Once upon a time, retirement was something to look forward to, when people who may have worked all their lives finally have permission to do what they want to do, be what they want to be, entitled to the pension and exploring all those previously shelved hobbies and interests.
We are far from those days. We know that some, especially men, can struggle with retirement. Mental health outcomes for the retired are mixed, with some experiencing a need for significant post retirement adjustments. If you have had no fixed plan and no hobbies or activities in place, then it can feel like falling off a cliff into an abyss. Friends and family will say “are you having a great time?” or “wish that were me!”, when the retiree themselves could really be struggling without a sense of purpose or shape to each day.
Indeed, as a society we are still in transition in our attitudes to work for older Australians. On the one hand there is debate about older people leaving room for the young in the workforce; on the other, valuing the experience that being senior in one’s career can bring. Some want to keep working post the pension or superannuation accessing age of 65, and the numbers are increasing – 17% of men and 10% of women do so.
Retirement is most successful and pleasurable when there is a choice about it, when you have had time to prepare financially and socially, you have a plan in place, good relationships to fall back on, and often a phased approach to the final working days.
Fast forward to COVID 2020. We are approaching double digit unemployment figures for the first time in many years, and amongst those are particular cohorts with unique challenges. For the young, there is the prolonged difficulty in getting their first job and getting launched into independence. For those at the other end of their working life who have lost their jobs, or their jobs are on-hold, then there are real fears and real facts about forced retirement. Emerging from a year of not working when you are 65+ really might mean an increased chance of never working again. When the economy rights itself, ageism will have to be re tackled in a context of employers being potentially spoilt for choice. Understandably, some are very fearful their work life is over, and they are unprepared both emotionally and financially. The picture of how those later years might play out has been hijacked, and that important positive gateway to successful retirement – choice – has been taken away.
It is very hard to enjoy the filling-in-time COVID activities underway, such as cleaning out the garage, extra time babysitting, finishing old projects, when there is no end in sight. The worries about “what if this is it?” can start to intrude. It may not be a break; this might be the reality of life ahead from now on.
Some might start to say things like “well it’s time you retired anyway” or “lucky you, you get an early mark, go and enjoy yourself!” This is well meaning but may be far from what you feel inside. In a society driven by one’s identity and value being tied up in economic participation, there is a process of redefining life’s meaning and purpose, and one’s own value. Resentment and grief might need to be processed before these bigger questions can be addressed; others’ platitudes about the silver lining of job loss isn’t going to help with that.
What might you do to process the fears?
- Stay with your own feelings. You can respond to others: “I hope to be more reconciled in time, but right now it’s hard.” Those around you need to know how to respect your experience.
- Plan in manageable blocks. Work with If you are stood down, then that is the time horizon to work with initially. Start to do some thinking and talking about the “what ifs”, but in a planned, well-supported and cautious way. Otherwise, you may make assumptions that don’t play out.
- Bring back your choices. Use the activities as a try-test-learn experience. If you are currently doing home jobs, ask yourself, “is this what I would want to do/enjoy during retirement?” Think about what is useful and meaningful for you to do, and experiment.
- Fact check. Check in with your employer and the market. Are you reading the signs in the right way? Are fears and ruminations getting the better of you?
- Dust off your dreams. What was your vision for when you (eventually) retired? Do some scenario planning and let the future take some shape. As soon as you have more of a plan, you can start to feel back in control.
Retirement is a key life milestone and means many different things to different people. It is not one size fits all, and it’s normal to have mixed feelings about it. It can also be a challenging time for relationships, as you might have different views on how to spend time, whether more together or more involved in separate interests. It may be that relationship issues were put on hold while you were busy working and often out of the house and apart, and they suddenly seem to loom very large. It may also be that you have insufficient support at this time and feel very alone. Getting some assistance to navigate your way through could be important.
Call Relationships Australia NSW on 1300 364 277 for assistance.
Elisabeth Shaw, CEO and clinical psychologist, Relationships Australia NSW