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.
Retirement often involves making important decisions with incomplete information when the stakes are high. You won’t have everything figured out on Day 1. More likely, you’ll arrive at your ideal retirement through a process of trial and error. You’ll make mistakes. That’s unavoidable. The important thing is that you learn from them. How best to do that?
Ray Dalio is an investment legend on par with people like Warren Buffett. He owns Bridgewater, the largest hedge fund in the world. Ray has a saying:
Pain + Reflection = Progress
In other words, pain is a good instructor and a strong signal. According to Dalio, success is nice, but it just causes you to do more of the same. You don’t learn much from it. Pain, on the other hand, has a lot to teach you. Whenever you make a mistake about anything, you feel some sort of pain. There’s a message in that pain somewhere. It’s hard to see while you’re going through it, but if you reflect on it once it’s over, you’ll probably be able to see what that message is.
As you experiment with retirement, write down these pain points and think about them. What caused the pain? What should I learn from it? What would I do differently in the future? If you do that, you’ll come out with a principle that relates to the people, places, activities or philosophy of your retirement. That principle is the progress in the equation above. It’s the newfound wisdom that gets you a bit closer to your ideal life and retirement. The more you experiment, learn and iterate, the better your odds of having a happy, meaningful retirement. In some ways, you might even learn to enjoy the pain as an indication of progress. Again, Ray Dalio:
“Encountering pains and figuring out the lessons they were trying to give me became sort of a game to me. The more I played it, the better I got at it, the less painful those situations became, and the more rewarding the process of reflecting, developing principles, and then getting rewards for using those principles became. I learned to love my struggles, which I suppose is a healthy perspective to have…”
I recently played a game of travel roulette with my friends. We showed up at the airport at 5 am with no tickets and no plans and told the ticket agent we’d go anywhere warm. The only conditions were that the flight had to leave that morning and cost less than $500. After running through half a dozen potential destinations, we ended up with the last four seats on a direct flight to Phoenix. The trip couldn’t have gone better. We had a blast.
This post started out as a handful of lessons and takeaways from that experience. It included my thoughts on spontaneity, the declining cost of distance, the demystification of travel, the benefits of packing light, living a proactive life and allocating your resources based on your priorities. Then I erased all of that and instead decided to write about only one key takeaway: Relationships.
Many times during the trip, as we laughed and had fun, I thought to myself “It’s so great to do stuff like this.” After reflecting a bit more, however, that initial thought evolved into “It’s so great to have people to do stuff like this with.” In other words, the hero of the story isn’t the experience, it’s the people. The friendships.
In What makes a good life? I wrote about the Study of Adult Development that Harvard has been conducting for the last 80 years. The key finding of that study is that relationships and social connections are really, really good for us. Those with close relationships were happier, healthier and they lived longer than those who self-described as lonely or lacking friends.
Psychologist and author Susan Pinker has done research that resulted in similar conclusions. In her popular TED talk “The secret to living longer may be your social life” she discussed the importance of friends. She cited a study that attempted to answer the question “What reduces your chances of dying most?” You can probably guess where this is going. Here are the variables in the study ranked from least powerful impact on longevity to greatest: clean air, hypertension treatment, lean vs. overweight, exercise, cardiac treatment, flu vaccine, quit boozing, quit smoking, close relationships, social integration/interaction. Just like the Harvard study, this research shows that relationships are critical. Ms. Pinker went so far as to say that those who prioritize their face-to-face relationships over time create a biological force field against disease and decline.
Now that we know how important relationships are, each of us should do a little self-examination and reflection. How many close friends do you have? Are you proactive in making and maintaining your friendships? How is your relationship with your spouse, children and other family? How much time, energy and money are you investing in relationships?
All of this obviously has huge implications for your retirement. As I’ve said many times before, retirement is more than a math problem. Money is important, but so are relationships. Don’t take them for granted. They will affect how happy you are and how long you’ll live. Reflect on some practical ways that you can be more intentional with your relationships. Here are a few ideas:
- Focus on the little things. Small gestures can make a big difference. Send a card to say thank you or to let them know you appreciate them. Call to catch up.
