The financial industry has spent billions of dollars educating the public about all the financial aspects of retirement. There are seminars. There are books. There are pamphlets. There are websites. There are classes, and, of course, there are the ubiquitous infomercials. Virtually every angle and niche is explored. Ultimately, retirement in America has come to be portrayed as either heaven or hell, with heaven coming to those who plan ahead (or simply buy the products and services being advertised) and hell awaiting those who do not.
What the financial industry has failed to address is the emotional ramifications of retirement - the inevitable psychological adjustment process that must be made. Even those who plan ahead financially can run into spousal friction and feelings of emptiness they didn't expect. In this article, we'll examine some of these emotional hurdles and give you strategies to cope as you make the transition.
Brand New You
Retirement in America today is very different from what it was in the past. The generations who lived before the advent of modern medicine could generally expect to live about 10 years after they stopped working. The main goal for many was to simply maintain their health and get their affairs in order before death. But the dramatic increase in longevity has opened up a new frontier of living for modern retirees, who may still have 10 to 20 years of healthy, active living during retirement. (To learn more, check out Boomers: Twisting The Retirement Mindset.)
This increase in lifespan can sometimes pose challenges for retirees. At this point, uncharted waters must be navigated, as a new, post-retirement identity must be formed and a new daily routine established. Many people base their identity around their working self. They see themselves a chef, a teacher or a CEO, for example. The central question of "who am I?" must be readdressed as the individual's identity transitions from being a professional to being a retiree.
Those who had highly successful careers often find this particularly difficult. For example, the former CEO who is used to making high-level, important decisions may find it hard to accept a world where his or her decisions are questioned. Former professionals become accustomed to a certain level of inherent respect that often evaporates in retirement.
Other psychological factors must be addressed as well. These include professional goals that may never be accomplished and professional failures that may never be rectified. The end of one's professional career and the opportunity to pursue hobbies and leisure activities can create an emotional paradox. The prospect of an idle retirement can be refreshing for some but panic inducing for others.
Together Again - For Better or Worse
Unresolved marital issues can also take retired couples by surprise. During the working years, it is common for married couples to develop an unspoken agreement where emotional needs become subordinated to those of the children while one parent - or both - focuses on work. Familial duties often become a priority, pushing everything else to the side. But retirement often brings about the end of these arrangements and puts everyone on a level emotional playing field. Long-suppressed resentment over past unmet emotional needs can quickly bubble to the surface.
While many couples look forward to spending more time together during retirement, some grapple with how much time is too much. During the working years, many families have one primary breadwinner, while the other spouse either works fewer hours or stays home. A spouse who stayed home and met the family's non-financial needs will likely consider the home to be his or her domain and view the newly retired spouse as an "intruder". Spending more time with a spouse can also bring annoying personal habits to the forefront. A new balance must therefore be found between personal time and togetherness. (To learn about the financial perks of married life, check out The Benefits Of Having A Spouse.)
Determining who controls the finances is another challenge that many retired couples face. During the working years, this chore is often undertaken by only one person. If this arrangement changes after retirement, it can lead to feelings of bitterness and resentment if not handled delicately.
There are a number of things retirees can do to ease into their retirement lifestyles. Simply understanding the stages you will face is a key step. It's best to prepare for mixed feelings and anticipate some of the issues explained above. Honest communication with your spouse is essential, as is giving him or her adequate physical and emotional space. Staying mentally and physically active and celebrating your new life stage is also important.
But these basic measures may not be enough for many retirees; for some, the transition between employment and retirement is too great to absorb immediately. An excellent solution for these retirees is finding a part-time job or volunteer work to help with the transition process. Perhaps this is the time to find employment related to a hobby or other interest. For instance, bookworms could find part-time job at the local library, while a model train buff could work at a hobby shop. (For related reading, see Stretch Your Retirement Savings By Working Into Your 70s.)
The Marketing Illusion
Much of the marketing material produced by financial service providers for retirees portrays a fantasy world, one with no divorce, widows or widowers, depression, loneliness or illness. There is often an insinuation that all of these things can be avoided simply by making the right financial choices. These companies have done much to blur the distinction between making arrangements for retirement and the actual process of becoming a retiree. The key is to remember that no retirement, no matter how financially well-planned, will be pain free. Solid financial planning is important, but don't buy the fantasy that many financial companies sell. (If you've left your financial planning to the last minute, get started with our Retirement Planning Tutorial.)
Retirement can bring many questions about one's purpose and self-worth that have no ready-made answers. However, a good place to start is with an open and honest discussion with your spouse or partner about your planned retirement lifestyle and attitude. This will help to ensure that there is no friction between two people who will likely spend the most time together during retirement, and likely provide the majority of the necessary emotional support.