Leaving a full-time career isn’t as easy as it sounds. Once you retire, especially if it’s from a high–powered career, the phone literally stops ringing (or the emails and texts stop pinging, as one retired CEO described it). People don’t always realize how much of who they are is tied up with their work.
Even if you can continue working as a consultant or part time, leaving full-time work can be challenging.
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“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” says an attorney who retired from the federal government at 60, with the intention of setting up his own practice. Working on your own “has its issues,” he says, noting that the transition is different than if he had sought employment with a corporation or firm. “It’s more difficult. It’s an adjustment.”
“You’re home all the time. There weren’t any deadlines. If I’d left and gone to a company there would be different expectations,” he says at 67. “There is not a deadline for setting up a practice. It’s less stressful but harder to get motivated.”
Like others who retire with a pension or more than adequate resources, finances are not the issue. It’s: What am I going to do with my time? What will be meaningful? Who will I interact with on a daily basis?
Experts says five things can be lost or changed when you leave the workplace:
· daily social connections
Certainly, some people find the transition relatively smooth. For others, the path is bumpy and fraught with challenges of one sort of another. “People are afraid to go outside their comfort zones,” says Joe Casey, an executive coach in Princeton, N.J., who also became a retirement coach seven years ago. “They get stuck in a rut. They’re afraid. That ends up holding them back.”
This is particularly true for high achievers, although some high-level executives have the advantage of a glide path to serving on corporate or nonprofit boards because they are known in a particular field for their previous contributions.
For those who struggle with the transition, the challenge can be allowing yourself to be a beginner. If you decide to venture into a different type of work or even a hobby such as playing a musical instrument, a learning curve is part of it. “You have to be willing to be bad at first before you get good at something,” Casey says.
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For some, not having a detailed plan for what they intend to do when they leave their career job, the void can become a chasm.
“Some drift,” Casey says. “Everyday becomes Saturday. It ruins Saturday.”
The key to success is to plan ahead, to think about what you’d like to be doing when you no longer have a full-time career position. Many plan for financial security before and during their retirement years, but don’t give much thought to how they will spend their time.
While considering when to retire, he would brush the decision aside, saying to himself and his wife of more than 40 years, “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to think about it.” He did make step-by-step financial decisions.
“I started to plan for it all along in little increments. I was making those little changes all along, kind of not wanting it to happen.”
Yet, a confluence of events helped him make his decision to retire in May 2019. Faced with Social Security retirement benefits at 70, plus requirement minimum distributions (RMDs), and pensions from previous jobs, his tax bill would have been too steep. “It was a tax issue for me,” he says. “I was at a crossroads anyway.”
He and his wife had planned to return to the southwest city where they’d lived before moving to the Washington, D.C., area, but he misses going to an office, even with the commute. “That’s a big loss for me,” he says. “Working all the way to 72. I was not doing anything to ‘save the world’ anymore.”
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He would have preferred a phased retirement but it wasn’t available. He also had hoped to secure work with the U.S. Census Bureau, either on a project basis or part time, but it hasn’t materialized. So, he has signed up with flexjobs.com. In addition, he is studying for the project management professional certification exam, playing tennis at least once a week, and looking forward to taking more family trips in the future. During the pandemic, they’ve only taken one driving trip.
He’d like to visit more of the U.S. National Parks. “For me it would be ‘no’ to a cruise now.” Driving to some parks or taking a train trip is on his mind but they haven’t scheduled any trips yet. “There’s a lot to look forward to,” he says, when the world becomes safer.
The road to retirement is different for everyone.
“I loved my work. I was never going to stop,” says Andrea, now 71. But a family illness meant retiring at 55. She had a pension so finances weren’t a problem.
“The most important thing to me has been to have a purpose,” she says. For her, it has been pro bono work and volunteer work in her neighborhood. “That’s what you do in your free time,” she says. “You give back.” Divorced and living alone, she recommends making friends “because it’s extremely important as you age not to be isolated. If you didn’t have friends, you can still make friends now at this time in your life, if you look in the right places.” For Andrea, that has meant joining a social club, a neighborhood organization, and reaching out to neighbors.
Tips for a smooth landing:
Decompress. Give yourself a few months to 18 months to explore or repair relationships until you’re in “neutral gear,” says Andrew Robin, author of the book, Tapas Life: A Rich and Rewarding Life After Your Long Career. “Then, you can start adding things.” Do you want three things on your calendar a day or three activities a week? “It’s like an anchor,” he says. “It keeps you from being adrift.”
Inventory your interests. Consider things that intrigue you but you’ve never had time to pursue. Is it to learn a new language? Study a topic outside your career interest such as foreign affairs or science?
Start small. Rather than invest in the most expensive activity and equipment, for example, begin with a borrowed, rented or preowned bicycle. Have it checked for safety.
Take a course. Try a free course. Some are available at coursera.org or Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at various universities, which are offered for a limited time.
Stay active in professional organizations. It’s a way to remain connected to people in your field.
Join a board. This can be a way to connect with your immediate community and even make new friends. It creates purpose and adds structure to your life.
Alter your attitude. Choose to do something “just for fun,” Casey says. It’s not necessarily about a career change but enjoying yourself.
Harriet Edleson is author of the book, “12 Ways to Retire on Less: Planning an Affordable Future” (Rowman & Littlefield, May 2021). A former staff writer/editor/producer for AARP, she writes for The Washington Post Real Estate section.