January 22, 2023

How is Retirement Supposed To Feel?


Occasionally I receive some form of the question, "How come I don't feel retired?" And it doesn't seem to matter whether the person has been away from full-time work for a few months, a few years, or almost two decades.

A good example is my wife, Betty. She and I retired together in 2001, which means we have been on this journey for 22 years. That is a decent percentage of our lifetime. Even so, regularly, she will remark that she is still looking forward to figuring out what retirement means to her. She wants more control over her time, doing what she wants to do when she wants to do it.

She is certainly not alone. If the "How come I don't feel retired" question is being asked, something else is at work here.

One issue is that the image of retirement creates certain expectations. I have often written about the mistaken idea that retirement is one long walk in the park. Retirement is a stage of life, not a step into another realm. The responsibilities that come with being an adult don't stop when the paycheck does. Bill paying, repairs, replacements, emergencies, health surprises, and financial pitfalls can quickly sap the joy of retirement if you let it. If you feel that retirement should mean all of the baggage that is part of living comes to an end, then you are likely to pose this question.

Another possibility is one of personality. In Betty's case, she is a giver. If someone needs something, she is first in line to help. She is also a self-admitted over-giver. If that person wants to know what time it is, she will build them a watch. In the past, if our church needed help on a big project, she would volunteer to do almost all of it. She is extremely creative and dedicated, with a significant dose of perfectionism, so it is just easier to do it all.

Of course, that can lead to burnout and self-imposed pressure. Even though she absolutely loves helping others, her physical and mental health can suffer. She leaves too little time to work on things just for her, things without deadlines. So, she has yet to find the balance she seeks even after all these years.

Yet another reason might have to do with a spouse or partner who hasn't accepted the sharing part of retirement. If your partner is no longer working but expects you to continue doing the lion's share of household chores, there will be problems. Excuses like she (or he) has always done the cooking, cleaning, and laundry fails the fairness test. "I don't know how to cook or run the oven" is just as lame. It is hard to feel retired if almost nothing has changed in what your "responsibilities" are in maintaining a household.  

So, what to do? Here are a few ideas that may help:

1) Accept that retirement isn't just a float in a boat. Align your expectations with the reality of living. Honestly compare your lifestyle before and after work: what is preferable and what is worse? When you look at the big picture, you may be surprised how much your life has changed for the better. For those things still bothering you, can you do anything about them?

2) If you find yourself overcommitted to others and under-committed to yourself, realize that is something you can change. You have the power to protect yourself and your needs. That doesn't mean withdrawing from helping others achieve their goals; it means realizing you must allow yourself to achieve what is important to you, too.

3) Decide that you need to start a new season of your retired life, one that matches what you want now. Since your needs evolve over time, be sure how you treat them does, too.

4) Work on developing what you consider a fair sharing of work and chores at home. That doesn't necessarily mean a 50-50 split. If you genuinely enjoy cooking, hold on to that part of your domestic life. It is part of the "I feel fully retired now that I can cook to my heart's desire." But, by giving your partner a pass on chores and workload, you are hurting your own experience.

Have you ever admitted to yourself that you don't feel fully retired? Do you know why? What would it take to make retirement "official?"

Did you undergo a transformation at some point that marked your move to real retirement mode? Do you remember what it was?

As someone who does feel completely retired, I am interested in the feedback from those who don't. All of us are on a journey unique to each of us. Sharing what you learn will help all of us


  1. Like you, I feel fully retired (I jumped at age 58). I wanted an empty calendar. I had a newfound 60h/week (from the time I started to get ready for work to the time I got home/changed I considered worktime). I had no intention of filling it with obligations although many opportunities are available to do so.

    We've had a "division of duties" for many decades and those remain in place even though hubster still works. It's just not that much work to maintain 1650sf. We have no yard but rather, garden beds for perennials/annuals and as much food as fits. Hubster helps me with the spring cleanup/prep and the fall cleanup. I do the rest.

    I think many people fail to consider retirement at all. It is a day on the calendar. If life is drudgery while working, it will likely be drudgery when retired.

    Those are the thoughts of a happily retired girl :-)

    1. For retirement to be all you want it to be, there must be a rather significant shift in attitude.

      I find it interesting that some folks in younger generations are taking steps to reclaim full control over their lives by planning on early retirement. The majority, though, feel like retirement will always be out of their reach due to costs and lack of dependable pensions.

      While I have no intention of still being here in to see how it all plays out, I venture to guess retirement will look different in 2050 than it does today.

    2. I am reading: The Calm Before the Storm by George Friedman. If 50% of what he says is false, we're still in for a bumpy 10y ahead. He fully supports your paragraph 2 and explains why you spot-on! Hubster doesn't enjoy reading so I've been reading him a lot of it. I for one am curious as to how the next 10y plays out and with just a bit of trepidation, excited to see our country in the mid 30s and how this all shakes out. We all know how history repeats itself and he shows us how cycles here occur, so I'd venture to guess the book is quite accurate. Time will tell :-)

  2. I have days when I feel "retired" and some days when I don't. Today, Sunday, I feel retired. I have the day to do whatever I want. Started with coffee and a book and now moved into reading and commenting on blogs. My wife and I keep our twin one year old granddaughters through the week. I do not feel retired those days, I just feel tired! While keeping them is a joy, it also limits retirement activities and the feeling of being able to do what we want. The girls are going into daycare in Feb as my wife has reconstruction surgery from her breast cancer. I think we will have several months off to be "retired" while she recovers. Is it bad that I'm looking forward to this break? I'm looking forward to the retirement break but feel guilty for feeling that way.

    1. Torn emotions: very normal and understandable, Mitch. Think of it like respite for a full time caregiver. All of us need a chance to step back from responsibilities for awhile. Besides, I imagine your wife will require some of your loving care after her surgery.

  3. I retired at 58 and feel retired most of the time except when I am over scheduled and then it feels like when I ran from meeting to meeting. I like the freedom to do what I want and enjoy exploring new activities. Working more on my health as well which wasn't bad but there is always room for improvement. I had anxiety and stress during my career at various moments during the work day or week and now it is a lot less frequent.

    1. Like you, my career was pretty high stress. Much of my "success" was really out of my hands. I had to depend on others and sometimes luck to make it all come out right.

      Now, I feel much more in control of my own life. Some things, like health, are more genetically controlled than by me. But, overall I like where I am now.

  4. My father was a long-haul trucker for 45 years. When he retired my mother had a long list of travel and projects that had been waiting for the moment. After several years of activities I remember my father saying that he was thinking about going back to work so, "I can get some rest."

    Rick in Oregon

    1. I like it! Since so much of my work involved travel, I felt the same way for a long time.