Retirement is a fuzzy line these days. It seems increasingly rare for older people to cross the threshold from career worker to retiree on a single day and remain retired indefinitely.
My Dad did that. So did a few of my extended family members and former coworkers.
But when I ask retirement-aged people about their stop-working plan, they answer like this:
“Well, maybe next year if the market doesn’t crash.”
“After this project, we’ll see what happens.”
“I might come back part-time.”
“My spouse wants me to keep working. I don’t.”
“I’ll get bored in retirement. I need something to keep me on my toes.”
“Yeah, I could sell my business. But I’m in a comfortable situation right now. Maybe when I’m 75.”
“I regret selling my business (at age 76). Now I don’t have anything to do.”
“I’ll keep working for as long as my body allows.”
If you love what you do professionally, why stop based on some arbitrary age or number? Why retire at the top of your game if you’re healthy and want to continue?
But many of us don’t love our careers and stay anyway.
Several factors can influence the decision to stay — ongoing expenses, status, lifestyle, family needs, professional connections, or having nothing else to do.
We need a plan and motivation beyond disliking our careers to build the confidence to live our best lives.
Just this week, I came across two articles about retirement and rejecting retirement.
Michael Amoroso wrote an eye-opening piece for the HumbleDollar about the three stages of retirement — the honeymoon, the letdown, and the redefinition. He should know; he retired 26 years ago.
Unless you develop a solid plan for how to enjoy your newly available time, life after retirement can be filled with bouts of boredom, anxiety, and even depression.
Amoroso says redefinition is about building a new identity, developing new habits, and being active. Redefinition is the most challenging part of retiring from a lifelong career.
Our happiness after retirement hinges on our pursuits. And the more pursuits we have, and the more diverse they are, the happier we’ll be. The worst part of retirement is losing our identity. The best part is finding a new one.
It’s the letdown phase that can lead to unretirement — going back to work after retiring.
The unretirement phenomenon has always perplexed me because my retirement bucket list is already vast.
But only some have developed that clarity before they retire. That may be okay.
Marc Fisher from The Washington Post wrote that older Americans are dominating like never before.
The story highlighted a palliative care physician who unretired at 70 because she had too much free time and felt the “most competent and proficient that I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Fisher points to several “geriatric elites” thriving in politics and business. Octogenarian Hollywood royalty still attracts large audiences.
When older workers maintain enjoyment, fulfillment, a manageable workload, and professional aptitude, staying actively employed makes sense.
But if you don’t enjoy your profession or can no longer tolerate the workload, define and prioritize what’s essential and prepare to eliminate what is not.
I defined what I thought would be my retirement purpose at age 27. Seems silly looking back.
Solo backpacking was my passion in my 20s, so I assumed it would be again after a long career and raising a family.
But so much has happened in the last 20 years.
I’m a husband, Dad of three, son to aging parents, neighbor, community volunteer, avid swimmer, family traveler, and professional blogger.
The relationships and activities I’ve prioritized over the past two decades are my purpose today.
I avoid the phrase retirement purpose because I’m not retired.
Our post-career purpose is the diverse collection of relationships and activities that keep us happy to be alive.
That can include more paid work. But it cannot include a career we’ve outgrown.
My IT career was never important to me. It was a job that paid well but never a calling or passion.
I spent a disproportionate amount of time on it, often ten or more hours daily. Worse, the work consumed my premium brain power, leaving my second-best for everything else.
I miss parts of that career — the daily human interactions, steady income, office culture, and a company that had my back.
But I left to live my ideal life full of what I care about most. Decades of saving, investing, and building a side business made it possible.
Remove the unimportant to prioritize the essential.
Deriving Purpose from Work
Undoubtedly, some of us can work hard for a paycheck from college graduation until retirement.
We all share the basic human satisfaction of getting paid for a hard day’s work.
Our feelings toward our careers reside somewhere on a spectrum from despicable to loveable. In the middle is a big area called tolerable.
Most people I know fall in the tolerable zone. I was there for many years.
When I started my first IT consulting job, I didn’t think I could find a career where purpose and prosperity could coexist.
Work was the place to make money. Life’s pleasures, enjoyment, and fulfillment were outside of work.
So, I followed the money for over a decade instead of digging deeper for something more meaningful.
My interests and need for a creative outlet led me to start a blog. I realized it could be another path forward when I started earning money — around 2015.
Discovering a job, profession, or business that makes us excited to wake up and work every morning is an incredible feeling that I suspect many never find.
We can use our less-than-perfect careers to build wealth, but not happiness. Seek purpose from your relationships and what you’ve already prioritized outside of work.
If you desire to continue earning beyond your career, look for opportunities where your interests, relationships, and capabilities overlap.
A second act should be fun and fulfilling. Retirement — or whatever is next — is not just about leaving a job; it’s about finding a new identity and embracing diverse pursuits that make you happy to be alive.
Photo by Sean Robertson on Unsplash
Craig is a former IT professional who left his 20-year career to be a full-time finance writer. A DIY investor since 1995, he started Retire Before Dad in 2013 as a creative outlet to share his investment portfolios. Craig studied Finance at Michigan State University and lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and three children. Read more.
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