More than half of American adults surveyed say they view retirement as “a new chapter in life.” Many see the end of their working years as a chance to pursue relaxing pastimes – to travel and spend more time with family and friends.
But not everyone looks forward to their retirement years with the same enthusiasm.
Linda Cicalese had wanted to be a flight attendant since childhood. After 46 years in the profession, she still loved her job but hoped to gradually ease herself into retirement. Then in March 2020, COVID-19 hit. With many flights grounded, she was forced into an early exit.
“All of a sudden, I was dropped into it,” says the 72-year-old.
Even for people who chose to retire, saying goodbye to their career doesn’t always bring happiness. Some feel anxious and saddened by the loss of routine and direction in their lives. Almost 1 in 3 retirees say they feel depressed – a rate higher than that of the adult population overall.
Cicalese says she misses the structure of her former profession. “I was going here this day, and there that day,” she says. “It kept me busy, but at the same time it also provided an enormous lifeline.”
Retirement blues are “a dirty secret,” says Robert Delamontagne, PhD, author of The Retiring Mind. He had to go through his own adjustment when he retired in 2007. He says people are reluctant to talk openly about those struggles because it’s embarrassing. “People would ask me, ‘How’s retirement?’ I used to say, ‘It’s great! I’m having a great time!’ What was I supposed to say?”
What should you do if your retirement isn’t as rosy as you expected it to be?
Leaving work can strip away your sense of purpose and self-worth. No longer do you reap the financial rewards and achievements that a job provides. The end of your daily routine can make you feel lost.
“You go into something akin to withdrawal, because there’s no way to replicate your working life in retirement,” says Delamontagne. “It feels like you’re in a void. There’s no direction.”
Your sense of self also takes a hit, especially if you left a leadership position. “Your ego determines your identity when you work. When you enter retirement, you go into an egoless state. Chairman of the board doesn’t mean a thing when you’re retired,” says Delamontagne, who was himself a CEO and chairman of an online learning company.
Some people leave the workforce with a sense of excitement about what’s ahead. Melanie Harper, PhD, calls that the “retirement honeymoon.” “It’s new, it’s fun, and I can do whatever I want. I can play golf in the middle of the day!” says Harper, who has studied the emotional effects of retirement, and is program director of clinical mental health counseling at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, TX.
Once the newness wears off, you may start to question your new situation. “Will my money last?” “Will my health hold up?” “Am I being useful, or am I going to just play bridge and golf for the rest of my life?”
Some people who struggle with retirement at first eventually learn to accept it. Others don’t. “They feel like they’ve lost themselves,” says Delamontagne. “They’ve lost the identity that took them 30 or 40 years to build up.”
Cicalese says being at home all day has made her restless. “I feel like there’s a void.”
How you view this transition could differ depending on your gender. While women tend to have a more positive outlook and make plans to spend more time with family, men often see retirement as a loss, research shows.
Retirement and Your Relationship
If you live with a partner, retirement also thrusts you together all day – sometimes for the first time in years. “I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch,” an old saying goes.
“One spouse is used to having some freedom and the middle of the day is their time,” says Harper. “Then all of a sudden the other partner retires, and they want a playmate.”
Delamontagne calls this phenomenon “marital compression.” He went through it with his wife. Though they’ve always had a solid marriage, “after I retired, we started having slight irritations with one another. One day she said, ‘Robert, you need to stop telling me what to do. I’m not one of your employees.’ “
One way to manage your new situation is with distance. Schedule golf or lunch outings with friends. Or set aside a room where you can close the door and be alone for a few hours.
Good communication with your partner can help you find a solution that suits you both. If you can’t find that solution on your own, “a marriage and family therapist or counselor can help you negotiate what each of you wants and needs,” Harper says.
How to Make Peace With Your New Reality
A little preparation can make retirement less of a shock. Talk to a mental health professional before you retire. “Make plans. Figure out if it’s right,” suggests Harper.
Once you’re in retirement, one way to restore your sense of purpose is to volunteer. Teach children to read, babysit for your grandkids, join the board at your place of worship, or help your favorite candidate run for office. People in retirement communities who volunteer say they’re more satisfied with their lives than those who don’t, research finds.
You might also try something new. Take up painting or stained glass. Cicalese signed up for a memoir writing course. Once you get into a routine of scheduled activities, you should start to adjust, says Harper. Staying active will also give you a chance to make new social connections.
When to Go Back to Work
Should you go back to work if you’re truly unhappy with your new retired reality? As Americans live longer, it’s something to consider. In fact, 1 in 6 retirees surveyed said they were considering a return to the workforce. “I think that’s certainly something a lot of people explore,” says Delamontagne.
If you do return to work, make sure the job has similar or higher prestige than the one you had before, says Harper. “You can’t go back to a lower job, so no Walmart greeter for a [former] physician,” she says. It can be a real ego bust to go from giving directions to taking them.
As you move into this new phase of life, be flexible, stay engaged, and realize that the retirement transition, like all other transitions in life, takes time. Have faith in your ability to adapt. “If you live long enough to retire, you’re a pretty resilient person,” says Harper.