December 6, 2018

Does Retirement Make You Feel Guilty?

A reader wondered how much a part guilt plays in one's satisfying retirement. Frankly, I have never thought about it in those terms until he raised the issue.

Yes, the way our most disadvantaged citizens are treated bothers me tremendously. It is hard to fathom some of the dismissive talk I hear about folks who are homeless or forced to fight to survive on not enough food and minimal health care. 

The approach of some in government to make up the deficit by cutting the bare necessities even further for these people because they have no political "value" doesn't line up at all with my religious beliefs. When children are involved I feel ill.


But, as the reader noted, for most of us, that is not our situation. We have some type of roof over our heads, enough food and medical care to be as healthy as our bodies allow us. We have heat in the winter and cooling in the summer. There is likely at least one car in the garage unless we have chosen to do without.

When we compare our lifestyle with so many others we are blessed. Does that ever raise a feeling of guilt? In part, here are those comments:

"Feelings of guilt at being able to retire when so many others are likely to have no opportunity. We are able to retire due to thoughtful (or lucky?) strategies of investment and/or frugal lifestyle. Or due to the good fortune of being born into an advantaged/educated household. 

Still, when I see so many hardworking people - and there ARE many hardworking poor people - who have no real hopes of retiring, I have to accept that the world is indeed not fair. Still, it rankles me that working hard does not guarantee some kind of retirement opportunity.

When I was retiring from my teaching career, so many colleagues said that I certainly "deserved it." Some of being able to retire was due to hard work and strategic living, but much was also due to a small inheritance and the larger inheritance of good health and good education. There are lots of hardworking and less fortunate individuals who are also deserving.

Also feelings of Guilt from no longer being "productive" in the typical 9 to 5 style. Not necessarily new, I know, but many of us don't feel useful unless we are on that blasted "hamster wheel" of the work world.

All sorts of these feelings of guilt can be turned into appreciation for whatever gifts we have earned or been arbitrarily given, but for me, it has taken some time and processing."

This quote raises some very important points to think about. The common definition of guilt implies that something wrong has been done. It leaves one with a feeling of self-reproach for some ethical or legal failure. I'm pretty sure the reader isn't implying he "cheated" his way into retirement. 

This "guilt" is one of comparison: comparing his situation with other human beings who are in a much worse state through no fault of their own. In fact, he notes their situation may be in spite of doing things correctly. That prompts the question, "Why me? How can I live the way I live while others suffer without me feeling guilty?"

The feelings that were expressed are those of a person with a finely tuned sense of morality and fairness. What he sees is the condition of humanity: there are perceived "winners" and "losers " who may be in those categories through no action of their own. There will always be poor people and always be those who are well-off. But, what he is reacting to are those who have been "mis-categorized" and can do nothing about it.

Obviously, there are folks who ignore the basic rules of good financial stewardship. They spend too much, use credit poorly, and don't save. These are not the people the reader or this post are addressing. The "make your own bed" cliche is a better fit for them. Certainly we can have empathy for their situation, but a guilty feeling at our situation compared to their's wouldn't seem appropriate.

Before I get too heavy into philosophy and religion let me stop here and make one point: This comment has brought to light a very important issue - that of fairness in society and what our responsibility is to recognize and react to it.

I must admit I don't feel guilty in the traditional sense about being able to retire early and live decently. I also don't believe I did anything better or different than many of my peers who were still working and might continue to do so for years.

Yes, I worked hard, saved a lot and lived within or below my means. But, the talents and skills I was born with came from God. My educational and economic advantages came from parents. These factors were primarily responsible for who I became. 

I do feel guilty that there isn't more I can do to make things more fair. The best I can do is try to make the little parts of the world I touch a little less unhappy and depressing.


Has this post caused you to think about your retirement situation in comparison to others? Is feeling bad about what life has given you counter-productive? How do you react when others express jealousy over your situation? These questions can be important to our overall feeling of living a satisfying retirement. I'm interested in your contribution to this discussion.


This subject was the focus of a recent podcast in the Living a Satisfying Retirement Lifestyle series. It used an earlier version of this post from several years ago that prompted some excellent comments.

The topic is important enough that it is worth a rerun to allow more readers to weigh in on this subject.


