Life Transitions Series: Retirement
My father-in-law is retiring at the end of this month. He has been planning for this day for quite some time, but especially over the last couple of years. The exact date has moved a few times as he was not quite ready to quit working for a variety of reasons. Now he is as ready as he is going to be. Retirement is a big milestone!!! And yet, it is a milestone he’s adamant is not worth celebrating.
Expectations of Retirement
For many people who are approaching retirement age, the idea of retirement is fraught with many emotions, worries, and anticipation. In America, the average age of retirement is 64, with the average range between 61 to 67 years of age. Retirement brings up images of bon voyage parties, RV’s, cruises, crossword puzzles, and plenty of relaxation time. We hear of older adults moving to Florida or Arizona where the climate is better for aching bones and health conditions. At the same time, we see images of poor seniors taking jobs at Walmart as cashiers and door greeters or other minimum wage jobs simply to make ends meet because their social security benefits are not enough.
What retirement looks like is dependent on an individual’s financial, social, physical, and emotional situation.
But the word itself elicits statements like “this is the beginning of the end,” “What will I do with myself,” “What do I have to offer,” “I am no longer needed,” “Might as well put me out to pasture,” and similar existentially-oriented phrasing. Working often gives people a sense of purpose and structure. My father-in-law is no exception. He is excellent at what he does and did more than his share in contributing to the success of his company. His career allowed him to provide for his family well. It allowed him to raise and educate two wonderful sons and establish a solid financial foundation for himself and his wife. Seems like something to celebrate, right? Not so fast. My FIL asks … So now what? He is not alone.
A Nuanced Process
Retirement is not a binary process. It is not as simple as working and not working. The process of retirement begins long before the actual date and continues for an extended time after the last day of employment. Many retirees can be surprised by the adjustment. They may feel a crisis of identity. The fact of going to work was a source of identity, a key to social legitimacy. Without that sense of identity, retirees can feel lost and uncertain of themselves.
Culture Influences Our View of Retirement
The source of social legitimacy is not only sought in identity but also in industry and generativity. These terms refer to the activity of working, using skills to produce something of use to others, as well as helping raise children and/or contributing to the well-being of a community. Yet, as older adults begin to reach retirement age, it is not uncommon for them to feel invisible at work, or to be asked outright to consider retiring because an employer wants to bring in younger workers. Unfortunately, older adults are treated as if they no longer have anything to contribute to the workforce or in their communities. Being treated as less valuable than others is an additional factor that makes the transition – from one identity to another – a difficult experience for many retirees. How Americans conceptualize aging is quite different than in other places in the world. In some cultures, older adults are treated with respect and a source of wisdom and guidance for younger generations; they are encouraged to work as long as they want. Sounds amazing!
Finding Meaning in Retirement
The truth is older adults have much to offer to society, communities, and families. While they may be entering the last quarter or so of their lifespan, retirement does not have to be an ending. It is the beginning of a new season with the right mindset and support. As with many transitions, this season, too, begins with deep questions: “Who do I want to be?” “What do I want to do with my time?” “What do I have to offer?” The season of retirement can be filled with industry and generativity. In other endeavors and spaces, this life transition allows the individual to pursue interests once put to the side. These interests may include nurturing relationships with family and friends, or, perhaps, engaging with one’s communities. Whatever the challenge is, retirement is an opportunity to find that which provides meaning and facilitates feelings of competence.
For my FIL, I promise to regularly ask your son, “Should we call your dad to figure this out”? And, no one will put you out to pasture unless you want to mow ours.
To discuss retirement or other life transitions, schedule an appointment with Dr. Jennifer Fast today!