Adjusting to retirement after a lifetime of work can be a challenge. Lee Rodwell considers the psychology of retirement.
What do you say when someone you don’t know asks the inevitable question: ‘And what do you do?’ Perhaps you cheerfully reply, ‘Whatever I like – I’m retired!’ Or perhaps you inwardly groan and try to dodge the question.
According to Dr Derek Milne, around 30% of us struggle to adjust to the idea of retirement. As associate clinical lecturer at Newcastle University and author of The Psychology of Retirement, he is in a position to know why.
He explains: “Saying 'I am retired' can seem like saying ‘I'm in a scary new place and I'm struggling'.”
Is your job your identity?
But why should any of us feel this way? Although our lives are marked by a number of significant transitions – such as leaving home, becoming parents, or changing jobs – experts say that the transition from working life to retirement is a particularly challenging one.
For a start, in giving up work you lose both structure and status. Being in employment gives you a pattern for your daily life, tasks you have to do within a certain time, people you have to talk to, places you have to be.
More than this, having a job means having an identity. Whether you are an administrator in a small business or a director of a global company, that identity feeds your self-esteem.
Telling someone your job title communicates that you contribute to society. So all too often, as Brian, a former carpenter, observes: “If you say you are retired, the conversation grinds to a halt – especially if you’re talking to younger people.
“Being retired still has negative connotations – like being called an old age pensioner. That’s what they think- that you’re old, poor, and not doing anything useful any more.”
Theresa, who had a senior position in one of Britain’s top accountancy firms agrees. She says: “One minute you are a respected member of staff in an organisation, and the next you are regarded as useless!”
Is doing nothing an option?
Professor Cary Cooper, president of relationship counselling service Relate, acknowledges that people often find it difficult to admit they are retired. He says: “For many, retirement signifies 'the autumn of their years', with all the health and other implications of that.
One minute you’re a respected member of staff, the next you’re regarded as useless
“For others, it means they no longer have a role or the status that work gave them. They feel they are no longer valued and struggle to cope with the loss of respect.”
Indeed as one man, aged 67, confessed during the Economic & Social Research Council’s research programme ‘Growing Older’: “I had a leading position… I don’t even have a dog to command now! So now it’s the wife that commands me, because she is still working, but that’s ok.
“But it is very clearly quite a big transition from being in work to making cleaning the house one’s biggest task in life!”
Yet there are ways to manage this transition – and most experts agree that it is best go into retirement with a plan.
Doing nothing – or doing nothing but housework – won’t cut it for long, even if it seems enjoyable to begin with.
How to keep happy and fulfilled
In order to feel happy and fulfilled, most people need to be involved in purposeful and meaningful activity. And research shows that those who adjust best to retirement are those who get involved in community organisations and activities.
Having a plan will give you something to say other than ‘I’m retired’. Instead you will be able to say ‘I’m studying Spanish’, ‘I’m a gardener’, or ‘I write a travel blog’.
Make the most of the opportunity you have to decide for yourself what you are going to do with your time.
Organisations like University of the Third Age (U3A) offer courses (but no exams or grades – it’s learning for the sheer love of it) that will keep your brain on its toes – and get you meeting new people.
Barbara Lewis, former national chair of U3A, says: “When I retired, I sat on the sofa for a year catching up with my reading. Gradually, I thought: ‘What do I do next?’ I heard about the University of the Third Age and I jumped at it – and the experience changed my life.”
Real life: “I haven’t given up work - it’s more that work has given up on me.”
“When people ask me whether I’m retired, I usually answer with a joke: ‘I’m semi-detached and semi-retired,’” says Michael Crozier.
“For me, being retired implies that you’ve passed the stage when you can do any useful productive work. For many people it also signals that you are old and possibly, therefore, a burden on those around you.”
Michael is a freelance design consultant. During his working life, he was associate design editor of the Independent newspaper, won awards for his pioneering and innovative use of graphics and design, and helped redesign more than 50 publications across the world.
But, he says, “I haven’t given up work on purpose. It’s more that work has given up on me. If I have the chance to do some paid work to supplement my pension, then I will take it. Apart from anything else, it seems a waste not to be able to use the acquired experience and knowledge of 50 years.”
“Unfortunately many of my former contacts in the business have moved on. Their replacements are often young and don’t know me so I have to prove myself all over again. That’s if I get past the first hurdle – my age. I’m 68.
“Prospective employers expect me to be retired at my age and seem surprised that I would want to work.”
Michael says he sometimes feels guilty about watching football on tv when he could be “working or trying to find work”.
“I’m much luckier than some retirees as I have four children and six grand-children who take up some of my time and bring me a lot of joy. They don’t seem to worry about whether I’m working or not – just that I’m there for them if need be.
“So perhaps instead of calling myself retired, I should use the Spanish word instead – jubilado!”
This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.