“I’m Afraid to Retire.”

In the years that I have been writing and speaking about retirement lifestyles, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with and exchange emails with many people about their hopes and concerns as they anticipate their retirement. During one such exchange a few months ago, a reader told me, “I’m afraid to retire.”

I suspect this reader is not alone.

I recall another conversation with a man who said, “I’ve been looking forward to retiring for years. But when it came time to actually submit the paperwork to apply for retirement, I stood in front of the fax machine for ten minutes before I could bring myself to push the Send button.”

This surprised me. Are there really companies that are still using fax machines in the 21st century?

But joking aside, this man’s trepidation at actually pulling the trigger to set his retirement in motion is not surprising at all. Because no matter how well you have prepared for retirement and how eagerly you have been looking forward to it, making the actual commitment can be a scary step.

The most obvious fear is whether you have saved enough money. You might easily be concerned about whether your savings will be sufficient to last through economic downturns, unanticipated medical events, or the good fortune of living a very long life.

If you are approaching retirement age and your savings are short of what you can comfortably retire on, you will know it.

But if your savings are reasonably within the range of what most guidelines say should be adequate or better, then perhaps the fear of retiring isn’t really about whether you have saved enough money.

In this case, you probably don’t have a money problem. It’s more likely that you have some underlying fears about other aspects of retirement. It’s easy to disguise those fears by worrying about having enough money.

Write down your fears. What is the likelihood that they will actually happen? How much control do you have over them?

When you realize that something you fear is something you have some control over, that lessens the worry. Conversely, when you realize that there are some things you just can’t control, that will lift a burden off your shoulders too. There’s no sense in worrying about something you can’t control.

Let’s consider several things that might concern you as you contemplate retirement. I will suggest some ways you can manage each of these fears.

Loss of career identity / lack of purpose

If you fear that retirement will leave a loss of identity or professional status, you are probably wondering if you will still feel productive and useful to society. You are seeking an outlet for your creative thinking, entrepreneurial spirit, and all the expertise you have gained over the years.

This is completely understandable. And the good news is that there are plenty of ways you can still contribute to society after you retire. You can volunteer to mentor small business owners through a program such as SCORE. You can join the board or the staff of a non-profit organization. You can become a consultant. You can volunteer at a local school. You can write books or articles.

If you are still not sure what to do, ask yourself, what do people tell you you’re really good at? What do people ask you for help with? Maybe you can turn a passion into a part-time business. That will allow you to do something you love that also benefits others. It may also make you some extra money, but the main benefit will be fulfillment.

Katherine Graham, former owner of the Washington Post, once said, “To do what you love and feel it matters, how could anything be more fun?”

Fear of change / fear of the unknown

Retirement can be a stressful time because so many things in your life change at once. Your daily routine, the people you encounter, the amount of time you spend with your spouse, your budget – all of these things change. Change can cause stress, even when it is positive change.

Just recognizing and being aware that things will change will go a long way towards reducing the impact and the anxiety of change. Envisioning and planning for your new retirement lifestyle will reduce the uncertainty and help you adapt to your new routine more easily.

You have experienced significant change at previous points in your life, such as going to college, moving, getting married, changing jobs, and losing loved ones. It was disruptive for a while, but you learned to adapt and move on. You may feel adrift for a little while after you retire, but you will adapt and move forward soon enough.  

Fear of boredom

You may fear that retirement means doing nothing or having too much time on your hands. It doesn’t have to be that way at all.

When you are accustomed to having someplace to be five days a week, having responsibilities, and perhaps having people depend on you, it can be jarring to suddenly have that removed. For decades, much of your schedule and your priorities have been set for you. After retirement, it’s up to you to determine your schedule and your new priorities, not your boss.

I like to say that when you retire, you get a new job. That new job is called, “enjoying your life.”

The possibilities are endless! There are new things to learn, places to go, activities to engage in. If you need ideas, here are some suggestions.

What is a hobby or activity you once enjoyed but had to give up when the demands of a job got in the way?

Fear of losing your friends

It’s true that you will probably lose touch with most of your co-workers quickly, unless you are already in the habit of getting together with them outside of work. You might have to expend more effort to stay in touch with people and schedule times to get together, but the effort is worth it. Make it a point to call or write to people every so often. If they are local, initiate getting together occasionally.

