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Tackling a Retirement Transition: Asking Yourself “What’s Next”?

Posted on: May 29, 2019



Your retirement is something you plan for your entire life and is often a life stage you most look forward to. Moving on from a long-lived career that you have devoted most of your life to advancing, however, is a significant financial and life transition that many individuals often overlook. Retiring is a transitionary process that can be filled with feelings of ambivalence, fear of obsolescence and even, grief. As a Financial Transitionist, I am no stranger to the common misconceptions of retirement planning. Retirement is often a time of great emotional strain as you search for meaning in the aftermath of a career that played an important role in your own self-definition and self-valuation.
 
Dr. Michelle Panor Silver, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, lays out some important insights for individuals undergoing the taxing process of retirement planning. Her first book, Retirement and Its Discontents: Why We Won’t Stop Working, Even If We Can, draws on interviews with CEOs, doctors and academics as well as former homemakers and athletes in a search to understand the emotional labours that define retire transitioning. Below, I have summarized some important points that may help you navigate your own retirement transition from an interview between Dr. Silver and the University of Chicago.
 
The importance of opening up a candid dialogue about the challenges of retirement planning. As a society, we offer a disproportionate amount of our attention to our early career transitions. We often privilege these discussions over talking about retirement. It is important to remember that retirement is a luxury afforded to a fortunate few, as many Canadians may never have the financial means to retire. That being said, retirement is not only a financial change, but also an emotional and structural change, as well. Recognition and effective management of this transitionary period is often overlooked in our current marketplace, where working your way into the workforce and up the corporate ladder is more difficult than ever before. However, we need to pay as much attention to getting out of the workforce, as we do to entering and moving within it.
 
The invisible, emotional struggle of retirement parties. It’s hard to say no to a party and you should be celebrated for your accomplishments. However, as Dr. Silver discussed, for some people, retirement parties can feel like a funeral. You listen to your colleagues, family and friends talk about all the work you have done, with an immense emphasis on the past tense. You may not feel ready to be done, and in most cases, you don’t have to be. We live in a time where life expectancies are higher than ever before, so retiring at 65 does not mean that you have nothing left to accomplish. Retirement opens up the door for you to continue to pursue other passions. Whether you are someone who identified very closely with your profession, or someone who couldn’t be happier to be moving on from your profession, don’t let your retirement party represent a closed door on the rest of your life.
 
The emotional burden of navigating a sudden lack of routine. This aspect of retirement transitioning can be incredibly taxing on individuals, irrespective of your excitement to retire. Dr. Silver comments that a number of CEOs found this aspect of retirement to be extremely difficult as they moved from having a number of administrative assistants managing their daily schedules, to weekdays that blur into weekends. This can also be said for those individuals who played a pivotal role in scheduling and managing other people. Becoming an empty nester or retiring from an administrative role has these same emotional impacts. It often leads to a questioning of your own self-worth, now that no one is planning your schedule for you, or having to no longer plan for someone else. It’s important to think about how you previously valued your own self-worth and to be self-reflexive on how you will continue to sustain a positive outlook of yourself, without work. 
 
Homemakers suffer from retirement just as much as workplace professionals do. Many homemakers self-identify as being retirees. By no means, however, does a homemaker fit the definition of a retiree. A homemaker simply fits a non-traditional role of someone undergoing a retirement transition. The overarching emotional turmoil that comes from retirement is a loss of work that an individual identified strongly with. Homemakers are no exception to the discontent that comes from a sudden shift in responsibility. Dr. Silver divulges that both homemakers and CEOs expressed that what they missed the most about their pre-retirement positions was that their roles gave them a feeling of being needed. They both expressed that no longer being able to wear that identifying marker was the hardest part of their transition.
 

So, how can we support our friends, parents, and colleagues as they transition into retirement?
 
Try to avoid imposing the social norms that we have internalized surrounding the expectations of someone who has reached retirement age. Retirement does not have to mean that you are winding down. Rather, many people’s most creative and interesting work, and their highest levels of productivity come later in their life course. Making assumptions that position retirement as an end-all life stage should be avoided. Instead, ask questions of “what’s next?” to offer encouragement and avoid viewing the aging processing as inherently negative. Adopting an open-mind to retirement for those around you also will inevitability benefit you if you eventually enter this same transition.
 

Finally, how can you have a more positive transition into retirement?
 
Slow down at an incremental pace. Dr. Silver emphasizes her work with physicians, who went from giving 100% to 0% upon retirement. Going from being on call 24/7, waking up in the middle of the night and immediately jumping into their role, to never being on call will leave you feeling lost with no sense of purpose. This is applicable for all those who are in the workforce and those occupying non-traditional work roles. Life is demanding, so when it’s pace suddenly slows, you may suffer great emotional loss. As you enter the end-game of your role, begin to practise working at a slower pace. Make time to take a real lunch break, transition to part-time work week hours and commit to activities for yourself outside the confines of your job role. This will greatly ease the transition from working a full time role to living the life of a retiree.
 
Develop hobbies in adulthood. This is especially important for people who need to be good at what they do to feel a sense of life-satisfaction. Similarly, it is just as important for people who enjoy the process of a learning curve. Retirement can offer you the time and energy to master a new skill, explore a passion project, further your education, and continue to be a creative and valued contributor to society. As you begin to think about retirement, begin to also think about the kinds of thing you have always wanted to do.
 
The bottom line is simple - this isn’t the end. Take the skills that made you excel in your work and apply those skills to what makes you happy. Taking even a small portion of the energy and time that you devoted to your previous role and investing it into what you want to do next will help you in this exciting transition.  
 

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