- Look for ways to help. Bring a meal when a friend is sick. Be a shoulder to cry on when they’re going through a tough time.
- Organize activities. One way to strengthen bonds is through shared experiences and memories. Organize a book club. Arrange a movie night. Plan a trip.
- Be trustworthy and a good listener. Nothing will end a friendship faster than gossip, backbiting or a lack of empathy.
- Be quick to fix problems. Don’t let small issues fester. Admit when your wrong. Forgive when you’ve been wronged.
- Start a group. We have a close group of friends that we’ve been meeting with every Sunday night for the last 22 years. We had no kids when we started and now the kids outnumber us. We travel together, share meals together, laugh and cry together, pray for and support one another, and generally experience life together. We’ve been through the best and worst that life can throw at you and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. Having a friend is great. Having a group of friends is even better. Consider starting a group around shared interests, activities, life stage, beliefs or whatever.
- Lay the groundwork for retirement. If you’re planning on moving somewhere new in retirement, start visiting that place now to make new friends. Talk with current friends to see if they have any interest in landing there as well.
I just finished watching the new Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam. During the war, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had commanders and soldiers in the field collecting vast amounts of data each day that was then put onto punch cards and fed into a mainframe computer for analysis. The hope was that by measuring hundreds of different variables—casualties, villages pacified, roads cleared—they could gauge progress and prove that we were winning the war.
In hindsight, there were many problems with this strategy, not the least of which was that the things they really needed to know—the state of Vietnamese politics, the loyalty of the people, the intentions of Hanoi—were almost impossible to quantify and thus weren’t being factored into the equation. An Army adviser summarized it this way:
“If you can’t count what’s important, you make what you can count important.”
When I heard him say that, it struck me that you and I do something similar when it comes to life in general and retirement specifically. There are things that really matter and that have a huge impact on our happiness and fulfillment. Things like our sense of purpose, the quality of our relationships and the depth of our experiences. Unfortunately, those things are nuanced and hard to both measure and manage, so instead we tend to focus on things that are easier to quantify like the size of our bank accounts, square footage of our houses or the number of friends we have on Facebook. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with those things, but they don’t form the complete picture obviously.
This morning I spent time reflecting on the types of metrics I use in my own life and how I can do a better job measuring the things that are important and not just the things that are easy to count. As a part of that process, I went back and re-read some of my past articles. If you’d like to do something similar, I’ll post links to those that were particularly helpful to me.
Jeff Bezos became the richest person in the world last week. In a little over 20 years, the founder of Amazon.com went from no money (or very little) to more money than anyone. Warren Buffett once called him “the most remarkable business person of our age.” That’s like Michael Jordan calling you the best basketball player or the Dos Equis guy crowning you “world’s most interesting person.” I’ve followed Bezos over the years and thought I’d share a few things we can learn from him about life and retirement.
You can accomplish a lot in a short amount of time. Someone once said that we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in a year and underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years. Bezos started Amazon in 1995. That’s not that long ago. I remember what I was doing in 1995. I’m guessing you do too. In that short span he’s built a revolutionary company with hundreds of thousands of employees and transformed giant swaths of the economy. Most people spend about 20 years in retirement. I just went to the funeral of a friend who died at 102. He was retired for 40 years. That’s plenty of time to do some interesting things. No one expects you to start a billion-dollar company, but you don’t just need to ride off into the sunset either. Yes, you can relax and enjoy life, but you also have plenty of runway to take on projects or challenges that give fulfillment, meaning and purpose.
Be stubborn on vision, but flexible on details. That’s how Bezos describes the leadership team of Amazon. They have an uncompromising vision for the company, but they are flexible and willing to try new things to make that vision a reality. That same strategy works great when planning for and living in retirement. Know what you want out of life. Stay true to your vision and values, but when opportunities present themselves take advantage of them. Or when things don’t develop exactly how you anticipated they would, don’t be afraid to change up your tactics.
