As she was preparing to retire, Teresa Amabile wanted to understand how seniors make the transition from working life to retirement life. So, being a professor at the Harvard School of Business, Teresa decided to make learning how to retire from her job a part of her job.
Teresa and a team of colleagues from Harvard, Questrom School of Business, Bentley University, and MIT Sloan School of Management talked to 120 professionals across the U.S. about the mental and emotional experience of retiring. Their study has some fascinating insights about why retirement causes a crisis of identity for so many folks, as well as the stages that new retirees should be prepared to go through once they've started this major life transition.
1. What you do? Or who you are?
"My previous research discovered that people are happiest in their work on those days and those weeks and those months when they feel that they’re making progress in meaningful work," Teresa said on a recent episode of the Harvard Business Review IdeaCast podcast. "And I wondered: what happens when you’re leaving that meaningful work behind? And I see, among my family, my friends, my colleagues, some people who can’t seem to leave. They don’t want to make that transition."
One of the questions that Teresa and her colleagues asked interviewees was, "Would you be more likely to say that your work is what you do, or your work is who you are?" By the time we reach retirement age, even if we're not working our dream jobs, we've invested so much time and effort in our careers that our personal and professional identities are deeply intertwined. Teresa's study found that the deeper that connection, the more difficult it was for folks to leave their work behind.
I've certainly observed similar struggles among clients I've worked with over the years. As much as the weekly work grind can drive you crazy sometimes, there's a sense of accomplishment that comes with delivering an awesome presentation, helping clients, bringing a big project to completion. You also build up real camaraderie with the folks you're down there in the trenches with, the people you grab a coffee break with, the people you chat with about your kids and your favorite sports teams. Replacing these activities and connections in retirement doesn't just happen by itself.
2. Be an architect.
Now here's a funny thing about retirement ... Most retirees know this already!
In one way or another, folks have been thinking about and planning for retirement for a large part of their working lives. Many seniors also work with fiduciary advisors, read books and blogs, and listen to podcasts that all share the same message: you have to be purposeful about preparing for retirement.
So why is the actual transition itself still such a shock?
"I think it’s hard partly because a lot of our fantasizing has to do with finances," Teresa says. "I think people fantasize about, yes, certainly not having the pressure of work, not having the stress of work, but they also fantasize about not having to worry about money all the time. You’ve got your nest egg. And I don’t think people realize that, 'I’ve been doing something with most of my waking hours for decades and I’m going to have to do something else during all those hours.'"
Teresa and her colleagues found that the best way to fill those hours is to be your own retirement architect. They identified a four-step process that folks can use to replace the structure that work brought to your life with a new blueprint for retirement:
- Make the retirement decision. The key word: "decision." Folks who plan ahead are far more likely to retire on their own terms. Wait around for "the perfect time to retire" and that perfect time might never come, or you might have retirement forced upon you.
- Detach from work. Teresa says that for some of her subjects, letting go of work was as easy as "setting down a backpack." If you're anticipating more of a challenge, start small. After dinner, leave your cell phone on the charger and your laptop powered down. Stop sneaking peeks at work emails on the weekend.
- Manage the transition. Many seniors try to ease into retirement with a gradual reduction of work hours and responsibilities. Semiretirement can give you a chance to work on your "detaching" skills and start sketching in what a week without work is going to look like.
- Consolidate. This is where retirees pull it all together, stop working, and start living that ideal retirement. Some folks can consolidate in a matter of weeks. Others might spend months or even years tinkering with a schedule that will keep them active, happy, and fulfilled.
3. Build a bridge to your new self.
"What do you do with that big chunk of yourself after you retire?" Teresa asks. "We’ve discovered that many people engage in what we call 'identity bridging.' I simply mean to maintain or somehow enhance some important aspect of yourself that existed pre-retirement. Often, it’s bridging some aspect of that work identity. Often it’s enhancing or developing some non-work aspect of identity that you had."
For example, a retiring engineer might try to enhance her non-work identity as a problem solver and team manager by becoming a part-time consultant or a mentor to the next generation.
Maybe you worked as an accountant because of a deep love of math. You could follow that bridge to become a volunteer tutor.
Perhaps what you actually did in your big corporate job wasn't all that exciting. But you responded to how the company expanded. You enjoyed racking up those frequent flier miles, seeing new places, interacting with new people. Now that you're retiring, it could be time to take your spouse along for the ride.
Or maybe you just start devoting extra time to the things you only got to do on the weekends, whether that means cooking gourmet meals, shaving a few strokes off your handicap, or coaching your grandson’s little league team.
Very few retirees design the perfect blueprint the first time. But making adjustments and corrections is all part of the process that makes your retirement uniquely yours. And when you have a solid financial plan under your feet, you’ll feel free to build and rebuild that bridge until you’re ready to cross into your ideal retirement.
Bill Keen is a CHARTERED RETIREMENT PLANNING COUNSELOR℠ and independent financial advisor with more than 25 years of industry experience. As the founder and CEO of Keen Wealth Advisors, a registered investment advisory firm, he specializes in providing personalized retirement planning designed to help people thrive before and during their retirement years. With a passion for educating others, Bill regularly blogs about retirement planning, hosts the podcast Keen on Retirement, and has contributed to U.S. News and World Report, Reuters, Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, Yahoo Finance, and other publications. Based in Overland Park, Kansas, Bill and his team work with clients throughout the greater Kansas City area and across the nation. To learn more, connect with him on LinkedIn or visit www.keenwealthadvisors.com.
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