41 comments:

  1. Pauline in Upstate NYThu Dec 06, 04:29:00 AM MST

    Good morning, Bob -

    This one hit home for me, as I have struggled with feelings like this, but the guilt arises in connection to my own comfort level in retirement compared to some others in my family. Even though I could point to things that my husband & I did “right” through the years and to decisions made by others that have complicated their lives, I still feel uncomfortable. I find that I avoid talking with some family members about travel plans or events we have enjoyed because I don’t want to make them feel resentful. And this can lead to even more difficult questions such as what do we owe to family members (of our own generation) who, while living in a safe setting with sufficient food and access to health care, simply do not have many extra pleasures in their lives. I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on this.

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    1. I had a powerful example of this recently. We were with retired friends when I mentioned we bought some wine bottle corks while on a European River Cruise. I got a wry smile from both; this type of vacation is beyond their means. They didn't say anything but I should have been more sensitive.

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  2. I was thankful for the gift of leaving worry at the "before retirement" door and guilt is there as well. My feelings now are much like yours. I appreciate what I have been given. I attempt to use those skills for the betterment of all---including studying and writing. When I did things out of guilt, I feel that I was judging their circumstances in a negative way. I did not know their real joys or sorrows because I stood apart. The more guilty I felt, the further I stood away. Now I look for times of joy. Sometimes that is monetary, but often that is a simple smile, a quiet thank you or just acknowledging someone is there for others.
    I have also learned that just because you are comfortable does not make you happy (or satisfied). For me, that comes from the joy of sharing with others.

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    1. You summarize my feelings well, Janette. I feel "responsible" more than guilty. If I can contribute time or money or knowledge to make someone else's journey easier I should do so.

      Importantly, this doesn't just apply to only other retirees. I have the freedom to do these things for any fellow human, of any age. That is a special type of freedom I relish.

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  3. I felt guilty years ago just as my career was starting to gain traction. I was doing well and had a bright future and yet there were millions in the world that were (and are) desperately poor. I struggled with it for a long time but came to the conclusion that if I took every dollar I earned, and if I sold everything I owned, and gave it to the poor of some nation it wouldn't make any noticeable difference. A downside would be that I would then join the ranks of the poor myself. With that I had the mindset that I can only do what I can do and had a portion of my pay deducted at source for a charity that I thought would do the most good. It's all I could realistically do and from then on I haven't been troubled by guilt.

    In the present day my retirement has been pretty good, as a friend of mine said to me: "You are living the dream". Sure I had worked hard and saved and so on but I know I had also been very lucky. No one is really self-made. I was born in a wealthy country at a time of peace and abundance had nothing to do with me. The society I lived in provided safe drinking water and free education right through high school as well as numerous other advantages. As well, I've had good health and that is pretty lucky too, I could have been struck down by any number of diseases from polio to cancer but I wasn't. None of this is anything to apologize for and it's nothing to feel guilty about. The mindset I developed early on still holds.

    My current thinking it that I will leave 10% of my estate to charity when I leave this place. If it's a long time from now it might not be that much but either way I think my heirs will understand that 90% of whatever I have left is just fine. I can only do what I can do.

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    1. THere will always be poor with us. The Bible is pretty clear about that. Like you, I realized that, realistically, I can only make even the smallest dent in someone else's pain if I deal with something locally.

      I made a donation to a fund for the recent California Fire victims, but know it will be a drop in a huge ocean. In that case, I just compelled to reach out and so something.

      Your situation is very much like mine: I made a nice living but was blessed with so much that money can't buy. My life was shaped by factors totally out of my control. Now, when I can affect things, I feel a powerful need to do so.

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  4. Feeling guilty about not working promotes the idea that our worth is mostly connected to what we DO/our WORK. My Acupuncturist grew up in China and was a physician there for years before coming to the US and opening her acupuncture practice. One year when I went for a treatment for EXHAUSTION (in my 50's--working two jobs) she laughed and said: In my country women stop working at age 50. You should think about cutting back your work.Well,I stopped one job around age 54, and at age 59, retired completely. I don't feel guilty!! It's important to note that other cultures support life cycles of the householder years, working years, and becoming an elder. Families take care of elders, you don't need to go it alone . Poverty? That is a larger social issue we need to address, and it makes sense that those who have more, share and volunteer. No child should go hungry in this VERY RICH country and no one should be without health care!!

