The Retirement Process: A Psychological and Emotional Journey
In retirement Terry Mitchell, professor emeritus in Management and Organization, turned his academic eye to an analysis of the retirement experience. This article reflects his post-retirement application of his work in Management Organization to the experience of retirement.
About me. My name is Terry Mitchell, and I am a retired University of Washington professor. I spent 45 years at the Foster School of Business and left in October of 2014. I loved it. My training was as a Social/Organizational Psychologist at Duke University and the University of Illinois, and while I was at the UW, I mostly concentrated on HR issues with a specific focus on voluntary turnover. Most of this research was done with Tom Lee, who is still on the Foster School faculty. We gathered questionnaire and interview data from thousands of people in many different types of jobs. We studied why they left, where they went and what they did. Not surprisingly, a lot of people said they were leaving to retire.
Since I retired, I have continued to work on some of this research data focusing on retirement but have added my own personal experience and personal interviews. I talk to people who are about to retire and those that have left, and I combine those observations with those of the more formal and scientifically gathered data. The following comments are a summary of what I have learned.
Retirement as a life event and process. Initially, it is important to frame the larger perspective of leaving a job. First, leaving is a BIG life event, right up there with graduations, weddings, having children, buying a house, moving, major health issues, and so forth. There are lots of psychological and emotional experiences attached to leaving your major attachment to the work force. And the whole process has changed in some significant ways over the last 20-30 years. We are, of course, living longer. Thus, we may work longer than people used to work, and we may have more time being retired than people used to have. And since there are more women in the work force, there are more that are retired.
In addition, we have to note that everyone has a different story. They have different personalities, values, and interests. Some want to leave; some must leave. Their job is unique, as are they. And the personal context is important. The person’s age and reason for leaving is a big part of how they experience and react to the event. Also, people take different amounts of time to actually leave. I have had stories of people who left immediately in response to some personal or job-related event, such as kids graduating from college or being passed over for a long-sought promotion. Other people take years to plan their retirement (it took my dad five years).
The implication of all this variability is that the journey through retirement is different for everyone in terms of time, reason, experience, and the outcomes. And the insight is that you really need to spend some time thinking specifically about who you are, what you like, and how you are going to engage in and respond to this event. There are plenty of self-help books and websites that will aid you in this investigation. Knowing these things about yourself will make the journey less troublesome.
What you’ll read here. The rest of this paper is about the psychological and emotional experiences you are likely to encounter when you leave work. While the experience is different for everyone, we can still learn a lot from others, because there are some common elements reported by most retirees. So, knowing yourself helps at the starting point, but anticipating some of the bumps and hurdles helps as well. There are adjustments you have to make due to changes in your context or insights about yourself that emerge. There are major surprises. The stock market is uncertain, a virus comes along, you have an illness or physical limitation to yourself or a family member. Stuff happens. You struggle sometimes. Some things are harder than you thought.
Many of these adjustments, surprises or struggles are shared by your retiring cohort and those who have gone before you. There are external and personal resources to help you, and we will mention some as we proceed. Given the age of retirement these days and the time you can expect to live as a retiree (perhaps 20-25 years), retirement has become a “stage of life.” You are a “senior citizen.” As such, the topic has been widely studied by others. We will use some of this information that is related to our content. Like any stage you have been through before, retirement has its highs and lows. We will emphasize ways to have more highs and fewer lows as you proceed.
We will also divide the discussion based on three distinct “phases” in the retirement process. First, there is the leaving. This period includes the time before leaving, the event itself, and then a short time post-departure. The second phase includes all the adjustments involved with living a new and different life. Lots of work is done here. Finally, there is a settling down phase for the “new you.” This is a more stable phase for most retirees.
PHASE 1: THE LEAVING
The time before leaving. Almost everyone is aware of the impending event of retiring. It may not occur the way you thought or hoped; some precipitous or unexpected event may push you out the door. But, even in most of these cases, you know it is on the horizon. We used to ask people in our questionnaires about the time between their recognition and thinking about the departure and when they actually left. It was often up to a few years for many people. One clear message about what accompanied these thoughts and ruminations was they found themselves cutting back on commitments and involvement in certain work activities as the time to leave approaches. Many people are involved in activities and decisions that have future implications for their group or organizations. Retirees report that they realize they will not be around when certain policies are implemented. “It won’t affect me,” they say, and they withhold their contribution. But they also believe that they should not have major input on issues that will affect others, perhaps significantly. It is their group, project, or organization, not yours. Because the person approaching retirement is senior or has the power to influence decisions, they have to restrain themselves. People report feeling this disengagement as the event draws near.
