What got me going on this subject is Karen's retirement. After spending her entire life as an accountant, Karen retired a few weeks ago. We're now in France enjoying our first trip where neither of us has to work. No more working while everyone at home slept, then working again when they got to the office during our evening time. No more working more hours here that we did at home. This time we can be really retired: we can travel and play as much as we want - that's what everyone works for, right?
Well, probably. I'm seeing Karen go through many of the same ups and downs that I did when I started my 'retirement' three years ago. It certainly wasn't anything I was willing to admit to at the time, but it was harder than I thought. I claimed to not be retiring, to be making a career transition into writing. And while that's somewhat true, the reality is I was a technologist and entrepreneur. I'd done that all my life. Like most Americans, it didn't just define what I did, it defined who I was. I must have had some thoughts of going back as is evidenced in my post Am I Done?
In looking around at my friends, I've discovered that very few have been successful at retirement. After six months to a year, they're back at it. Most say they were bored. Many say they missed the excitement. Even more missed the social interaction that work brings. And I'm not just talking about people in high tech. Two lawyer friends were back at it within a year. A chef didn't even make it six months. Two friends in construction drove their wives crazy with projects around the house and were pushed back into building for others. Every doctor I know has gone back to work, at least part time.
Several more friends say they'll never retire. Even though they have more than enough money to live on the rest of their lives, they're not willing to give up the sense of achievement they have in their careers.
And yet there are some success stories. A dentist friend is happy travelling and helping others get businesses started. The former venture capitalist I mentioned in that earlier post seems to be pursuing his extreme sports with even more fervor than before. And, I guess I'd have to say that I'm happy with my retirement. Writing, surfing, and pursuing my other sports is actually enough for me. Now, with Karen retired, we'll be doing a lot more travelling too.
But I did go through an adjustment, a big one. And although people claim that it's the boredom, the lack of excitement, missing the sense of accomplishment or the people, I now believe that the real reason is much more ominous.
Karen and I discussed this in one of her down periods (which have been fewer and fewer). When you've worked your whole life with the goal of retirement and you finally have the financial resources to get there, when the business and personal timing is right, you step out and you move into a different phase of your life.
The title of that earlier post was more perceptive than I thought - Am I DONE?
Being DONE is depressing. You've worked to accomplish something. And now it's over. It's not just the letdown because retirement doesn't meet your expectations, it's that fear that you're entering the LAST stage of your life. Are you really ready to be DONE?
I think this is what drives people back to work. They look around and fear that they are done. They're not ready to be in the LAST stage of their lives. I admit it, I had the same fear and Karen does too.
Maybe this is obvious to you. But until that LAST stage is staring you in the face, you probably won't really understand how difficult it is to walk away from what you know, from what you've done, and perhaps from who you've been your whole life.
So what's the key to retirement?
Don't be done.
Retirement is not just a time to relax. Sure, take a few months to catch up on your sleep, to revel in not having to be anywhere or do anything on a schedule. Lose track of the day of the week. But don't extend it too long. It will get scary. You'll find yourself on the slippery slope towards the end of your life.
Instead, make plans, stay active, continue to make a difference in the world. Maybe you have to go back to work to do this, but I've learned that I don't and from what I can see, Karen won't need to go back either.
We've made plans: more sports, more dancing, travel, mentoring new business owners, getting more involved in good causes, we have a long list. With very few financial worries and with kids driving forward in their own successful careers, our newfound freedom guarantees that this new phase of life is going to be the most exciting yet.