically a fear of the unknown. I had a penciled in date for retirement that I postponed by almost 2 years because it is scary to make that leap. What will I do? Will I have enough to live on? And once you do make the leap to retirement you can't really go back -- not that many jobs that will pay what were you making the last year you worked as the most senior and experienced person on staff.

    I think the financial industry has a lot to do with it as well. Most articles I see in the financial press keep predicting doomsday if you ever retire. The have a litany of reasons why you shouldn't retire: Your money won't last! You haven't saved enough! Life expectancies are longer! Interest rates are too low! Stocks will crash! Social Security is bankrupt! And on and on. Essentially if you ever retire you'll either be broke, bored, or both. Of course they aren't exactly unbiased as the longer you are working and contributing to your retirement savings rather than drawing them down the more money they make.

    However, those of us who have made the transition to retirement wonder what we were worried about. The stress of meeting ever higher work demands with ever reduced budgets and resources is gone, money isn't really the issue you thought it might be, and personal enjoyment of life increases substantially. We wonder why we waited as long as we did to retire. I don't know if this is true for everybody but that certainly is my experience and my friends that have retired report that same thing.

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    1. I'd be in that camp, too. Most of our worries don't come true. We are rather adaptable creatures; we figure out a way to make things work. And, nothing can replace the freedom that comes with retirement.

      For those that argue, yea but your health goes downhill and you spend all your time at the doctor's office, I'd say, that might happen while you are working, too. Eventually, the body wears out. I suggest the stress of work hastens that reality.

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  5. I think change is difficult no matter what the reason, and no matter how well you prepare for it and welcome it. And retirement, whether planned or not, is a MAJOR lifestyle change. Retirement falls at #10 on the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory (https://www.stress.org/holmes-rahe-stress-inventory/), and gets 45 points out of 100, meaning there a only a few things more stressful in life than retirement. It's no wonder people can be scared by the prospect of retirement and its unknowns.

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    1. I didn't know retirement scored that highly but I am not surprised. Death of a spouse, divorce, moving getting fired...all major stress causers. Add retirement to that list.

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    2. Laura, thanks for the link to the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory scale. Looking at the link it seems retirement is 45 "points" with 150 being where you start to encounter stress issues. Still, as you say, retirement is one of the biggies (right behind marriage). I wonder how 1982 would have rated for me? Let's see... Finished university, started a new job, bought a house, took on a mortgage, got married, and we had our first child. I suppose I was younger then and a lot more resilient ;-)

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  6. I have noticed that my retired friends fall into one of two categories. Those for whom their job defined their life and identity and those who had a rich life outside of work. Those in the former category seemed more fearful and stressed about retirement, while most of the latter looked forward to it with a mix of caution and excitement.

    I loved my career and do miss some aspects. But I was not frightened at all about the transition. Life has always been too interesting for me to spend much time in worry. I worry about our country, I worry about the health of the planet, but retirement has allowed me to regain some lost interests and passions from my youth so I don't spend much time worried about myself.

    I try not to judge others reactions or fears. Everyone does the best they can given their personality and circumstances. But I do try to reassure my friends who are about to retire (if they have adequately planned) that life is good "on the other side."

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    1. You point out an important factor. How do those who live to work think of retirement versus those who work to live? I am sure there is a difference in how each personality type approaches the end of employment.

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  7. Yes, the financial fears are real, the issues of declining health and the costs associated with those are real, ‘Grey Divorce’… the list goes on, and all of these issues are important and need to be considered. But beyond the fear-mongering and the crisis-mode 'the sky is falling' talk around the financial aspects of retirement, are the real reasons Boomers fear retirement.

    Their perceived fears of (1) becoming irrelevant, (2) losing meaning and purpose in their lives, (3) losing their identity, (4) leading to loss of self-worth, and lastly (5) loss of socialization.

    As a generation, we Boomers were a highly-motivated community who weren’t afraid of much. We wanted to (and still do) ‘make a difference in the world’.

    When it comes to retirement, many do fear it as a time where they will just be ‘put out to pasture' with no real meaning or purpose.

    Yes, we do see our jobs and careers as a major source for our identities and self-worth, but we also see those as how we contribute and ‘do our part’. For many people, to remove that, removes a major source of their being relevant.

    69% of Boomers say they experience some level of emotional stress around their retirements - many people postpone their retirements because they see it as a leisurely drift into obscurity.

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    1. So true. If someone's identity is tied to what they do for a living, then the "what I am" question becomes difficult after retirement. Luckily, there are ways to reset one's identity, but it is easier to get life in better balance before leaving work.

      As you note, this problem can lead to other issues, some severe enough that retirement is avoided as a way of dodging the problems.

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