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.
I did an interesting exercise this week. If you’ve ever looked at a copy of your Social Security statement, you know that page 3 shows how much you’ve earned each year throughout your life. As I looked at mine, I was suddenly curious about something, so I grabbed a calculator and added up my lifetime income. Then I opened my financial plan to get a quick snapshot of my net worth and I divided my net worth by the total of what I’ve earned. The result was a rough calculation of what I have to show (financially at least) for twenty plus years of work.
This was at once both encouraging and discouraging as well as illuminating and thought provoking. Encouraging because I’ve managed to hang onto a decent percentage of that income over the years and then invest it in a way that has caused it to grow. Discouraging because there’s a larger percentage that we didn’t manage to hang onto. Sure, part of that went to feed and clothe us and part of that went to fund experiences and memories I wouldn’t trade for the world, but I know that a not insignificant portion went to a category I’ll charitably describe as “non-essential.”
The interesting and enlightening part of the exercise came when I widened the aperture a bit and rather than just thinking about my lifetime earnings, I thought about my lifetime instead. Or more succinctly, my time. How have I spent, saved and invested my time? I’ve been “paid” 45 years of time. How much of that have I used wisely and intentionally? Alternatively, how much have I just allowed to slip through my fingers? Have I used my time at work to create a career that is enjoyable, rewarding and useful to others? Have I used my free time to invest in my family, develop my friendships and pursue interesting things? Have I used my time and attention to invest in my health so that I can “earn” more time? The answers to those questions aren’t necessarily as black and white as a bank balance, but if you put “time wasted” on one side of the scale and “time well spent” on the other, you can get a pretty good idea of which way it leans.
Similarly to when I did the financial exercise, the time exercise was both encouraging and discouraging. Much of my time was well spent and much (either by omission or commission) was poorly spent. If I’m being honest, there are days, weeks and even years where I wish I could get a do-over. There’s nothing I can do about that now, however, except learn from it. So I’ll internalize those lessons and do my best to be a better steward of my “time wealth” going forward. I’ll try to be a good steward of my finances too, but I suspect that the closer I get to the end of my life, the less I will care about how I invested my money and the more I will care about how I invested my time. You too? Then do something about it so when you come to the end of your years, you’re not left wondering, “Where did it all go?”
“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” ~ Lucius Seneca
I’ve heard it said that the best way to spot a counterfeit is to be an expert in what is genuine. The Secret Service knows this well. When training their agents, they don’t start by giving them samples of fake bills. Instead they provide them with genuine bills and train them in every conceivable detail of those bills. The look. The feel. The ink. The borders. The serial numbers. The spacing. The portraits. The holograms. The seals. The details of Grant’s beard. The shading on Ben Franklin’s face.
Once the agents are experts in the details of genuine bills, spotting fakes is no problem. The slightest deviation from what is genuine is enough to expose the bill as fake.
Genuine vs. Counterfeit
Think about your life. Do you know what your “genuine” is supposed to look like? Do you have a clear understanding of what you really want out of life? The things. The people. The activities. The experiences. The priorities. How you spend your time.
If you haven’t done a good job defining your “genuine,” then counterfeits will slip by and begin circulating through your life. The more counterfeits you have, the further you’ll get from the life you actually want and the less happy and fulfilled you’ll be. Left unchecked, the economy of your life could become overwhelmed with counterfeits, at which point it ceases to function properly, just like a normal economy would.
How to find your genuine life
The application? You need to decide what you really want out of life and take those plans very seriously. That’s a theme I’ve touched on before. It’s a core element of Intentional Retirement. Below is a list of several resources and posts that take a deeper dive on this topic. Use them to help define your genuine and become an expert at spotting it. Then be diligent at tossing the fakes before they can take root.
Guides and eBooks
Have a great weekend. Be intentional.
My wife went to visit her sister a few weeks ago in New York. While she was gone, my daughter and I felt like doing something fun, so the two of us went to Washington D.C. to see the cherry trees in bloom. A hundred years ago, either one of those trips would have been costly, dangerous and impractical. Now for a few hundred dollars and a little planning, you can start your day at home and end it a few thousand miles away.
I sometimes take for granted how crazy that is and it illustrates a gradual change that has been happening for decades: The declining cost of distance. Technology has utterly transformed the cost, effort, time and risk involved with getting from A to B. In many cases, you don’t even need to get off your couch. Here are some examples from just the last few decades.
- Email has replaced physical mail.
- Expensive long-distance calls are a thing of the past.
- Video conferencing options like FaceTime and Skype allow us to see and stay connected with those we love.
- The internet has not only put the world at your fingertips, but allows you to have it delivered in 2 days or less.
- Cars have become safer and more fuel efficient.
- Flights have gotten cheaper and more prevalent.
- Services like Airbnb and Uber make travel easier, more enjoyable and less expensive.
This trend will likely continue and the cost of distance will become more and more negligible (think virtual reality, hyperloop, automation, 3D printing and supersonic air travel). How should this affect your retirement planning? Here are a few thoughts:
Live where you want. As the cost of distance continues to decline, location becomes less important. When distance is expensive, deciding where to live often involves some serious tradeoffs. “Should I live by my grandkids in the Midwest or in that laid-back beach town in Southern California?” When distance is cheap, you can afford to choose “both/and” instead of “either/or.” It just takes a bit of money, planning and intentionality.