Experiment. Amazon Prime, Amazon Web Services, the Kindle, Echo and Alexa all started out as small experiments. Bezos and his team are constantly experimenting and making small bets. Some of those fail, but some are wildly successful. The more things they try, the greater the odds that they’ll hit on something big.
Take a page from that playbook. Don’t be afraid to experiment. I have a client who took up golf when he retired, but quickly realized it wasn’t for him. Rather than getting down when things didn’t come together as anticipated, he started experimenting with a bunch of different activities. What did he settle on? Beekeeping. That’s right, he now keeps thousands of bees, rents them out to farmers for pollination and packages and sells their honey. It’s now a huge part of his days in retirement and he would have never discovered it without a willingness to experiment. And while we’re on the topic of experimenting…
Be inventive. All of those experiments usually lead to inventions and innovations. The Amazon of today looks very different than it did at the beginning. The same should be true of your retirement. Don’t spend 20 years in a rut. Iterate, create, grow and evolve. That growth and change won’t happen automatically. You need to experiment and invent. As I said recently: You don’t find yourself. You create yourself.
Invest in yourself. The knock against Amazon from day one has been that it doesn’t show a profit. But the reason it doesn’t show a profit is because a) it charges low prices so it can gain new customers and grow the business and b) it reinvests every dime it makes back into the company to help it grow faster. All of those experiments, inventions and innovations cost money. The payoff has been huge, but it wouldn’t have happened without a willingness to invest in them. Warren Buffett once said that the most important investment you can make is in yourself. In retirement, you have time and money. How can you invest those in ways that enrich and improve you and your life?
Keep a “Day 1” mindset. Bezos works in a building named “Day 1.” It’s a reminder to him and his team that they always want to act with the same energy, focus and willingness to try new things that they had on Day 1 of the company. Someone recently asked him what Day 2 looks like and he said “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”
We’re all going to die, so it will eventually be Day 2, but a life that has purpose and meaning is generally incumbent on keeping a Day 1 mindset as long as possible. It’s characterized by a willingness to take risks, try new things, build relationships, invest, act and work towards some greater purpose. In retirement, it’s tempting to ease off the throttle and orient your life around comfort and security rather than purpose and meaning. There’s nothing wrong with a little R&R, but keep your Day 1 mindset as long as possible.
Use a “regret minimization framework.” Before starting Amazon, Bezos had a great job at a wall street firm. All he had to do was keep showing up for work each day and he’d be set. But he saw how quickly the internet was growing and felt a pull to get involved. As he pondered the decision he wondered which course would result in the fewest regrets when he was 80. He called this his regret minimization framework (You can tell he is a computer science grad). He didn’t think he’d regret leaving a job, because he could always find another job. Leaving mid-year meant giving up his annual bonus, which was a big deal to him at the time, but he didn’t think his 80-year-old self would be concerned about it. He didn’t think he’d regret trying the internet business and failing because then he’d just get another job. The one thing he felt he’d really regret would be not trying and always wondering what could have been. It’s the old Mark Twain quote. We don’t regret the things we do as much as the things we don’t do.
So as you think about your life and how you want to spend it, use a regret minimization framework. What actions and decisions will result in the least amount of regret for your future self? Pursue those things. Yes, it might be scary, but it will ultimately result in the greatest level of happiness and fulfillment.
I’ve helped many people transition into retirement over the years and when I ask a new retiree how things are going, the response is generally positive. That said, retirement is a huge transition and there are always unexpected feelings or emotions that crop up. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong with your retirement. It just means that you’re normal. So don’t be surprised if you feel one or more of the following:
The Problem: I feel guilty.
This is surprisingly common and I’ve seen it manifest itself in two ways. The first is guilt if you’re not doing much or making the most of your time. You finally have some free time and you struggle with how to use it. You feel guilty because watching T.V. or running errands doesn’t quite feel like sucking the marrow out of life.
