The hidden crisis of retirement: psychology at the end of work

Let’s talk about work and retirement. The two go together; usually in that order.

09 May 2018

Let’s talk about work and retirement. The two go together; usually in that order.

How often have you asked people in their 60s about their retirement and heard them make statements like this:

  • “I am having fun at work”
  • “I don’t know what I’d do in retirement or where to start”
  • “Work stimulates my brain”
  • “I like to socialise with people at work”
  • “I’m not ready to retire yet so I don’t really think about it, I will think about retirement when the time comes”


This is the language that our society finds acceptable when talking about retirement, before it happens. But with this language we always stay at the surface, never thinking about how in fact each individual will experience retirement in their own unique way.

Then retirement happens. Most people have worked for around 40 years before they leave the workforce. When they talk about work they use the type of language mentioned above. It helps them to clarify the purpose and meaning of their lives.

Now suppose retirement comes as a shock: finding oneself at home with no workplace to attend, no incoming phone calls or emails, no busy and hectic schedule for the week; and no-one to talk to! This could be the sudden shock that some people (not all people) will face after a life-time of work. There can be quite a strong emotional disruption that occurs in this move to retirement.

So there we have it: work and retirement; apparently quite different, but then again they have something important in common which I call structure. Generally speaking, work imposes structure ON the employee but, by contrast, in retirement structure can be imposed BY the person. Now not everyone yearns for the planned life in retirement and that’s fine. But I think (it’s only a surmise made from a small sample) that most people will want to be able to explain to themselves and others what they do with their lives.

And so if we think about the people who want to plan their retirement, and none of this article is about financial planning, then the question arises: how do you exactly go about doing that?

Let’s take a short break so I can tell you a fable. It’s about two women, Samantha and Lucinda we will call them, both very keen to get fit as a balance to their sedentary lifestyles.

Samantha is motivated and for the last week has woken before 6am and gone for a run. Lucinda is less motivated so has hired a personal trainer whom she meets at the local park also at 6am. They pass each other every morning on the street, but they don’t know each other, yet.

Then the weather turns cold.

Suddenly Samantha has trouble getting out of bed. All the usual excuses of “tomorrowness” flood into her brain: one lost day won’t matter, tomorrow will be warmer etc. etc. Back under the bedcovers!

Lucinda on the other hand is well-motivated to continue. She has incurred the sunk cost of paying her trainer for 3 months of work, she also has to face the excuse and shame factor if she doesn’t show up. And besides this, her trainer has exceeded expectations and really helped her to get fit. Later that month they met each other at a party by chance and compared notes. Now Samantha uses the same personal trainer as Lucinda.

Now to return to the topic of retirement. If it’s structure in retirement that you want-and I said earlier that it will not be to everyone’s liking- then how do you build it?

It could make sense to have a retirement coach to help and motivate you in this task.

Feel free to contact me to discuss.

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