Retirement — 19 April 2005
To retire or not to retire- is that the question?

Whether to retire or stay employed may be a complex decision for many people. The question of how to structure life beyond retirement, once the choice is made, may also be another baffling decision.

Historically, people worked until age 65 and then retired for a few years, and then died. With the increase in life expectancy, Figures from the British Office for National Statistics show that men aged 65 in 2000 can expect to live to 81, while women can expect to live to 84 years old. These estimates keep increasing yearly. Professor Thomas Perls of Harvard Medical School who studied centenarians, reports in his book ”Living to 100” that the “nearly 74 million baby boomers face the real possibility of living to a very old age.” He also states that currently there are about 50,000 centenarians in the United States.

Today, a healthy 65 year old is entering the “third part” of life, which may be a very active and productive period. We also see much younger people who have been fortunate enough to be able to retire early and need to invent a new life-plan.

Some people are very fortunate to have passions and dreams they can now actualize after many years of hard work. Common post retirement activities are: travel, artistic endeavors, volunteering and helping others, returning to school, turning a hobby to a second career, deepening sport expertise, or concentrating on family connections.

Others are at a loss about structuring the third phase of their life and imbedding it with meaning. An individual who can financially retire but is not clear about his or her future plans, may find the option of leaving work less appealing.

Work provides many important human needs aside from generating income. First, it is an avenue for competence. Doing a task well supports one’s self-esteem. It may also allow for teaching, training younger workers and becoming a mentor for appreciative learners.

When work is enjoyable it perpetuates one’s interests, challenges the mind and keeps the employee pleased and fascinated. Research by Dr. Amick and others, suggests that “ job content may be important in shaping a worker’s health over the life course”.

Working also provides structure to life. One knows the weekdays’ routine with predictability of the process in a familiar setting. Some retired people lament that Monday morning offers no change from the weekend and it is hard to create a new satisfying routine.

The social aspect of work is also a very important element in the desire to continue employment. Over the years, most peers at work become “family”. One spends more waking hours relating to workmates than to family members. Some of these emotional bonds, and the belonging to the work group are difficult to give up.

One’s identity is often tied to the role one plays in relation to others within the company. “I am the computer expert that everyone relies on in my firm”. The role and the title are sometimes interchangeable. Pride, uniqueness and a sense of importance are often derived from one’s work identity.

Probably one of the most powerful hold work has on people is when it provides meaning to their life. It is so heartwarming to hear people in a variety of jobs stating how important, needed and essential their task is and how it facilitates or enhances other people’s lives. As long as an employee, or business owner in any field feels that her contribution MATTERS, she will be less likely to part with it.

Whatever matters most is whatever helps you feel of value. The validating role will capture your attention and devotion. Many elderly people tend to get depressed due to their sense of futility in being important to others. Not being able to contribute, be appreciated, be creative, enjoy and please others, is for many tantamount to a living death.

Retirement challenges us to find other avenues that can provide us with the self-esteem, satisfaction and rewards of our first career. Many women who raised their children as their first career feel very much at a loss when the children grow up and the daily task has ended. They seek a new, meaningful endeavor for self-definition and pleasure.

For people who think of retiring, the idea is not HOW TO RETIRE, but rather HOW TO RESTRUCTURE their lives to create a new meaningful existence. The retiree needs to become introspective, listen to his or her inner wisdom about talents, interests and options and identify the hidden calling. This choice has to come from within, not from any other person. “Why don’t you take a class in archeology?” may be of interest to the speaker and may have no MEANING to the listener.

If you are thinking about your next career, please consider the following:

• Retirement may be a blessing for your neighbor and not a great choice for you, or vice versa.
• There is no right or wrong about the course you chart for your life, though you will receive plenty of unsolicited advice.
• Other people’s suggestions only reflect THEIR preferences and need to be viewed as such.
• You probably spent a long time preparing for your first career. Give yourself time to think about what matters to you about your next one.
• Retirement is not an end to productive life, only a transition to another rewarding endeavor.
• Create a visual image of an activity that would give MEANING to your life.
• If you struggle to find your path, vocational counselors are often a great resource.
• Discuss your ideas with your mate. A couple is well advised to coordinate their “third phase” of life so that both of their “ideal” futures can be realized. Uncoordinated retirement may cause unexpected marital strife.
• The “third phase” of life can be a most wonderful period provided that you honor your true inclinations and spice them with health and joy.

April 17, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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