Ask people about their retirement planning, and they are likely to tick off their financial investments. That's all well and good, but it ignores another crucial aspect of retirement planning: figuring out how they will spend their time.
Many Americans will live from one-quarter to one-third of their lives after age 65. In my observation, most people -- especially those who have been busy earlier in life -- make the transition to a fulfilling retirement if, and only if, they stay busy. I can't find anyone in their 60s and 70s who says it's fun to spend their days watching TV, sitting on a park bench, sleeping late, or even just reading.
Start Planning Now
Lots of people in midlife -- especially those whose lives center on their work -- avoid thinking about retirement because they just can't picture what they'll do. As one midlevel manager told me, " Once they take away my employee ID number, I'm not sure what I'll do or how I'll define myself."
Why worry about retirement activities now, when retirement is years, or even decades, away? Because, put bluntly, people who count on developing new interests and involvements after 65 often don't. Fred Astaire had it about right when he said, " Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you've got to start young." Just as a passive approach to financial planning usually means a meager bank balance, failure to look ahead at what you will do when you retire may mean a bored, depressed old age.
What will you do when you retire? Take a few minutes to write down the things you expect to be actively involved in. Don't count solo activities such as reading, watching TV, or jogging. While fine in themselves, they are not likely to keep you energized and interested for long. Be as specific as you can. For example, if you plan to participate in charitable activities aimed at helping educate third world children, whom will you work with and what will you do?
In my experience, too many people list things like travel, adult education courses, and golf and then get stuck. Sorry, but participating in a couple of activities won't be enough to keep you interested in life and interesting to others. Ideally, to avoid boredom -- and even more important, to avoid boring others -- you will want to participate in a number of interests and activities.
If you're having trouble thinking what these will be, don't panic. But you do need to do some more thinking and investigating about what your life may be like after retirement. Here are some possibilities:
Many people who enjoy the bustle and creativity of the workplace find that working at least part-time after retirement age offers the best opportunity to stay busily involved in life. And, of course, working a few extra years can go a long way toward helping solve money problems. As of 1990, paychecks were the second largest source of income, after Social Security, for Americans between 65 and 74, according to the Department of Labor.
But will work be available? Despite laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of age, it isn't always easy for an older person to find a part-time job that is both interesting and moderately well paying. This is likely to be doubly true for baby boomers, who will be retiring in unprecedented numbers and competing for work.
Certainly if you hope to establish a new career -- or even find a part-time job more challenging than flipping burgers or taking tickets at an amusement park -- it's a good idea to think, well in advance, about how you are going to make it happen. And if you come up with what sounds like a sensible plan, do all you can to test whether it's really likely to work. Just because you think you would enjoy teaching, working in a plant nursery, or caring for small children doesn't mean anyone will hire you to do it, or if they do, that you will find it satisfying.
Anyone who wants to turn a hobby -- for example, designing gardens -- into a business needs to do lots of homework. Many years spent learning about plants and how to create lovely landscapes won't be enough.
To run a successful landscape business, a gardener also needs to know, among other things, how to market her services, buy wholesale, hire help for heavy digging and lifting, bill for services, and collect accounts. Learning those skills may mean cutting back current work and, as a result, forgoing short-term income.
An active, maybe even passionate, involvement in good causes can be hugely positive for anyone. For older people, especially those who already have enough income, volunteering can be particularly satisfying for several reasons, including these:
- A chance to do interesting work. In the private sector, companies are busy trying to make money. Nothing wrong with that, except it means their employees must stick with the program, which is unlikely to involve all sorts of fascinating endeavors. For example, not many corporations work to preserve a forest, record oral histories of elderly immigrants, or teach children to read. But nonprofit organizations are active in all these -- and hundreds of other -- fascinating areas.
- A way to add meaning to life. In addition, knowing that you are doing good and necessary work can give your life far more meaning than it might otherwise have. Working to improve the quality of life helps some people cope with the inevitability of their own death.
- A way to pay one's karmic debts. Working with nonprofits gives people the chance to indirectly repay those whose efforts have smoothed their own way. Whether it be a grandparent, teacher, or older friend, we all know and cherish the memories of people who helped or enriched our own lives or paved our way. Helping others gives many older people the feeling that they are passing on the love and support once given them.
- An opportunity to meet interesting people. Regular workplaces are great places to make friends, too, but nonprofit groups tend to attract like-minded people -- people interested in adult literacy or bilingual education or reptiles. Finding people you can truly bond with may be easier.
Planning ahead can be key to succeeding as a volunteer. At first you may think this is silly -- after all, you're not asking to be paid, only to help out. Think again. Increasingly, bigger nonprofits rely on paid staff to accomplish many day-to-day tasks, using only a small group of knowledgeable volunteers to staff the board of directors and advisory committees. People who know the field and have up-to-date skills are in great demand, but those who have little to offer beyond a desire to help may have a hard time finding satisfying work.
But couldn't you always begin with a simple task, such as answering the phone, until you figure out a more exciting way to get involved? Don't be so sure. Rapid technological change is squeezing out unskilled tasks in the nonprofit sector only slightly more slowly than in corporate America. For example, with the recent marriage of phones and computers, even taking or forwarding a message can be a daunting task.
The lesson is the same as it is in the profit-making sector: explore your hoped-for nonprofit career well before you retire and actually need it.
For example, one friend, Joan, had planned for years to help out with a marine animal rescue project. She retired early to begin, but was hugely disappointed to discover that being around cold saltwater made her arthritis flare up so badly that she couldn't continue. And for various reasons, her volunteer efforts with several other wildlife organizations didn't work out. Joan finally found a good match at the animal lab at a children's science museum -- and feels lucky things worked out so well.
For lots of people, retirement is a chance to finally be able to do things they have put off all their lives. If this describes you, I have an important question to ask: Outside your work and family, where do you now spend a significant amount of time that you find really interesting?
If, like many people, your answer is that you haven't had time to develop your interests but will do it after you retire, please pay attention. You are at high risk of having a difficult -- perhaps even miserable -- retirement. Few people who have not cultivated authentic interests during their middle years are able to do so after age 65. Many of them end up bored and disappointed.
How long has it been since you've had a genuine new interest or dabbled in an old one? Warning flags should be flying if you are in your 40s or 50s and do not participate in several interesting activities. Put another way, if you do little more than fantasize about what you might do if you had more time or energy after retirement, your fantasies may turn out to be just that.
And keep in mind that hobbies probably won't occupy all your time. Even the most avid fisherman, gardener, traveler, or dog lover is likely to find plenty of time for these activities and many other things as well. After all, will you really want to fill every minute with golf or mah-jongg?
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