Retirement. Then, there is the event itself. There may be a party, a dinner, some recognition, a gift. It may stretch over a week or two, but it typically involves a short period of time. It is a rite of passage. But some important emotional, psychological, and physical changes take place almost immediately. You have to say goodbye to your place of work, your commute, parking, arrival, and departure patterns. This also means your office, your building, and in our case, the UW. There are everyday routines like having dressing for work, coffee or lunch with friends, and scheduled meetings, classes, and events. You also have to let go of your actual work behaviors, although some people hang on to some things for a while. For faculty there may be some teaching or research that carries on; for non-faculty there may be projects or commitments that linger for a while. Colleagues may seek out your advice. But you are no longer being paid for these activities, and they will diminish quickly for most people.
Letting go can be hard. Your identity as a working person in a particular place, with certain people, doing specific things disappears quickly. There are feelings of sadness, some grief, loneliness, and disorientation. These are normal and expected, but they do not need to linger or persist.
Post-departure. Both before the actual parting and soon afterwards, new thoughts, expectations and feelings begin to fill your mind and capture your attention and time. People think a lot about the question, “What do I want to do when I’m retired?” Retirees report they get asked that question frequently, just before and after leaving, and especially at their retirement celebrations.
Given that you probably have some time to work on that question as you disengage at work, most people have at least an initial response. They have actually thought some about what they want to do and how they want to spend their time. They think about things they really enjoy doing and ways they might do more of that with some extra discretionary time (e.g., golf, fish, read, travel—the list is long).
One strategy reported by many people who say they have retired successfully is to try something out before they leave. These are things that do not command a full-time commitment and could therefore be experienced while they were still working. We have heard numerous examples. People start volunteering at places like a food bank or the aquarium. They join a book club or a bridge club. They become more involved with their church. They work on local or national politics or political issues. One person started working on cruise ships, giving lectures; another started taking guitar lessons; another joined a bird watching club. When they actually leave their jobs, they can increase these time commitments to see how much they actually like the activity and whether it will become a major factor in their retirement portfolio. But it is also important to raise your awareness of what might be called “false starts.” Not everything you try will turn out to have lasting impact or attractiveness.
Advice for Phase 1. This period right before and after leaving is often described as the “honeymoon phase.” You have the opportunity to try things out without worrying about failure or negative reactions. You are “free.” There are few times in your life when you can actually just sample things to see how you feel about them. Take advantage of this period and keep your finger on your pulse in terms of how you are feeling about these activities. This is “tryout” time. Speaking of honeymoons, one of the huge relationship tasks at this time is to figure out how you and a spouse are going to manage you not going to work every day. Your partner will have their own life, working or doing other regular activities or retiring at close to the same time. This will be a serious negotiation that will have a life of its own. Many couples have a tough time with this part of the transition. Talk about it before and during the process. Think about the meaning of what you do changing your spouse’s feelings and actions.
The other emotional reaction that is often reported, immediately post-departure, is some disenchantment. Very quickly you run out of the things you had planned to do immediately — fixing things around the house, visiting a relative, going on a cruise to Alaska. You may find yourself waking up thinking, “I have the whole day in front of me and nothing to do.” This experience is often disclosed by people who did not think about what they wanted to do very thoroughly or did not try some things out. You may feel lonely because many of your friends are at work. You may be bored. The activities you try may not challenge or engage you. Many retirees feel they have lost their sense of purpose. They feel useless. They feel disillusioned. These feelings are not permanent. It is time to move on to Phase 2, and doing the hard work of adjusting to being retired.
PHASE 2: WHO ARE YOU NOW?
Before you retired, you had an easy answer to “what do you do,” which usually included your profession, workplace, or both. If you look at the UW staff directory, the number of titles, offices and position is in the thousands. For example, under the letter B if you are in an academic department you might say you were a professor in Baltic studies, Biochemistry, Biology, Botany or School of Business. The staff positions (University-wide) are also extensive. You might say I work at the UW Bicycle Repair office, or the Book Store or the Budget Office or Biohazard Control. And then there are hundreds of titles and offices within departments or major functions of the University. The point is you usually could identify a location, an activity and to some extent a term that identifies your level: Associate, Trainee, Director, Assistant Professor, Administrative Assistant.
