Retirees are Unretiring in record numbers. You read that right. After decades of work and anticipation, people are entering retirement only to reverse course and head back to work. The RAND corporation conducted a survey in 2017 and found that almost 40 percent of workers over age 65 had previously been retired. That’s a lot of people. What’s going on here? Why do so many retirees unretire and how can you avoid the same fate?
It’s not usually about money
First, let’s look at what is NOT driving the trend: It’s not usually about money. The research shows that most of the people returning to work did so not because they didn’t save enough or because they experienced some sort of financial shock, but for other reasons. What were those reasons?
It’s about choice…
The study found that for many people, returning to work was planned. For example, they quit their full-time job to go part-time or they quit a high-stress job to take something more low key. This likely explains why younger retirees return to work in much higher numbers. They retire early with every intention of re-engaging in the workforce under different circumstances.
It’s no secret that people are living longer, healthier lives. That, along with the fact that jobs are less manual than in years past, can open the door to longer careers. In other words, returning to work in your 60s and 70s is an opportunity that exists today that didn’t necessarily exist when most job opportunities consisted of things like mining coal and riveting together skyscrapers. The data reflect this. Those with less education and more manual jobs tend to unretire at lower rates than those with more education and less physical jobs. Still, choice and opportunity don’t entirely explain the trend.
…But also about disappointment and unmet expectations
If you retire and then return to work by choice or to take advantage of a great opportunity, that’s a win. You want to do it and you’re able to. Where unretiring is a problem is when you either have to because of the money or you decide to because you find retirement unfulfilling. Unfortunately, the latter group accounts for a large number of Unretirees. They have their finances in order, but retirement is less fulfilling than expected. This problem can often be traced back to poor planning. If you don’t do a good job figuring out what’s next, you’ll likely drift back to what’s familiar. How can you make your transition successful? Here are several thoughts and takeaways that I had, both from the Rand study and from my 20 plus years of working with retirees.
Takeaways and Applications
Answer the right question. The retirement question most people seem intent on answering is “How am I going to pay for it?” That’s an important question, but retirement is more than just a math problem. In my opinion, we spend too much time thinking about how to get there (math) and not enough time thinking about what we’re going to do once we arrive (meaning). If you focus solely on finances, you risk having a retirement that is cash rich and lifestyle poor. Not surprisingly, that can be unsatisfying and can cause you to miss work, if only because it added structure and purpose to your day. To avoid that fate, put some serious effort into defining what you want to do during retirement.
Don’t just subtract. If all you do is subtract things—work, obligations, commitments—you will create a void in your life. That void can open you to self-doubt, regret, lack of purpose and boredom. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you take something out, you need to replace it with something else. If you subtract your career, you need to add in other things that will provide purpose, challenge and social engagement.
Avoid the temptation to do nothing. The temptation to do nothing can feel pretty strong after years of drinking from the fire hose of daily life. Unfortunately, doing nothing is not a good strategy for long-term fulfillment. It can be rejuvenating for a while, but it will get boring.
Your goal should not be to do nothing. It should be to do what excites you. If you’re feeling spent and burnt out after 40 years of work, by all means take some time off and recharge your batteries. But after that, you need a plan that will keep you challenged and provide meaning and fulfillment.
Practice. Not surprisingly, the better you are at something, the more you tend to like it. How likely is it that you’ll be really good at retirement on Day 1? Not very likely, right? You’re going from something that you know how to do really well (i.e. your job) to something that feels awkward and unnatural (e.g. travel, hobbies, more time with family and friends). There is a learning curve that can be frustrating and intimidating. But the more you practice, the better you’ll get and the more you’ll enjoy it. Acknowledge ahead of time that it will likely feel a bit unnatural, but keep practicing until you improve. Ideally, you should start this practice before you even retire. Start early with whatever portion of your time you control and practice, practice, practice.
Become an intern. This summer I have a young man interning with me. He has an interest in the financial industry, but wants to get some exposure to it before jumping into a 30 year career. Working as an intern will give him a chance to learn about the financial field, gain some experience, develop skills, make connections and evaluate his interests and abilities in a hands-on way. Why not do something similar before you jump into a 30 year retirement? Chances are that you know some people who are already retired. Ask them if you can shadow them for a bit. Spend some time talking to them about the experience. What is going well? What took them by surprise. What advice can they give you?
Consider partial retirement. Remember that work is a totally acceptable option in retirement. Maybe you don’t want to work 60 hours per week, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t want to find some sort of meaningful work where you can use your skills, make a difference and have some social interaction. If that’s the case, consider partial retirement.
Consider mini-retirements. With traditional retirement, you defer the good stuff to that 20-30 year period at the end of life when you have more time and money. The idea of mini-retirements takes some of that 20-30 year period (say 5 years), breaks it up into 1-3 month chunks and spreads it out over your working years. A mini-retirement is longer than a vacation, but shorter than…well…retirement. As you might imagine, there are a number of benefits to taking these extended periods off. You have time to actually experience a place rather than just visiting the touristy spots. It allows you to enjoy some of the benefits of retirement while you’re still young and healthy. It rejuvenates you and can help you come back to work more engaged and more productive. For more on mini-retirements, read this, this and this.
Retire to something, not from something. All the previous points can be summarized by this: Retire to something, not from something. Retiring to escape a job is a recipe for misery and discontent. Retiring to pursue things that you are passionate about is a recipe for meaning and fulfillment.