For most people, retirement is a positive event. They look forward to the days when they no longer have to answer to a boss, deal with the commute to work, and interact with difficult customers or coworkers. They look forward to unlimited leisure to pursue their interests and hobbies, and to indulge grandchildren in that way that only retired people can. In fact, a long commute is an indicator that someone will retire at the first opportunity, and so is a bad boss. Want all your workers to retire from your company or department? All you have to do is be a jerk of a boss. They’ll retire as soon as they can.
Retirees are attracted most of all to the concept of freedom. Freedom to read all day, play golf every day, binge watch television, catch every game of their favorite sports team, take up knitting or woodcarving, or just sit on the porch and watch the evening gather. And most people do not tire of pursuing these types of pastimes.
Nevertheless, even though for most people retirement is a netpositive event, some people have a different response. They discover that they do not like traditional retirement, and decide they would have been better off staying employed as long as they could. I found this phenomenon in men and women, and in every type of worker, from cowboys and carpenters to teachers and coaches to business owners and senior executives. They retired and didn’t like it. Unfortunately, if you are out of the labor market for a year or two late in life, it can be very difficult to get back in. So let’s take a look at types of people who do not like retirement, compared to how much they enjoy working. Research has shown that these people often miss work more than they enjoy retirement:
To be clear, this is not to say that these people are miserable in retirement. Some of them are happy enough in retirement. And this is not to say that these people do not enjoy leisure. Some don’t enjoy leisure, true, but many do enjoy playing golf or fishing or sitting on the porch. The point is that they were happier when working, that they enjoyed working more than they enjoy the options provided by retirement.
Here’s a perfect example of the phenomenon I investigated: Playing golf solo, I was pushing a foursome on the golf course. Since there were four of them and only one of me, I was often right behind them, waiting my turn. We all stopped after the ninth hole to empty our bladders and refill our beer rations. I overheard one of them say to the other members of his outing: "When I worked, I played golf a couple times a month. Just loved to play. When I retired, I thought I’d play golf every day. But I find I’m only playing golf about once a week. I like it, sure, but it’s not enough. I didn’t really make a plan for the other six days. " Retirement has sevenday weeks. Even if you enjoy leisure, maybe you won’t enjoy it seven days a week.
Here’s what the participants in my study missed:
Meaning. Many of the workers in the study were in careers that involved helping other people. Their jobs involved teaching, counseling, entertaining, providing emergency services, and other roles where the product of their labor was to directly improve the lives of others. Leisure, in particular, may not provide a replacement for this type of work reward. If you like to make a difference in the lives of others, to make the world a better place, then be sure that is an aspect of your retirement, or you may find it an empty experience.
Activity. Some people have an internal drive to be busy, to be active. This can take many forms. Some people just need to be moving around doing something every day. Others have a need for achievement, which means they feel the need to get something accomplished every day, something they can look back on and say, "I did that." And finally, some feel a need to make a contribution to a greater good, to improve society or serve some need. All of these people can find themselves trapped in misery if they are told to "relax" or "take it easy" or "just enjoy your freedom." If that freedom means sitting on the porch all day, they’d rather die. This is not an exaggeration! People in the study who were in this category actually said they would rather die than sit around all day.
Connection. Humans are hive animals. They need to be with other humans, literally. Studies show that for optimum health, humans need to be around other humans, in the same physical space, six hours a day. Online activities do not create this beneficial effect. Being in the physical presence of others does—even with low levels of interaction. Work easily provides, for most workers, this daily interaction. Retirement often does not, especially for retirees who live alone. It is much harder to achieve six hours of daily interaction outside the structure of work.
What are possible solutions to these challenges? One is to keep working. If you like your work, keep working, especially if you have the freedom to do your job with flexibility. Another option is to replace work with volunteer activities that provide the benefits of work, but without the drawbacks. Anyone can volunteer, get out of the house, and pursue meaning, activity, and connection through service to the community. One retiree in Reno who did just that is Marsy Kupfersmith. She retired to Reno but soon found herself bored. Her husband encouraged her to get out of the house and volunteer, and she did just that, focusing on the needs of the Washoe County senior community. Here is what she has to say: "I missed the role of being a contributor at work. Volunteering is great. They treat you so incredibly well. You are so respected. You can keep busy, but it’s your own hours, and you can go in when you want. I use it to keep active, stay out of trouble. You might say I’m hooked on volunteering." Meaning. Activity. Connection. Keep working, or replace these needs any way you can in retirement, if you suspect you are in the category where golf and knitting alone just aren’t going to satisfy.