Avoiding Retirement Stress

Chances are you have read or watched a lot of reporting and commentary over the past year regarding what the press dubbed “The Great Resignation.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, thirty-three million people voluntarily left their jobs between April and December of 2021, over a fifth of the country’s workforce. News coverage cited poor wages in the service sector, employees reevaluating what type of work they find personally fulfilling, and the opportunity that stimulus money afforded some people to start their own businesses, as a few of the reasons behind the flight from the workplace. Obviously, many of those workers were not leaving work for good, but going through a period of reflection and adjustment, however, mixed in with those numbers were those who had decided to leave the work force for good and permanently retire. According to the Pew Research Center, in the third quarter of 2020, about 28.6 million Baby Boomers reported that they were retiring, about 3.2 million more than the number retiring in the same period in 2019. While undoubtably influenced by COVID-19, the bottom line is that even without the pandemic, millions of people retire every year, and the percentage of the U.S. population retiring increases yearly.

Like a wedding, or having a first child, retiring is a rite of passage in our society, and like the first two examples, how much we enjoy it can have a lot to do with how well we see it coming. In the 1960’s, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed an instrument called the Life Events Survey (also called the Life Change Index; you can look it up and take it online) that scores what is happening in an individual’s life to determine if they may be suffering from chronic stress. As a stressor, the act of retiring ranks just below being fired from work, and marital problems, and just above changes in the health of a family member, pregnancy, and sexual difficulties. Also on the scale: changes in finances, revision of personal habits, and changes in social activities; all of which typically occur along with retirement. Holmes and Rahe do not differentiate between retirement that is voluntary, forced, late, or early, reflecting what therapists have recognized for many decades now; retirement is stressful no matter the circumstances.

Good preparation for retirement requires actively acknowledging that retirement is a possibility one day and being intentional about getting ready for it. Most retirement planning conversations are about money, especially among younger people, and rightly so since financial shortfalls can be a major cause of stress, but there is more to planning for retirement than just dollars and cents. Work identify and personal identity are very much intertwined in American culture; think for a moment how often we start conversations with new acquaintances by asking “what do you do?” Many of us get an intense sense of purpose and meaning from our jobs, and a sense of belonging from our coworkers, so after money, one of the most common sources of retirement stress is feeling bored, irrelevant, or disconnected from others. To avoid this, planning starts with recognizing what you like most about your work and identifying replacements ahead of time. Non-profits, community groups, and religious organizations are always looking for volunteers with real-world experience, and volunteering with one whose mission you support can have the added benefit of fulfilling a sense of purpose. On the other hand, if you are happy to leave hands-on work behind when you retire, those same groups can be an excellent place to build up new social networks. It is possible to keep up friendships with past coworkers, and many do, but some retirees find that a gulf opens between them and their former work friends when they are no longer sharing the same day-to-day experiences. Having a strong and supportive network of friends is essential for good mental health, so if most of your friends are work friends, adding some from outside work before retiring is important.

For those who retire around the “normal” age of sixty-five, this coincides with a natural period of reflecting on our lives and whether we accomplished our life goals. We all make decisions about what paths to pursue in life, influenced by our interests, ambition, family demands, health issues, finances, and other outside factors. People who experience regret over paths not taken can struggle to find happiness in retirement, however, retirement can also provide an opportunity to revisit interests or ambitions that had been set aside or develop new goals that are not tied to workplace achievements.

If you are preparing to retire and looking for more information or have already retired and are finding the adjustment difficult, there are resources that might be useful to you: The AARP offers a workshop series for people who are retiring; visit aarp.org and search for “workshops.” The Transition Network, a non-profit organization that serves women is online at ttnwomen.org and has chapters in Ohio. If you are still employed, ask your HR department if your company offers a phased retirement program that allows full-time workers to transition into part-time work.

This article appeared in the February 16, 2022 edition of The Lakewood Observer

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