Retirement is Liberating – and Hard Work

Retirement is Liberating – and Hard Work

By Kim Blanton

Most baby boomers find the first weeks of retirement liberating. But it takes some work to ensure the feeling lasts.

“Almost everyone is just thrilled with the first days of retirement, and the big thing is: ‘I do not have to set my alarm,’ ” said Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile. Eventually, another thought dawns on a new retiree: “I don’t want to turn into one of those people who sits around in their jammies half the day. I need more of a routine.”

That’s when they start investigating what they’ll do with their time, said Amabile, who, with a team of researchers, interviewed 83 older professionals during their pre- or post-retirement years (or both) to understand the transformation from worker to retiree.

For a smooth transition, the planning should start well before leaving your job, as you process the question of how and when to retire. A critical part of the retirement decision is making sure you can afford it. But the psychological preparation is just as important.

This work, which boils down to four essential tasks, can take several years before and after the retirement date to complete. The first task – the decision to retire – was covered in last Thursday’s blog. Here are the remaining three:

Detach from work. Some people already have one foot in retirement while they’re still working. This can happen organically as an older worker starts to feel marginalized, or it can be a self-directed detachment as he or she becomes psychologically more distant in preparation for leaving. Amabile said completing the process of detaching from work can take weeks or years after retirement day.

One way to ease into retirement is to keep tabs on what’s happening at work by staying in touch or socializing with former colleagues.

The nature of some jobs permits a gradual transition. When Amabile retires, she would give up her identity as a Harvard professor but could continue to write books and publish articles. It would be impractical for a retired brain surgeon, on the other hand, to work part-time without a hospital affiliation.

Some employers smooth an employee’s path. In their study, Amabile and her fellow researchers interviewed workers at three companies that varied considerably in how easy the path to retirement was. One employer with an innovative program to smooth the transition gave older employees the option of signing a contract to retire on a specific date. The employee then shifts to part-time and works three days per week for the next year – but gets paid for four days. Most who took this option were enthusiastic about being able to make a gradual transition to retirement.

Although the study focused on white-collar workers, “I don’t see why a program like this can’t be done with blue-collar workers in at least some jobs,” Amabile said.

Explore a new life structure.  One woman in Amabile’s study seems to have perfected the art of exploration. She had always loved Asian art and wanted to try her hand after retiring. Before leaving her job, she and her husband took a three-week vacation overseas, so she could take art classes from a master.

But the adjustment to retirement can be a difficult period. Amabile said the typical baby boomer comes to retirement with no more than an idea or two about how they might spend their time. The ideas spring from something they already enjoy or are interested in. After years of focusing on paid work that may not have held deep meaning for them, some feel that it’s time to give back through volunteering at a non-profit organization that lines up with their values.

Not all retirees are so ambitious about trying new things, however. They might prefer to devote themselves to reconnecting with a spouse, taking vacations with extended family, or reading to their heart’s content. “There are some people who say, ‘I’ve earned my relaxation and leisure, and it’s important for me to do that,’ ” Amabile said.

Consolidate a new life structure. Putting together the pieces of a satisfying retirement life requires setting priorities and following through on them with determination. Some people are able to launch into this task with gusto, while others find it very challenging and may feel their lives are tentative for years. Eventually, though, for most retirees, life begins to feel stable again, Amabile said. The workday is solidly in the past and retirement life has taken shape.

If this sounds familiar, it might resemble what you went through as a young adult, starting your career and finding your place in the world.

Retirement is, once again, a time to mull the same question: Who am I?

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. To stay current on our blog, please join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here. This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.