Don’t get stuck in the past. Take advantage of the new economics of distance to live life and do interesting and fulfilling things both now and in retirement. That’s pretty self-explanatory. Don’t get stuck in the old way of thinking and orient your life around a “distance is expensive” fallacy.
Embrace technology. Look for ways to shrink the cost of distance further. Be the grandparent who is an expert at FaceTime. Be the first of your friends to have a virtual reality headset and use it to “visit” famous museums and faraway cities without leaving home. You might even consider becoming a medical tourist. Need heart surgery or hip replacement? India caters to medical tourists needing those types of procedures. They have some of the best hospitals and physicians in the world and the costs on average are about one-tenth of the cost in the US.
One last thought
Before I sign off for today, I mentioned that my daughter and I saw the cherry blossoms. Part of that decision was inspired by a poem I like by A.E. Housman. His sentiments are similar to our philosophy here at Intentional Retirement, so I thought I’d share it.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
A blogger I follow recently shared the following paragraph from the book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance:
“Scientists who study human motivation have lately learned that after basic survival needs have been met, the combination of autonomy (the desire to direct your own life), mastery (the desire to learn, explore, and be creative), and purpose (the desire to matter, to contribute to the world) are our most powerful intrinsic drivers—the three things that motivate us most.”
In other words, once you have a roof over your head and food in the fridge, you want to take a step or two up Maslow’s Hierarchy and focus on things that bring happiness and fulfillment. Retirement is the ideal time to make that a reality. Financial independence means that the money is covered, so you’re free to pursue the things that bring meaning. Both are important. The money will help you sleep at night. The meaning will give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. With that in mind, here are 3 simple rules for retirement that will help you find meaning and purpose.
Rule #1: Control your time. We all want to feel like we are in control of our life and directing its course. The good news is, no matter how old you are or how much money you have, you control part of our life right now. Congrats! You’re (sort of) retired! Maybe you control 10 percent. Maybe 50 percent. No matter the amount, make the most out of it. Be motivated, intentional, creative, thoughtful, curious, introspective, willing to take risks, healthy and active. Be disciplined with whatever time you control now because the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. It’s tough to flip a switch at retirement and go from decades of deferring your dreams to really living. Be a good steward when you control 10-20 percent of your time and that will help you when financial independence allows you to control 80-90 percent.
Why is controlling your time so important? Because, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, how you spend your days is how you spend your life. If you spend your time doing the things that are important to you, then you’ll look back on life as time well spent. If not, you’ll have plenty of regrets. In fact, the number 1 regret of the dying, according to the aptly titled book The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, is this: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
We should learn from that. The author interviewed hundreds of people who are where we will one day be. They had lived their entire life. They got out of bed thousands of days in a row and with each new day they had the freedom and opportunity to do what they wanted. And yet, when they reached the end, their top regret was, “Man, did I make the wrong choice most days. I didn’t really live the kind of life I wanted. I didn’t do the things that were important to me.” So if you want a remarkable retirement, control your time. Know what you want out of life and take those plans very seriously.
Rule #2: Be a lifelong learner. We saw earlier that it’s human nature to want to learn, explore and be creative. Show me someone who loves to learn new things and I’ll show you someone who will most likely have an interesting, rewarding retirement. Why is that? Learning comes with a host of benefits. It keeps your mind sharp. It keeps you engaged with advances in society. It helps you to know yourself and discover new things. It gives you new people to interact with. It gives you something fun to do with your spouse or significant other. It provides personal satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.
And when I talk about learning, I’m not talking about learning in the traditional, sometimes boring sense of the word (e.g. What year did the Spanish-American War start?), but in the fun, practical, interesting sense of the word (e.g. How do you scuba dive?). In other words, pursuing knowledge and experiences that enrich your life.
One of the great things about our world today is that self-learning (also known as Autodidactism) is easier than ever. Gone are the days when you need an expensive education or lengthy apprenticeship just to learn more about something that you find interesting. Now you can just sit down on your own time and access a plethora of resources, tools, apps, books, and videos on just about any topic that interests you. Take advantage of that. Be a lifelong learner.
Rule #3: Make a difference to someone or something. One of the most popular posts I’ve written at Intentional Retirement is 15 Practical Ways to Live a Purposeful Life. One of the most popular books in recent memory is The Purpose Driven Life. Neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said that striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.
In other words, we’re hard wired to want purpose and meaning. That need doesn’t somehow vanish when you enter retirement. If anything, it gets stronger. When I talk to clients that have been retired for a while, the desire to find purpose and to leave some sort of legacy that outlasts them is important.
Your bucket list doesn’t need to consist entirely of bungee jumping and exotic travel. As Shakespeare once said: “Leisure is a beautiful garment for a day, but a horrible choice for permanent attire.” Don’t get me wrong. You should absolutely do fun and interesting things. Splurge on yourself. Be a little selfish. Those things are great, but don’t forget to add items to your list like giving, serving and volunteering as well. Maybe that means doing something like my retired friend Dan who spent three months volunteering on Mercy Ships in the Congo. Maybe that’s building houses for Habitat for Humanity like my client Bill. Maybe it means volunteering in your church or running for town council. Whatever it is, be thinking of ways to use your time, treasure and talents during retirement that will have a positive impact on others and will bring meaning and purpose to you.
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…”