Start with reflection. After retirement, that identity information, felt internally and emotionally, easily recalled and described, is obsolete. For a while, you will use the past tense. I was a… fill in the blank. The issue is how you start to fill in the blank with new information. Doing this requires a reassessment of who you are going to be, at least for the next period or phase of your life. It is hard work. I suggest reflecting on and gathering information about two criteria.
The first is what brings you pleasure. You can access this information a couple of ways. Go back over both your work activities and non-work activities the last few years. Write down what you really enjoyed: things you accomplished, projects you looked forward to working on, trips you had and what you did, people whose company you enjoyed, places you visited. Spend some time on this — days or weeks, whatever it takes to make the list exhaustive. Ask your friends and family what they think you enjoyed. People close to you can often spot things you would not have thought of. Highlight the things that were most pleasurable.
The other source of information to record is what you think is meaningful. In a sense this is discovering your new passion. I say “new” because it may or may not be something you have done in the past. There may be types of books or literature you have looked at and said, “I want to do that.” Movies, videos, social media provide information on activities. There are classes you can take, friends who are doing things—all of this can help you in this search. This criterion is different from just what you enjoy. It is what you think is important and how you can live the next phase of your life doing something that excites you and to which you are committed. It also starts to deal with the self-assessment about why you are useful and making some sort of contribution. Retirees who express this type of meaning and usefulness in their new activities are far more satisfied with their new life than those who do not.
What do you do? The assessments of what brings you pleasure and what you are passionate about become the foundation for moving forward in carving out the new you and your new identity. But there is still plenty of work to do to get there. There is lots of information and many resources out there to help you get started. Community centers and local colleges often have classes and activities specifically for older adults. The web puts all sorts of information at your fingertips. Talk to friends and watch TV for shows that pique your interest. Keep an open mind and search broadly. This is an important time to investigate new directions for your future.
Two major categories of activity you may want to explore are post-retirement work and educational upgrades or exposure to new information and skills. Or you might combine the two. Many people take classes to learn about a new or different set of behavioral skills in careers very different from what they did in the job from which they retired. Many people engage in consulting jobs, training or helping people do things they did when they were working. Financial necessity may or may not be part of this decision. But having even some part-time employment can give a person a sense of purpose and keep them engaged and busy. There are organizations that are dedicated to helping people start new careers later in life. Research has shown that people who have post-retirement work have less depression and are more active and satisfied with their life.
There are classes that help you learn a new skill. You may want to learn how to play the piano, do woodworking or throw a pot. Classes also may just be about topics you are interested in, such as astronomy, economics, art history or archeology. These educational opportunities may put you on a path that dominates your future.
Another category that consumes a lot of time for retirees is travel. There are all those places you have wanted to go and things you have wanted to see. It is one of the frequently cited things that retirees say they WANT to do. But travel is expensive and often hard to do if you have animals, health limitations and a limited budget. What is often reported is that people go on one or two big trips but then go nearby for short excursions. Some people buy an RV for regular or frequent outings, but that is also pretty expensive. Travel usually is only done in short bursts and usually does not turn out to be the dominating post-work activity. But for those for whom it is meaningful, educational, enjoyable and affordable, it can become a major part of the retirement portfolio.
Advice for Phase 2. There are literally hundreds of different things people pursue, and we won’t try to mention them all. But there are a set of categories that are mentioned frequently and just considering the items in this set might be helpful. There are social activities involving clubs and groups. There are outdoor activities that vary widely in terms of time and exertion. Many people acquire new skills or hobbies. A huge category is volunteering, which is chosen by many. Also, there are more passive and at-home activities like reading, games or computer interface.
The final thing I would say about choosing new behaviors is that whatever you do needs to be managed. You will probably engage in a potpourri of pursuits. There will be some things you will need to do regularly that follow a schedule. Others will be more discretionary. There will be routines you follow, and life is more predictable. Unless you are being paid for your time, you will have some flexibility when you do things and how much you do. A key to most of the things described above is you can change or stop. However, it is important to mention that most people soon find themselves with regular patterns of behavior. After a year or two you should find yourself comfortably engaged and able to answer questions about your new identity, passions, and goals. You start to settle in, as least for the foreseeable future.