Retirement can be a time of new beginnings and making new friends.

If you take classes, you will meet new people. Unless you live in a remote area, there are all sorts of clubs and organizations centered around common interests that you can look for and join. If you are musically inclined, find a chorus or band you can join. If you don’t find a group that appeals to you, start one!

Volunteering is a great way to meet new people.

Get out of the house! Find something to get involved in. Go exploring what’s in your town and surrounding area.

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This topic is explored in greater depth in my book Smooth Sailing Into Retirement. This book will guide you from your last few months of work through your first year of retirement. It identifies the many ways your life will change and prepares you for the emotions you may experience along the way. You will learn how to design your new day-to-day life in a way that will reflect your passions and interests. You will be inspired to create a new identity for yourself that embodies the way you plan to live in retirement and frees you from the limitations of your former job title.

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Avoiding retirement just so you can delay facing your fears is not the best strategy. You’ll lose years that you could have spent enjoying life on your terms.

Ken Dychtwald says surveys by his company, Age Wave, show initial discomfort about retirement lasts about 18 months and then “the level of happiness soars.”

Bronnie Ware, a nurse who spent several years caring for patients during the last few weeks of their lives, often asked her patients if they had any regrets or any things they wished they had done differently. She collected the responses she received and wrote a book titled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Number 2 on that list was “I wish I hadn’t worked so much.”

Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don’t have to live forever; you just have to live. - Natalie Babbitt

In November, 2019, I had the opportunity to present my workshop to a group of people in Forest City, Iowa. Some were already retired and some were within a few years of retirement. Of all the people I spoke with who had already retired, none regretted it.

The same holds true with almost everyone else I have talked to or corresponded with. Despite whatever fears people may have had, and despite the changes and adjustments people may have gone through, practically everyone is ultimately happy that they have retired.

Please feel free to comment below!

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© 2020 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.

Photo credits:
Pensive woman: Skeeze
Silhouette of man at window: mhouge
Forest service volunteers: USDA Forest Service Alaska. Some rights reserved.
Man on bench swing: Quinn Kampschroer
People at outdoor party: Michael Button. Some rights reserved.

4 Responses

  1. Once again an insightful post Dave!

    I suspect the greatest fear of retirement is “outliving your savings”. With longer life expectancy, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and overall increasing cost of living; it becomes a valid concern. Unfortunately, once we reach our retirement age, there’s not much we can do about our financial situations other than keep working. Having said that, it’s interesting that most of the people in your workshop had no regrets retiring. That philosophy supports that we can always make more money, but we can’t buy more time.

    • Dave Hughes says:

      Hi Shannon,

      Yes, I think outliving your savings is a concern for many of us. That makes it easy to rationalize delaying retirement for “one more year,” because during that year, you are earning money and not tapping into your retirement savings yet. Then next year, it’s “just one more year.” At some point, you have to take a leap of faith and pull the plug. Turning the corner from money coming in to money going out is a big mental adjustment to make.

      Usually, after people have adjusted to being retired, they come to terms with how much money they have left and structure their lives accordingly. And ultimately, how much you enjoy life isn’t directly related to how much money you have.

  2. Marilyn says:

    Many good points in this article! As the music field morphed into something unrecognizable over the past 20 years, my DH and I saw the end coming for our careers – but facing the reality of these changes was still challenging! I knew that gigging live was in the past when I’d begin to DREAD the gig as soon as I’d accepted it, so I sold my P.A. and other gear and now CAN’T accept any gigs that involve schlepping = one problem solved! One thing you don’t mention is how much having free time allows us to look back and process events and memories that still trouble us emotionally; I’ve found writing and posting my blog about my experiences to be cathartic AND creative at the same time – and hindsight can BECOME 20-20, after enough water has passed under the bridge!

    • Dave Hughes says:

      Hi Marilyn,

      You’re right – sometimes changes in your industry or at your job forces you into retirement, perhaps a little earlier than you might have preferred. And retirement gives you an opportunity to look back with a fresh perspective and perhaps write a memoir.


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