10,000 Baby Boomers retire each day in the US: Four secrets to avoiding retirement funk

When and how to retire

When thinking about successful retirement, most research deals with financial issues and ignores the personal and social aspects of retirement. Financial resources are necessary but not sufficient for a successful retirement, which can last over 20 years.

The biggest factor that determines a successful post-career is whether people have a sense of control over their circumstances. Forced retirement is the leading predictor of unhappiness once all is said and done.

Research literature shows that for most retirees, life in retirement is better or the same as when working. Like many things, it can start with a honeymoon phase, then be followed by a steep decline in happiness and stabilize to at least the same level of joy as when working. Depending on surveys, up to 25 percent of retirees continue to experience difficulty adjusting.

Even if you find yourself forced out of work, the following four steps can help you make your retirement a success.

1. Plan to increase success

Planning, goal-directedness, and taking steps to implement some projects and involvements before retiring increase the likelihood of successful retirement including better health.

Arthur, a software engineer responsible for developing text messaging during his 12 years at Google, retired at 47. Considering retirement, Arthur listened to a 103-year-old woman who retired at age 50 and advised: “Before you retire, make sure you know what you are going to do. Don’t just jump off a cliff, so to speak, and try to figure it out after you’ve left.” Two years before retirement, Arthur started planning. He wrote down three categories: 1) Projects he wanted to work on 2) Goals he wanted to achieve and 3) Concrete descriptions of typical days. He identified smaller steps to achieve the goals. Creating a routine helped and guides his day.

Arthur says “… being introspective about the whole process has been crucial to making it a good experience…” I spend lots of time with my wife Kristine and daughter Eva every day, I’m doing lots of meaningful volunteer work in my field, and I’m working hard on programming projects I have wanted to work on for a long time – some literally for decades. I am a very lucky man.”

For Leslie, who retired as Director of Mental Health when she was in her 60s, plans for her retirement with her husband were ended abruptly as he suddenly died. Not long after, her dog died. To recover, Leslie reordered her thinking. Instead of planning for months and years, she focuses on each day and intentionally incorporates “elements” to guide her that she considers important: physical activity, social connection, meditation, creativity (e.g. writing, cooking), and service to others.

Cindy, now in her 70s, retired from her position as a university professor and administrator in her 60s. She took control of her retirement by planning for 10 years before she retired, including changing positions at the university to take on less responsibility and leave more time for transition. She took classes at the university to explore other interests and began volunteering to incorporate meaningful endeavors that would add structure and social interactions in retirement.

2. Stay Connected

Social connectedness and internet connectedness are vital in retirement. Spending time with other adults enhances life satisfaction, general well-being, and health. Using the internet can reduce depression. Having friendships is a particular problem for men.

Arthur’s biggest fear of leaving Google was a loss of companionship and isolation from other people in technology, especially tech people who liked talking tech. Being aware of this concern, Arthur worked on maintaining meaningful friendships at Google by scheduling ongoing lunches and developed new friendships through his tech meet-ups.

Leslie, no longer having a husband for emotional support, deepened her relationships, developed new friendships and started using an iPad as a journal, a way to stay current, and as a way to stay in touch with her sons who live in other states.

Cindy visits her grandchild and daughter often and feels happy and fulfilled in her relationship with her second husband and their dog. Her volunteer work with children and photography interest group add to her social connections.

3. Establish Purpose

A sense of purpose improves physical health and well-being in retirement.

“Purpose is paramount,” Arthur says. “I set several goals for myself before I left – one coarse set and then a more refined set. The coarse set includes spending lots of fun time with Kristine and Eva, making sure that Eva gets lots of time with her widespread extended family, working on programming projects, keeping up with friends, and doing volunteer work in my field. I review the more detailed sets of goals about once a month just to make sure that I’m keeping on track. But having a basic purpose clearly in mind has been absolutely essential to my mental well-being. There’s almost nothing worse than feeling adrift.”

Leslie did not have to find purpose, she merely shifted it. In her working life, Leslie directly administered mental health service. In retirement, she stepped back and finds meaning in providing support and mentoring to a younger generation. She teaches mindfulness classes and mentors the staff of an organization instead of working directly with clients. “Bringing one’s gifts to meet the needs of the world, joy is felt,” says Leslie.

4. Know that likelihood of “going solo” & plan for it

One in three Baby Boomers is unmarried and lives alone. Older people show a preference for living alone to moving in with family or friends, favoring “intimacy at a distance.” Death isn’t the only cause of going solo; divorce for people 50 and older is on the rise.

Donna, a retired university instructor who divorced several years ago, explains “I wasn’t planning on wanting to go solo. I didn’t choose it or embrace it, but I did accept it and grow into it. Since I’ve always lived with people, I found–once I got comfortable–a real sense of peace and gratitude. To have space and place called home, to make all the choices my choices, with the most basic of things– what/when to eat, arrange flowers, turn up or down the music. These were the good, welcomed and even kind of fun areas of personal freedom I had never previously experienced. And maybe, since toward the end of my marriage, with an ongoing coolness and quiet tension, it felt good to be solo. Cleaner. There is a less attractive side. Every decision is mine and not shared with a different perspective or support. Sometimes that feels a bit burdensome. I do hope to be back in an intimate relationship. Until that time, I have romance, like a seasoning—maybe curry–here and there, now and then. It has always been nice and something to appreciate.”

Leslie expresses heartfelt appreciation for her new friendships as she is “letting friends become a stronger part of my life, sharing in my vulnerable moments and my rough edges in ways I’d previously saved for my life partner.”

Whatever you do, try to have control over when and how you retire, plan ahead, be introspective, stay connected, find your purpose, plan for “going solo” — and — enjoy your retirement.

Jill Steinberg, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor at SJSU, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Salzburg Fellow, author and Founder of MyRetirementWorks.com. She received her undergraduate degree from Boston University in 1972 and doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Ohio State University in 1978. She teaches classes and has presented her research on Successful Retirement to universities including B.U., Google and other professional organizations. To contact Jill directly, please email jillasteinberg@gmail.com.