PHASE 3: GOLDEN YEARS
You have tried things out, found activities you like, are busy and fairly stable. You hopefully like the new you. But some important things have changed, and you still have some life areas which require some maintenance.
Change in Focus. You will definitely notice that your physical and mental health will decline some. Yep, it is unpleasant but true. Your health will require more attention. I like that country song line, “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” You need to pay attention to things which used not to require any thought or concern. Your diet is important. We do not process food as efficiently as we grow older, so you must be careful of your weight. Medicare requires an annual exam and tests both mental and physical attributes. Keep a record on the computer of your prescription and generic drugs. You will need it. Do some exercise regularly. Many people report they walk or swim at the neighborhood community pool doing laps or going for exercise workouts. A friend told me he started every day as if he was at a Sears Automotive Center, where they plug you in to see what is working and what is not. Many people also say that they have a regular exercise routine of 20-30 minutes they do each day.
You will also have to work on relationships. In the absence of at-work relationships, you will need to pay attention to your new or changed interpersonal engagements. They become a critical part of any successful retirement transition. We mentioned earlier that if you have a partner or spouse, you will need to discuss and negotiate your new behaviors and preferences with them. Try to formulate a plan where both of you can continue to grow and pursue your new life together and separately when appropriate. You will find you are more interested in your family: children, grandchildren, siblings, cousins. Start a regular correspondence. Go for visits and invite them to visit you. Most of your work friends will become more distant as you fail to share time and work together. Reach out to neighbors, people at church, new people you meet along the way. One person said they had a “movie buddy” and whenever a certain type of movie opened, they would arrange to go together. Go to a high school or college reunion where you can reconnect with previous friends. You will be surprised how easy it can be to leap over decades and feel comfortable with each other. You shared some meaningful parts of your life with them. Use social media if you feel comfortable with Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Zooming. It is VERY easy to connect these days. Take advantage of it.
Two other revelations are frequently cited by people who have reached this stage of their retirement journey. First, setting goals is still important but the process and type of goals differ. Many of the goals you will set become shorter term. The long-time professional goals are gone and many of the personal ones have been met. Shorter time frames and sub-goals become more salient. One study we did asked people of all ages to describe the short- and long-term goals they had achieved or were pursuing. Not surprisingly, the younger you were the fewer things you had achieved. But the startling result was the absence of almost all long-term goals for people who had retired. Your goals are also self-set as contrasted with goals that had been assigned or set for you by others. You are the captain of your ship.
The other interesting shift is related to goals but differs in substance. You used to have goals that were much more instrumental. You did A to get to B. I need to succeed at this project so I can get that raise or promotion. Thus, you always had your eye on the future. In retirement you will find that many of your goals are in the moment. Pay attention to what is happening to you now. Take pleasure in events and happenings that are self-encapsulated: time talking to a friend, listening to music, reading a book, walking with a grandchild on a sunny day. Much of your happiness will come from such experiences.
One last change in focus is important. Much of your life up to this point has been motivated by acquisitions. You were earning money, saving for retirement. Perhaps you purchased a house, boat or new cars, or collected coins. You have boating, hunting, or skiing equipment. You have “stuff,” as George Carlin would say. The retirement period is often filled with “gifting” or giving things away. You will hear from numerous organizations who want donations. Your schools or churches may inquire about a large or regular contribution. If you were a collector of some things which have value, you may gift them. I know one friend who donated their stamp collection, another had antiques, another paintings. Your family may want some furniture or keepsakes. Retirement is a time when you lighten your load.
Endings and renewals. This new phase is accompanied by what I call endings and renewals. The changes in focus described above are important but this period is also punctuated with what can be best described as constraints and opportunities.
Let us start with your life as a working person, even if you worked at home. Jobs impose significant constraints on many aspects of your life. First, most jobs have time demands, both total per week and during each day. Think of the song and movie 9 to 5 and the common description of many jobs as requiring a 40-hour work week. But, once you retire, those constraints go away. You can set your own schedule. You can sleep late or stay up late, take afternoon naps, and generally structure your life around times with which you are comfortable. It is wonderful.