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    1. I think you are right on target about the connection between guilt and our work culture. Some of the most generous people I have ever met have been in less-than-ideal situations, both financial and physical.

      As noted above, guilt isn't particularly useful as an emotion, unless it spurs one to action.

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  5. Pauline I also struggle with the 'what do we owe' question. At this point in retirement I am trying (not always succeeding) to not give anymore. Looking back we put our financial health at risk to help them. Yes there is resentment that the brother we helped so he could keep his house no longer has a mortgage while we do. I have always neen the 'rich' one to them without them realizing what I went without to help them with basic surviaval. I'm not looking for thanks, it's just who I am but at this point I think I need to focus on my life and happiness. They are where they are in life and it's too late to help them change that, so I'll give time and energy but no longer any money. I also do as you do, don't talk to them about my lifestyle. For me I think there will always be that 'why me' question but I also can look back at the choices I made verus the choices they made and see them continue to make what I consider poor choices, but choices that they consider the better choice. So my guideline now is to let them live their life and help them get help if they need and ask for it rather then providing the help.

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    1. We are not our brother's keeper except in the broader human content. You have identified something that causes tremendous stress for many of us: what do we owe relatives at the risk of our own health and safety? There comes a point when self-preservation must step up. Even so, as you say, "help them get help if they need it."

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  6. Hi Bob! What a provocative post! I am not yet retired so I can't answer your question from that perspective. But I live frugally, save as much as I can, live far below my means and plan accordingly. I KNOW others my age aren't doing that I suspect they will have a harder time than I when it comes to retirement. Sill, I do what I can NOW to help others who are struggling--not to my own detriment--but because I think that everyone needs to have a place to sleep, food to eat and decent health care. That's why I am staying involved in politics and local charity resources to help. I think the biggest issue behind your question is not that we must WORK in order to not feel guilty, but that as residents of planet earth and brothers and sisters to all people, we do what we can with what we have. So while I tend to think "guilt" is a wasteful emotion, compassion is always a good thing to have and develop. Certainly our world can use more of that no matter what age or retirement level? ~Kathy

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    1. The only positive effect of "guilt at retirement" would be an increased awareness of the world around us, a world that is desperate for so many things. With the time and financial freedoms to reach out, we can use some of what we have been so graciously given in a way that leaves others in a better place.

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  7. I don't feel guilty, but I do feel incredibly grateful. A couple of family members have stated openly they are jealous I retired at age 62 while they are still working. I could point to some poor choices they made along the way, but that doesn't make it any easier to deal with. I just try to be respectful of everyone's personal situation. I'm careful with new people so it doesn't come across as bragging.

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    1. Being careful around others takes some time to learn (see my first comment!). It is easy to assume the people we come in contact with are like us, in resources and opportunities. That is simply not true. Being respectful (nice word!) is a good choice.

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  8. I hope that ChuckY does repost. I think he made a valid point that who we preceive as poor and needing help may not be how they view themselves, if I understood his comment correctly. His comment changed my comment and my thinking that I should wait until they express a need for help instead of judging their lives by my standards.

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  9. I would love to hear what Chuck has to say, I must have missed it! I think there needs to be a delination in discussions like this between those who are truly poor, and those who have "less than they would like" or a "fixed income".

    I fall firmly in the first camp, but I see on a daily basis those who are at subsistence level on occasion-not necessarily through "choices" but rather "circumstance". I work with low income seniors, most of whom are low income through no fault of their own-women and men who are single or divorced and who only had low paying jobs and no second income, people who have had to declare medical baankruptcy and those experiencing homelessness. We recently had a subsidized and low income apartment complex burn to the ground. Those people are now staying at hotels, but their rental insurance will run out, the apartments have not paid or assisted them in any way, or returned deposits and some of those people will, I expect be sleeping in cars. I am also a sister of a woman who has twice, twice mind you, been kicked out of her decent job with no golden parachute and in both cases watched the companies kill of the pension she was counting on via bankruptcy. So while I have been retired (forcibly) since 2006 and learned to love it, at sixty two she sees no retirement in sight and because and has a social security payment coming of just around a thousand dollars. This means, for example, that when we went on a road trip and I wanted to stay in an expensive downtown hotel, I paid the freight-because I can. On the other hand, I have a brother and sister in law who have always had high level, executive type jobs with no risk, who are very savvy when it come to the market (they actually handle their own investments and have done very well doing so), who I expect wonder if they should feel guilty about their siblings, and others.

