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Couple walking their dog outside on a fall day as they talk about their plans for retirement.

January 16, 2019

Is Your Psychological Portfolio Ready for Your Transition to Retirement?

Planning for a financially sound retirement is vital. But it's only part of the necessary preparation for the rest of your life, especially if you don't want to wake up on that first day wondering, "Now what?"

Deciding how to spend your new-found free time — whether pursuing passions, starting a new career or devoting yourself to community service — and realizing that your self-image and relationships may change after retirement are important steps in making sure you're retirement-ready.

"A lot of people plan, especially for the financial. Not as many plan for the psychological, and there's a reason for that," said Nancy K. Schlossberg, University of Maryland professor emerita in counseling psychology and author of, "Too Young To Be Old: Love, Learn, Work, And Play As You Age."

"If you're heavily involved in your work, you don't want to think ahead. You're doing what you're doing and a lot of people are afraid of thinking about the future, so there's a push-back on it," said Schlossberg, who writes and speaks on life transitions and holds a doctoral degree in sociology and counseling.

Louis H. Primavera, dean of Touro College's School of Health Sciences and co-author of, "The Retirement Maze: What You Should Know Before and After You Retire," agreed that few people fully consider the social, emotional and family issues they'll face in retirement.

“If you plan to retire, you need to think about the different aspects of your life that are going to need adjustment and change, and you need to be flexible and willing not to be rigid in your plans, which is really what you need to do in life," said Primavera, who at 75 said he has no immediate plans to retire.

The Psychological Side of Making the Transition to Retirement

Retirement wasn't a major issue half a century ago, when many people retired around age 65 and didn't live much beyond that, noted Primavera, who holds a Ph.D. in neuropsychology.

"That's changed dramatically," he said.

With longer life spans and, for some, early workforce exits, retirement represents an entirely new life phase. “It's possible for people to live as long in retirement as they did in their work," he said.

Many retirees find their new lifestyle a difficult adjustment — and even some who start out feeling happy develop feelings of uneasiness over "a lack of something meaningful to do," according to Primavera's book, which is based on a survey of nearly 1,500 retirees and 400 working people of similar ages and backgrounds.

While 44 percent described themselves as "completely adjusted to their new lifestyles," about 25 percent reported they were having a very difficult time and nearly a third were in "limbo," with no major problems acclimating to retirement but not entirely comfortable with it either.

Those unsatisfied with their leisure pursuits can pursue what Primavera and his coauthors call "bridge jobs," and indeed, more than 40 percent of newer, younger retirees remain employed in some capacity, they write.

Having a new daily structure, or lack of one, may leave retirees searching for what to do and what provides meaning and happiness, especially if the pastimes they expected to enjoy aren't that satisfying after all.

People need to plan for how they will stay involved in their communities, according to Paris Silva, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist who focuses on older adult issues in her Pasadena, Ca. practice.

"People want to feel satisfied and fulfilled, and not obsolete or irrelevant," said Silva, who noted that some retirees are returning to school since many colleges are offering lifelong learning classes to support their hobbies and other interests. "It can be about reinventing themselves and finding and maintaining meaning in their lives."

Retirees may notice that some workplace friendships fade and that marital dynamics change as they find themselves suddenly spending more time with their spouses. And those filling their calendars with travel, volunteering, classes or hobbies might face pressure from adult children or other family members who expected them to provide child care or other caregiver responsibilities.

Schlossberg, 89, who had worked while raising children and was used to her independence, remembers being shocked when she first retired from academia. “I'm retired, my husband starts saying, 'Where are you going? When are you going to be back?' I couldn't stand it," she said. “That took a little bit of adjustment."

Preparing Your Psychological Portfolio for Retirement

Schlossberg suggests that people preparing for retirement consider their "psychological portfolio," just as they plan financially.

“Your psychological portfolio consists of your identity, your relationships and your purpose, and those are the three things that are at stake when you retire," she said.

It's easy during working years to define yourself by job title, but identity can become a challenge in retirement. “Many people are tentative because they simply don't know who they are separate from their careers," she said.

"What's on your card?" said Schlossberg, whose own business card has evolved since she left the University of Maryland two decades ago. "It's a reflection of sort of figuring out who you are."

A sense of purpose is closely tied to identity, she added, noting that as members of the workforce, people know what they're getting up to do. After retiring, they need to figure out their purpose, she said.

Retirees also may need to develop new friendships to replace the daily connections they enjoyed with workplace colleagues. "As one man said, 'I don't miss my work, I miss schmoozing,'" said Schlossberg, who suggests people look to other groups and activities to find new social connections.

It's also helpful to explore the different paths people take at retirement, she said. Schlossberg has defined six different retirement paths (although people can take more than one at once):

  • "Continuers" keep doing what they did in the workforce in some modified way. "I was a continuer up to this year," said Schlossberg, who kept writing and speaking about transitions after she stopped teaching. Planning to fly cross-country to lead a workshop as of fall 2018, she nonetheless was tentatively considering a new path. “I think I'm really going to retire. I'm not going to write another book, I think."
  • "Searchers" seek out advice from others — life coaches, career counselors, friends — to figure out what to do next.
  • "Easy gliders" have no agenda for retirement. "They're very lucky, actually," said Schlossberg. "They get up in the morning and whatever happens is just fine. They're relaxed about it. I can't imagine. There are a lot of people like that."
  • "Involved spectators" remain involved in their professional worlds — art or politics, as examples — on an unpaid basis. “When I talked about this," said Schlossberg, "one woman said, 'Now I know what to do on my card.'"
  • "Adventurers" try something entirely new in life. This doesn't necessarily mean exotic travel, Schlossberg explained. She cited one man who decided to become a massage therapist after funding cuts forced him into early retirement from a professional, suit-and-tie career.
  • "Retreaters" withdraw, either in positive or negative ways. Some don't know what to do with themselves, become couch potatoes and grow depressed, said Schlossberg. Others retreat temporarily to figure out what to do next, whether they will become continuers, adventurers or take another path.

It's really never too soon for people to start planning for what they will do in retirement and how they will afford to maintain their lifestyle. A financial planner can help people determine how they will manage their living expenses and budget for activities in order to minimize feelings of boredom or loneliness in retirement, Silva noted.

“I think that financial planners are in a good position to say, 'Maybe you should talk to somebody about the psychological aspect of retirement,'" said Schlossberg.

As for her own plans? "I don't know what my next card will be, because you are constantly evolving." she said. "Clearly I'm going to be a searcher this year. I'll still be a continuer, but I'm a searcher. I'm 89 years old. I'm in the old-old demographic but I still have a life and I have to figure out what to do."

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This article is for general information and education only. It is provided as a courtesy to the clients and friends of City National Bank (City National). City National does not warrant that it is accurate or complete. Opinions expressed and estimates or projections given are those of the authors or persons quoted as of the date of the article with no obligation to update or notify of inaccuracy or change. This article may not be reproduced, distributed or further published by any person without the written consent of City National. Please cite source when quoting.