The Dark Side Of Retirement

For most of us, retirement is a time of life to look forward to.  The land of milk and honey!

For others, it’s not.

Today, we’re going to look at some of the issues that bring out The Dark Side Of Retirement, and give you tips on how to mitigate the risk of these darker issues negatively impacting your retirement.

For most, retirement is a wonderful time of life. For others, it's not. Today, The Dark Side of Retirement. Click To Tweet

While the majority of content about retirement focuses on the positives, the reality is that many folks struggle with retirement.  Unfortunately, those who struggle often suffer in silence and the dark side of retirement is often under-reported.  It’s important to provide information to folks who may be facing some challenges in retirement and let them know they’re not alone.  It’s also important to share resources where folks can get some help, which I’ve done at the bottom of this post. If I reach one person who needs help, the effort in writing this post will be time well spent.

Financial Realities

According to this article from The Balance, only  17% of companies offer pension plans, down from 62% in 1983. The burden for retirement planning has shifted from employer to employee and many folks have not taken their responsibility to plan for retirement seriously.  Some other facts from the article:

  • 1/3 of Americans have less than $1,000 saved.
  • 56% of workers don’t know how much they need to have saved for retirement.
  • 35 Million Americans pay only the minimum every month on their credit card bill.
  • A shocking 80% of Americans cannot afford to retire at all.

Throw in the 2008 market crash and the reality of today’s low-interest-rate environment, and it’s no wonder that many folks have struggled to save enough for retirement. For some additional facts on the woeful state of retirement preparedness among today’s Baby Boomers, see my article “Are Baby Boomer Retirements Doomed”.

It’s no wonder, then, that 65% of people who say retirement is less enjoyable than their working years cite financial concerns as their primary issue:


Source:  AgeWave/Merrill Lynch study


Even more concerning, 73% of folks don’t plan to retire until Age 65.  However, as I wrote in “Will You Be Forced To Retire Early“,  fully 60% of people retire earlier than they had planned.  Half are driven to retirement due to health problems or disability, while another 25% had to take care of their spouse or family member.  Finally, only 20% were forced into retirement due to downsizing at their companies.  Only 7% of retirees were able to retire because of good planning (though I suspect that number is much higher among my readers, and I congratulate you for taking your responsibility seriously).

If you’re late in saving for retirement, realize there is hope.  If you read through the two case studies I’ve published previously (Starting Late, But Retiring Early and It’s Never Too Late To Start Saving For Retirement) you’ll find details on the steps people who have been in your shoes have taken to rectify their situation.  Don’t put off saving for retirement any longer.  Read those posts, and start implementing some corrective action.  When it comes to The Dark Side of Retirement driven by lack of financial savings, only you can improve your situation.


Will Retirement Be Depressing?

Every day 10,000 baby boomers turn 65, and many of them will struggle with their transition to retirement. 

In addition to financial concerns, many folks struggle with depression or other psychological problems when moving from pre- to post-work life. In my article “Will Retirement Be Depressing“, I noted a study that cited retirement increases the probability of depression by about 40 percent.  Others suffer from a loss of identity, particularly when their response to “What do you do?” has been answered for decades by focusing on what they did for a living.

For others, retirement diminishes their sense of well-being by reducing the social contact previously enjoyed at work.  When people have spent the majority of their time fostering relationships with co-workers at the expense of people outside the workplace, there is a natural sense of isolation following the move into retirement.

I’ve known people who have dropped into the depths of depression and alcoholism following their retirement, and it’s a truly sad thing to see.  After working for so many years, no one should have to face their final years of freedom dealing with the dark side of retirement.  It’s one of my primary motivations for writing this blog, and the reason I’ve chosen the byline of “Helping People Achieve A Great Retirement”.  It’s also the primary focus of my upcoming book.

If you’re struggling with depression or other “dark side of retirement” symptoms, there’s nothing worse than hearing someone say “Hang in there, you’ll be fine after some adjustment”.  For many folks, it’s not that simple. Below are some suggested steps:

First, spend as much time as possible before retirement planning for your life after work.  Research has found that this is the single biggest factor between those who have a successful retirement versus those who struggle.  As you’re thinking about your life in retirement, begin to intentionally accelerate your development of interests outside of work.  You should begin this effort in your final 3-5 years in the workplace.  Begin to “ramp up” your external life as you approach retirement, and be intentional in “ramping down” how much time you think about your work.