    So I don't have any answer, except that I do what I can when I can, first with my family and then with others to give those little "pleasures" as the poster above calls them, that small amounts of money can buy here and there, and commit myself to assisting others within the money I have and the time I have.

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    1. Good comment, Barbara.The story of your sister is all too common. Through no fault of their own they find themselves seriously adrift.

      Adding onto what you and Mary said, there is certainly a difference between those who are truly needy and those who are simply dissatisfied. One difference, though, I want to add: waiting until someone expresses a need for help may not be the answer. Humans have a very strong sense of pride. A child may go to school hungry or poorly dressed even though there are resources to help them...simply because the parents are too proud to ask.

      What seems to be a common thread in the comments so far is one of sensitivity: being aware and sensitive to the needs we can address without attaching "guilt" to our own good fortune and/or preparation. That does no one any good.

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  10. I have four kids, two are bipolar. They are able to work, usually, but do have down periods. I have an inheritance (land) that I will divide (in trusts), and pass on to all four kids. I will gift all four kids their own little piece of land and each one a used mobile home. They can stay there, or rent it out. It is not much, but all of them will have a place to live and grow food, if needed. One child does lives thousands of miles away, but she will have a place to come "home" to, if needed. This way, I am not causing resentment, and I am also passing on what I inherited. The two children without the mental issues, understand that I do not want the two with mental issues to feel like I am having to help them out, so that is why I am divided the land and mobile homes equally. They also understand that they are the keeper of their brothers, if they are not able to handle their affairs. It is not much, but I inherited it, so I want to pass it on. I do not need it.

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    1. I love your comment. You have expressed what I feel: we treat others the way we would want to be treated and do what we can with what we have without any type of judgement. Good for you.

      Thank you.

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  11. Thanks for sharing Bob! I honestly feel no guilt or remorse from having the ability to retire when I did (age 53 - not by choice - was laid off). Yes, I was fortunate to have grown up in a modest middle income family in the deep south, however, my parents made sacrifices to ensure that my brother and I were given good educational opportunities by paying for us to attend private schools and state universities. As a result, we lived in a much smaller and older home than what my dad's income would have afforded and we rarely spent any money on vacations other than to visit family nearby. I have seen many posts on various retirement blogs about the give and take that most people whom were able to retire comfortably have performed over the course of their lives to achieve a comfortable retirement. I have had the honor of meeting and working with people from all sorts of economic backgrounds, and what I find in common among people who have more financial security is that they spend below their means no matter their income level, and those that were raised poor who broke into the middle and upper income levels did so through hard work, dedication to improving themselves and their situation, and not blaming others for their situation. I do give back to the people who are less fortunate by donating my time to Meals on Wheels, donating clothing to our local community outreach non profit, and donating all manner of things (furniture, older computers, etc) so these non profits can afford to help more people. My wife and I worked hard to achieve the level of financial independence we have and I have no remorse. It took years of working long, hard hours and not allowing ourselves to fall victim to the "I am a victim" mentality and the "I must have all these possessions like others have" mentality. I value experiences, friendship, and family much more than having designer clothes, a luxury brand name car, or expensive furnishings and always have.

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    1. Well said, Dan. Learning that experiences have more lasting value than things is an important lesson to learn, but one too many in our culture seem to miss.

      My dad was unemployed for various stretches of time so my mom's school teacher salary kept us afloat. Of course, growing up my brothers and I weren't aware of all that. We had plenty of food (mostly casseroles, but we liked them!) along with nonstop love and support. Looking back, I see that we lived without a lot of extras and few vacations. But, growing up we had no idea of the sacrifices my parents made for us or that we were "missing" anything.

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  12. Not sure why my post was deleted, Bob. I did delete the first one because of typos and redid it a second time, but it somehow deleted that one as well. Let me see if I can recreate it.

