Instead of trying to determine precisely what your retirement will be, open yourself up to the possibilities.
By Wendy Haaf
A little over a year after Elizabeth June retired and stopped working 60 hours a week, she hit a wall. The former self-employed financial planner from Victoria had intended to fill her postwork days with travel, but once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, that was no longer possible, and neither were most of the other face-to-face interactions that normally energized her.
Reading, puzzles, and all of the other activities she tried soon palled, and June found her mood steadily worsening, alternating between sadness and anger. “By May 2020, I was in a terrible funk,” she recalls.
Even in the absence of a pandemic, many retirees experience similar feelings once the novelty of no longer having to set an alarm clock wears off. “We know from research that the honeymoon stage of retirement lasts about 18 to 24 months,” explains Anna Harvey, a retirement coach with Boost Potential in Victoria.
“That brings us into a time that’s called the neutral zone, which can be a very rich phase, but it can be dark, too,” she says, explaining that it can be difficult if you don’t know what to expect or have no road map for moving forward. “It can be a time of deep dissatisfaction, procrastination, and feeling that there’s somethingwrong with you,” Harvey says. “This is when depression starts to happen—and divorces start to happen. We even see people ricochet back into a career they didn’t like in the first place.”
Have a plan (but not a blueprint)
For some, leaving the work world and giving up a job title means losing a sense of self, a sense of one’s position in the world. After retiring, June noticed that when someone asked what she did and she replied that she was retired, “that person’s eyes would glaze over and they wouldn’t see me anymore. I did not like that.”
If a person’s sense of self-worth is tied to a defunct title, “that could lead to depression,” Harvey says. But at the same time, hanging onto a label that no longer applies, such as professor, “sometimes makes it difficult for someone to grow into something else,” Harvey says. Consequently, for many retirees, forging a new identity that’s not defined by a job is key to maintaining self-esteem and mental health. To that end, “it’s really, really important to plan,” says
Lyndsay Green, the author of Ready to Retire? What You and Your Spouse Need to Know About the Reality of Retirement (HarperCollins Publishers, 2016). Green doesn’t mean a blueprint detailing a step-by-step journey—after all, events such as a partner’s illness or, yes, a pandemic can derail that overnight. “The reason we plan is to understand ourselves better, and if we have a partner or someone else whose needs we have to consider, then we should understand them, as well,” Green says.
One exercise you can do to get the process rolling is to ask what you’re curious about, says Jennifer Rovet, a Toronto retirement coach with Retire Ready. “It’s like a bucket list, but it’s not so much a question of what I’d like to do and accomplish, but what I want to learn more about. I tell my clients, ‘When something comes to mind, just jot it down—put up sticky notes or start writing on a whiteboard as ideas come to you.’”
Your current job may offer clues. Let’s say you like aspects of your job and have a good relationship with your employer. Could you gradually transition to a new role with fewer hours—a role better tailored to what you enjoy doing? Maybe you’d like to dip your toes into volunteering or you want to take a sabbatical. “Your employer might well support you,” Green says, but there’s no way of knowing until you start the conversation.
Even if you want to give up your work entirely, it can still be a source of insight into what else your future holds. “List all the tasks you do and rank them in order of satisfaction or enjoyment,” Green suggests. Do you thrive within a structure? Find collegiality invigorating? Derive a sense of purpose from being part of a team? Once you know the answers, you can start brainstorming how you might be able to replace the aspects that you find the most fulfilling.
Perhaps your job is so highly specialized that you can’t imagine how it could translate outside of work. “Don’t get hung up on the specifics, the content of what you’re doing,” Green says. “Reimagine it as a skill set.” Maybe it’s attention to detail or logistics. Could these be applied to a volunteer position or to creating a new business?
Your co-workers may be able to help you see possibilities that would have escaped you otherwise. “Ask a colleague, ‘What do you think I’m good at?’” Green suggests. “That can be really surprising because we often take our own skills for granted.”
Hobbies and interests, even those you haven’t pursued for many years, may also be rich sources of insight. Rovet cites the example of a client who mentioned in passing that during a period when he’d had time on his hands, he’d done some blogging and discovered that he enjoyed writing. “I said, ‘Isn’t that something you can incorporate into your retirement plan—creating and sharing your own blog?’” she recalls. “He said, ‘I’d never thought of that.’” You might also be able to turn a hobby into an e-business.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it’s fostered an explosion of online opportunities. You can study for a degree, volunteer, take workshops to expand your skills, search for a job, learn a new language, and tour museums and listen to radio stations halfway around the world, all from your computer. Remember that whatever you decide to explore, you don’t have to commit to it forever. “Retirement has as many faces as there are people; your own retirement will have many, many phases,” Green stresses.
The early days of retirement are ideal for creating a new identity and a sense of purpose born out of your natural interests, strengths, and talents, aligning with who you are and want to be. You may well reinvent yourself multiple times, adjusting as you encounter new, unforeseen circumstances. It’s worth noting that it’s risky to hitch your vision of retirement to a single activity, such as golf or travel, since unexpected life events (e.g., a decline in health) can wipe them off the board.
“If you set very specific goals, you may miss the important stuff that comes your way,” observes Bernie Lawrence of London, ON. He and his wife, Katie, travelled extensively while living and teaching in China. “Some of the things I did, I hadn’t even dreamt about, and they were sometimes the best adventures,” he says.
The Lawrences also offer a reminder that a change in circumstances can dramatically alter your retirement options. After returning to Canada, Katie suffered a stroke and Bernie became her full-time caregiver. He left teaching and now works part-time at a nearby craft brewery, where their son is the head brewer. “Given our experience, I’d say, ‘Don’t wait until you retire to do things that you love, such as travel,’” he urges. “I’m so glad Katie and I had those amazing adventures over the decades we spent overseas.”
A socially distanced trip the length of Vancouver Island and then to Prince Rupert by ferry and through the Chilcotin mountains sparked a new chapter for Elizabeth June. Since she and her husband, Bob—a cancer survivor— likely won’t be able to travel by plane anytime soon thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple bought a vacation home in the Okanagan Valley, with plans to turn part of it into a rental.
Elizabeth took to planning and overseeing the renovation like a duck to water. “It had creative elements, people elements, drawing architectural plans, dump trucks, excavators—I liked all the commotion and the constant decisions,” she says. She began to emerge from her funk.
She’s now in the process of designing her own small business—importing and selling fine bed linens—so that it’s ready to open once pandemic restrictions are a thing of the past. Prior to the trip, she recalls, “I kept looking back—thinking, Maybe I shouldn’t have quit.
“Now I’m thinking of the future. Because I have a challenge, it’s like I got myself back.”