By Cass Grange, Senior Advisor Associate and Director of Business Development

Back in the old days, retirement wasn’t really a word, let alone an industry, or a lifestyle. You worked in agriculture and just gradually slowed down and then quit working and then you died. It sounds grim, but I like one idea from this.  It was usually GRADUAL.

Most often in modern America, the retirement process is abrupt. You work at least 40 hours a week and boom, you retire, or you are forced to quit, and then you are done working. Some of this is driven by pensions. The employer makes the rules and determines the retirement age, not you.  It can force you to have the countdown mentality. It is easy to think, “In five years, when I am 60, I can retire, and then I will start (fill in the blank:  having fun, traveling, enjoying myself, taking care of my health.)”

This is the all or nothing approach that is easy to explain in a memo but is too abrupt and simple for such a complex and ongoing lifestyle change. We find that our clients often know exactly what they are retiring from, but are very vague on what they are retiring to. It would be valuable to have you and your spouse write out how you envision a typical day in retirement. What are you doing? Who are you doing it with? What’s it likely to cost?

But, you don’t want to write down your day or make any plans because that is the beauty of retirement: free will. Free time and freedom. People love the freedom of retirement. After years of following the rules and structure of school, and then the rules and routines of work, we are all ready to throw off that mantle of structure and routine.

Yes, retirement is about the pursuit of pleasure: new experiences, relaxation and travel. I would argue that we all need some structure and routine also.  Structure and routine help us bring meaning to our days. If we set up a volunteer and a social schedule, we are making ourselves accountable to others and to ourselves.

Much of our identities are based on our work identities and the social structure of work. In my career, I have heard many people say that they didn’t realize how much they relied on the social contacts at work until after they retired and felt lonely. While still working, it is valuable to shore up and expand your social contacts. Sometimes my kids complain to me that they always must be the one to set up social events. I tell them that it doesn’t change as you get older. If you wait for people to invite you, you still be waiting forever. So reach out.

While pleasure in retirement is wonderful, on the hierarchy of needs, having a meaningful life is higher up on the list. Meaning comes from volunteering, working, creating and connecting. As humans, we are all hard wired to produce: to be; to do; to create.

Consider exploring meaningful volunteer work BEFORE you retire. Also, make room for hobbies. I know it is easy to say you will do that after you retire, when you have time, but I have observed that people who adjust to retirement smoothly have already begun to “practice retirement”. They take classes, or scale back at work, or take an extra long vacation to practice the leisure time they will have in the future.

On the other hand, I’ve had several clients tell me they can’t even meet to discuss retirement until they are done working. They are too busy working! No time off! “They need me at work!“ they say. I gently remind them that their coworkers will have to make it without them, after the big retirement party. I think reluctance to think about retirement points to how difficult retirement can be for all of us. It is a loss. It is a loss of identity and meaning.

Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson calls life after work Adulthood II. That term works for me! Recent studies suggest the happiest people are from ages 65 to 79. In Adulthood II we will hopefully not be as rushed as we were when raising children and working. We will have time to reflect and make proactive choices, not just react to each situation. With the time to reflect and respond we can structure our days to have meaning and joy-producing activities. How we define our days and our activities is as individual as we are.

So, I urge you to take time now to build, not only your financial wealth, but your social wealth and your personal wealth through your contacts with friends and family (See our recent article on the topic) Take time to pursue hobbies that engage your mind and your body. There is something about starting these hobbies and interests now, that takes the pressure off later. You will have a clearer idea of what you want to retire to, if you take the time to practice now.