    Deb and I worked hard all our lives (in my case literally almost all my life, starting at 7), lived below our means, and saved all we could to retire a little earlier than many. Do I feel guilt for that? Absolutely not. We both started life as members of lower class families, and succeeded where many of those who had much easier starts than us failed for oftentimes their own poor choices. We do all we can for our charities of choice, giving of our cash and products and time to help give those less fortunate with a bit of a leg up. But we will never allow ourselves to feel any guilt for any success we attained, and nor will we feel jealousy towards those that succeeded even more than we did in life.

    I am not sure I captured everything I said this morning. My wife read it and felt it was pretty good, so I know it is better than this second attempt. I do have to admit I am surprised that so many of your responders agree with your first point of not feeling guilt yourself. It doesn't mean any of them are not helping others, whether family members, charities or what not, but they are wisely not allowing themselves to be burdened by any feelings of guilt. Society already does a good job, rightfully or wrongly, of trying to make people feel guilty for so many things nowadays. Guilt for a successful retirement certainly should not be one of them. Best wishes this Christmas season you, Betty and all your readers, Bob. God Bless.

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    1. Thanks for reposting your thoughts. As you see, a few folks were looking forward to your comment.

      Guilt over being better off than others seems pointless, as does bemoaning not being as well off as others. It only makes you feel bad and doesn't help anyone else. At this stage of life all we can do is help others when we can, take care of ourselves and our family, and pray that if we suffer a major problem we will have the good grace and maturity to handle it.

      The very best to you and Deb this holiday season.

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  13. I don't feel guilty about being retired, but I do feel lucky, and I feel I have a responsibility to use my skills to contribute to the common good. In my case, I mostly do that by volunteer teaching, at the local Senior College and the high school's adult ed. program. In the adult ed. program, because I volunteer my time, the courses I teach are free to students. This fall I taught a course at the Senior College on how to think productively about inequality. Since most of the class was committed to social justice values, we spent the last class session talking about strategies for reducing inequality in American society.

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    1. That class discussion would have been fascinating to listen to. Studies do show that as we age most of us feel strongly about contributing to the common good however we can.

      I enjoy teaching Junior Achievement classes. Watching kids react and participate is gratifying.

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  14. I started working toward retirement at 21 when I graduated from college and chose to work low paying government jobs because of the pension benefits. I got serious at 26 when I opened an IRA. I was always the go to person at work to explain the pension system and I counseled everyone on saving additional money thru IRA's, 457 plans and 403b plans. I retired at 58 to be a caregiver for my parents and I am grateful for all that planning. I worked hard for my retirement and shared my knowledge to help others do the same. What is there to be guilty about?
    Everyone had the same opportunity. I am not responsible for their poor choices.
    To Barbara and her sister, Please go to www.pbgc.gov to see if the federal government took over those pension funds. She might be eligible for benefits. The program pays reduced pension amounts but anything is better than nothing.






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    1. Thanks for the info on the government program. Maybe there is some relief available.

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  15. I was given money way too young. Not a lot but enough to supplement my income, and make me feel guilty that I had more than my coworkers--many of whom were my good friends. I took them out, and did more. I'm the idiot who believes in Karma. Thought somehow I would get it back. Ha! I can't say I'm struggling at this moment though I would constantly travel had I saved that money. But I would max out my 401K and my incredible father started brokerage accounts for me. I no longer feel guilt. I have a paid off house, no debt, and being the person who stayed vested hope that my accounts will "come back" Have a weird feeling about it however. I am talented, and known in some communities. Maybe this is the universe's way of telling me to work my butt off! I do love hard work, but at 68, I slow down a bit quicker than I did--not used to that, and love socializing more than I did in my 40s and 50s when I was in grad school, had an elderly mother, and a bazillion other responsiblities that left little time for fun! Not that my mother wasn't fun, but....

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    1. Extra money at a young age can throw someone for a bit of a loop. In your case it created a some feeling of guilt, though it seems you made some wise choices to be debt free now.