The second is guilt if you’re doing fun stuff that your friends and family aren’t doing because they’re still working. I’ve actually had clients hesitate before responding to me when I ask “What did you do today?” The answer is “I went golfing” or “We saw a matinee and then went for a walk” but they are hesitant to say that because they know I spent my day behind a desk. When prodded, they say they don’t want to make others feel bad or come across as boastful.
For the first type of guilt, don’t worry! You’ll get better at it. You control a much bigger piece of your time in retirement and that takes some getting used to. Work hard to do things that leave you feeling happy and fulfilled, but keep in mind that not every minute of your day has to be spent bungee jumping or traveling. Sometimes the best way to spend a day is binge watching House of Cards on Netflix.
For the second type of guilt, just allow it to pass. Don’t become an insufferable braggart, but don’t feel guilty about enjoying your life either. You worked hard and made good decisions. Enjoy your time.
The problem: I’m second guessing my decision.
Buyer’s remorse is a real thing. Chances are you’ve felt it if you’ve ever bought a house or had to make some similar big decision and feared making the wrong choice. It can creep up after retirement as well and cause you to question whether you should have retired in the first place.
I have a client who has been dealing with this lately and she shared something that I thought was really insightful. She said, “Whenever I second guess my decision, I focus on why I retired in the first place.” Her choice would have been to work for five more years, but two things happened: Her mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and her grandkids were all at an age when hanging out with grandma was just about the best the thing ever. If she had stuck to her timeline and worked for five more years, there’s a pretty good chance that her mom may no longer be around and her by then teenage grandkids will have priorities other than grandma. In other words, she gave something up, but got something far greater in return. There are pros and cons with most decisions in life. Retirement is no different. Keep that in mind.
The problem: I feel disappointed.
Most of us have an idealized view of retirement. Add years of anticipation to the mix or a personality that enjoys the structure and challenge of work and it’s not uncommon to feel a bit underwhelmed after entering retirement.
The best way to avoid disappointment is to retire TO something rather than FROM something. If all you do is subtract things—work, obligations, commitments—you simply 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 (e.g. travel, school, a second career, hobby, etc.). The goal is not to do nothing. That just creates a void. The goal is to do what excites you.
And test those plans out before you retire. I most often see disappointment arise when a person has prepared for retirement using all lesson and no lab. In other words, all of their retirement plans are in their head or on a sheet of paper, and they haven’t spent any time actually testing and refining those plans. Reality can’t compete with 40 years of idealized assumptions.
The problem: I feel like a fish out of water.
No matter how prepared you think you are for retirement, you will probably still struggle. It’s a huge transition. The routine you’ve had for the last 40 years is out the window. That can be a bit disorienting for many people.
When talking with a client recently, she compared retirement to becoming a parent for the first time. “Before becoming parents we read books, painted the nursery, sought advice from other parents and bought all the cribs, carriers and countless other things that parents need. We thought we were totally prepared. And then we had our first child and all that went out the window. Retirement is similar. As prepared as you think you are, you really can’t grasp what it takes or what it will be like until you’re actually living it. Your experience will be totally different than the guy next door.” Great advice. Yes, there are tons of things that you can and should do to prepare, but the battle is always different than basic training. Don’t get discouraged. You’ll figure it out and get better at it with practice. Focus on living the life that you want to live. Imagine your ideal life and then work backwards from there to figure out the most direct path to where you want to be. Focus intently on the things that matter to you and throw yourself into them wholeheartedly. That kind of focus and tactical thinking will help you rapidly flatten your learning curve and smooth your transition into retirement.
Remember that retirement is not a date on the calendar, it’s a life stage that will last for years. Think back to when you first became an adult. Were you better at it at 28 than you were at 18? Of course. The same will be true with retirement. It might feel a little awkward at first, but you’ll get better at it over time.