There are lots of other constraints that accompany having a job. Where you live may be constrained by the location of where you work. Depending on commutes and time demands, people often choose homes or apartments where they have access to the workplace. Now you can pick up and move if you want. Go to the coast or move to the mountains or be near family. It is liberating. Jobs also define the time, both amount and when, you spend with your spouse, children, or grandchildren. Kids have school of course, and your partner may still work, but there is much more freedom to arrange your social interactions with people you care about. Another social constraint that happens at work is you often end up working with the same people for years or decades. You may like them. When you are retired those links tend to weaken, but you have opportunities to meet new people. New acquaintances are stimulating and invigorating, and you get to CHOOSE. That freedom is relatively rare on the job.
Another process that retired people often mention is seeing their life in “periods.” Maybe you camped or climbed mountains or fished or danced, went to the theater or concerts or ball games most of your life. These activities may have been tied to work events (e.g., retreats) or friends. They might have been expensive or require physical endowments you no longer have or want to use. I have fished and owned a boat with two other guys for over 30 years. But we sold the boat last year, and I now see salmon fishing as a period in my life that is over. Joggers become walkers. Teachers become students. Seahawk fans become Mariner or Sounder fans. Steak lovers embrace veganism. Seeing activities as embedded in periods is psychologically healthy. You do not have to do these things forever. You will have new passions and commitments, and it is OK to let things go without feeling like you are giving up part of your identity and seeing it as a loss.
Getting older also takes a toll on your mental and physical resources and you need to craft your new life to fit. Keep your mind active and challenged. There are lots of resources to help you in this regard. Use it or lose it is a common – and probably accurate — refrain.
Your body also becomes less flexible and more likely to present limitations. We mentioned some of this earlier. Be aware of your limitations, and you can construct your time and activity around things that are not a strain or that actually help strengthen your mental and physical attributes. There is a lot on the web and in books about how to do this. You are also not alone. Group activities are venues where you can share your experiences and learn from others. Your cohort of retirees is usually more homogeneous in these ways than the people you associated with at work.
Legacy. Once you have settled into your new life, you will find you have time to think about both the future and, especially, the past. Thinking about the future obviously has a foreshortened perspective. None of us are getting out of this alive. But knowing you will pass prompts you to reflect about your life, your contributions, judgements, missed and pursued opportunities. If regrets are doable or fixable now, take advantage of the time to engage in redress. Ultimately, you will think about your legacy: the things you are proud of, the experiences that were uplifting, the decisions that moved you along your path.
Advice for Phase 3. There can be lots of input as well as some output attached to this phase. You can certainly engage in aided recollections. It is a great time to go through your photographs. The trips you took, the places you went and things you saw may be available for review and sorting. Many people tell me they have organized the material into labeled albums. You may have home movies to enjoy, seeing other people and yourself at different points in your life. It is well known that music becomes attached to time and events. My wife, who is from LA, just watched the program on Laurel Canyon on PBS. The interviews with the musicians and hearing the 60s and 70s music brought back many enjoyable memories. Other forms of art, such as motion pictures and paintings, can evoke similar experiences. This recollection process can be fun in itself, or you can sample it as information about how you have lived and enjoyed your life and use it in a more systematic or focused process.
People are also a big part of your life, and this is a good time to learn about, reflect on, and reach out to people who are or were important to your life and who you have become. One huge exercise that has been formally recognized and commercially aided recently is to find out more about your family roots. Web sites like ancestry.com will do genetic searches for you. You will discover more about your family tree and your foundational geographic history. And since communication now is available through different social media, it is easy to connect. You can also look back on coworkers or fellow students at different points in your life. There are people you may have mentored or who mentored you. You may want to thank them, see what happened to them, or renew your acquaintance.
Finally, you can write all this down. Memoirs have become a literature staple. There are classes about writing memoirs available at community centers, universities and online. Or maybe you have some special insights to share so that others can profit from your knowledge and experience. One retired friend I spoke to recently is putting together a photo album of all the places she visited with a perspective on how things have changed. For example, Paul Dorpat has written some very well-known books about Seattle entitled Then and Now. Another retiree mentioned writing a book of short humorous stories he recalled from reflections about his past. Writing it down can be fun for you and a resource for others.
I hope the material in this article has engaged you and opened your eyes about retirement. There are struggles and setbacks. It can be a psychological and emotional roller coaster. But it can also be exciting, enriching and a period where you can grow and evolve into someone you like and appreciate. Perhaps some of the suggestions above will aid you on this journey.