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  16. Another one who doesnt feel guilty. I retired (as always planned) at 60 and managed to still do so, despite the British Government raising my State Pension Age by around 3 years. It was not my idea of fun managing on job pension (from a low-paid job) only for that first 3 years or so. I've got my full pension now and, at around £15,000 pa income it's a bit lower than I had 5 years ago in work. I'm not going to feel guilty - because I always held a full-time job (apart from periods of unemployment) ever since I left school and did various sideline things for extra money as well. So - low income/I've always been single (ie had to pay all housing and bills costs on my own) and never given any benefit for having children - then I can see where I think guilt is appropriate, but that's not on my own doorstep.

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    1. No guilt for the circumstances where we find ourselves is the common theme of most commenters. We are given certain gifts and circumstances that we do our best to make work for us, like you.

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  17. When I was trying to decide whether to retire, I felt tremendous guilt about even thinking about retiring at age 60. I believed it was my duty to keep working in my career path and contributing to society (even though I could see that my excessive overwork was having a negative impact on my health). I could not imagine not working. Now I am retired and I feel no guilt. I am much happier, and I can see that working is not the only option, and that there are other ways to contribute than through paid work.

    Jude

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    1. Remember that while you continued to work you were paying taxes (I assume!) and helping your organization succeed. It may not have been your "duty" to keep working but you did contribute in meaningful ways.

      As you note, there are many path to contribution and many of them do not require employment.

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  18. I do NOT feel guilty. Not one bit. I grew up without a dad and without much money. I worked at least 2-3 jobs while in high school and college just to get by. My mom had four kids and struggled mightily. I was left no inheritance, no property, nothing of value except a mother who did the best she could. I was wildly successful compared to my childhood. My husbands background is similar. Do I feel “ lucky”? No, I worked my butt off to get where I am. Our children are all more well off than we are. Now that is a blessing. We feel so lucky to be here, retired, happy, traveling, active, healthy and in love. Who could want more than that?

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    1. You feel good about your life and what you were able to accomplish after a rough start. I can see nothing but congratulations are in order.

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  19. I'm not sure I would say I feel a great deal of guilt over it. but I am certainly aware that I am very fortunate to have retired when and how I did. What I do feel a bit of guilt over is retiring before my good friends at work could, even though our situations were a bit different and I was simply eligible to go before them. I know that, as my friends, they are happy for me but they are not shy about saying they are envious. I try not to talk too much about it with them unless they bring it up. I do have one work friend that is retiring in March, so we are having some good text chats about that.

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    1. You mention an uncomfortable situation: retiring before your peers. Feeling uneasy in their presence and maybe a bit of jealousy on their part is natural. But, that doesn't make the tensions go away. You are showing empathy by steering clear of the subject unless someone brings it up.

      You will be a great source of support and insight for your friend who will retire next spring. After all, you have the experience to help him or her through any rough spots.

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  20. I've enjoyed reading all the comments here. I can't say I feel guilty about being retired, although I can understand the sentiment. For a while, I felt bad that I was able to choose my retirement when friends were let go and not ready to leave the workforce. But over time, I've just been so happy to be retired, I have no space for guilt about it. And most of them have done OK over time. Also, I have time to volunteer which is a great feeling.

    The inequality in our society is difficult, and I really wish everyone had access to healthcare - Medicare is great! At some point, I hope this great country realizes we all deserve decent healthcare.

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    1. I'm sure you agree that in situations like this guilt doesn't really accomplish anything. If someone's situation stimulates feelings of compassion or anger over how others in society are marginalized, those are more useful reactions.

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  21. Very thought provoking question, leading us, if we are willing, to look honestly at some of the fundamental questions you raise about not only retirement but society in the broader sense. We could look at this in so many contexts. Why are top athletes and actors paid more than top teachers, for example? For some folks, the issue of guilt over having advantages starts long before retirement. We might have advantages due to gender, race, class, nationality, and so on. One person might inherit wealth and another might strike it rich as an entrepreneur.

    I feel blessed on many counts, including being able to retire at a relatively young age (59). One way I think about it is that I try to be a good steward of the resources I've been blessed with.

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    1. You raise another interesting set of issues: feelings of jealousy or envy over another's situation. Those emotions are about as productive as guilt, I'm afraid. Each of us is unique, including the gifts we are given how we use them, and how we shape the circumstances of our life.

      This post has generated some fascinating comments.

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