Second, begin developing alternative means to replace the socialization and self-esteem that work brings, and begin that development as early as possible in your retirement planning process.  25% of retirees return to the workplace at some point in their retirement, and most do it for non-financial reasons.  I’ve got no problem if that’s what you decided to do,  but I’d encourage you to attempt to find non-work related activities to meet your needs as an initial step before jumping back into the world you just escaped.  That said, if you do choose to return to work, make sure you do it on your terms and only into a situation that you believe will improve your life in retirement.  Since you’re no longer driven by financial needs, put a priority on the things you’re seeking to escape from the dark side of retirement, and don’t accept anything that falls short of your expectations.

Third, focus on your physical fitness.  As I was working on this post, I had a nice chat with a guy who lives a mile down our dirt road.  He walks by our house every day on his 2.5-mile loop and I see him frequently. He’s suffered a bit with depression in retirement and was explaining to me how much better he feels since he’s starting his walking routine.  Ironically, I was on my way home from the gym when I saw him, and told him that his experience mirrors the finding of the researchers, who recommend getting outdoor exercise as one of the best things you can do to battle depression. 

Fourth, begin populating a list of bucket list of things you’d like to do in retirement.  If you’re already retired, but struggling, identify a future date to do something you’ve always wanted to do.  Look forward to it with anticipation, and have it be a bright spot in your dark days.  Keeping busy in retirement is the best way to ward off the dark side of retirement that “boredom” represents.  For the first time in your life, you’re 100% responsible for filling your day so start planning what you’ll do to fill that time long before you reach The Starting Line.

Finally, do some soul searching on what really matters to you in life.  Think about your attitude, and whether you want to focus on the bright side or dark side of retirement. Now that your days of working are behind you, what do you want to do that’s truly important?  Finding a Purpose that motivates you in retirement is the most important thing you can do in your Golden Years, and those that find “it” are the ones who experience the best retirements. 

Focus on all aspects of life including spirituality, and hone in on those areas that may allow you to “give back” to others.  Being generous and making a difference in people’s lives is the best way to ward off the dark side of retirement, and it’s one the primary reason I write this blog.  Try anything that may interest you, and seek out those things which will provide mental stimulation and social interaction.  Don’t think too hard, just focus on taking those first few steps and see where things lead.  Be curious, and be willing to fail.  If you’re lucky, you’ll find something that clicks, like my wife did when she started her non-profit Freedom For Fido, which has become a major Purpose project in her retirement. 


It’s Not All Darkness

There is some good news amongst the darkness.  As shown in the AgeWave study cited earlier, it would appear that the dark side of retirement is the exception rather than the rule.  The majority of people find retirement to be a fulfilling stage in life.  Realize that the transition from work to retirement is a process that often takes several years to complete.  Be patient and take some steps to find the Bright Side Of Retirement.  Speaking as one who’s living in the light, I can assure you it’s out there.  Sometimes, it just takes some time to find.

Based on the data, a large majority of retirees experience a sense of wellbeing in their senior years which exceeds any other period in their life, as demonstrated by these following charts:

For those of you who are dealing with the dark side of retirement, there is hope.  If you’re struggling, please read through some of the other articles linked throughout this post.  Most have recommended action steps that you can incorporate into your life to help smooth out your transition into retirement.

If, however, you find yourself facing more serious issues of depression, please don’t suffer in silence.  Below are some resources which are available to help.  These licensed professionals dedicate their lives to helping others who are struggling, and they’re available to help you.  Don’t be afraid to ask.  Just click on a link below, and take action to improve your situation.


Resources 

SAMHSA:  The US government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.  Call (800) 662 HELP (800-622-4357) or find them online.

BetterHelp.com:  Affordable, private online counseling utilizing licensed, professional therapists.

Alcoholics Anonymous:  A national organization that has helped thousands overcome alcoholism.

HelpGuide.org:  An online mental health resource providing empowering, evidence-based information that you can use to help yourself or your loved one.

Mental Help America:  A non-profit dedicated to promoting mental health.

Christian Counseling:  A link to the top online Christian counseling sites.


Conclusion

While retirement is a positive experience for most people, there is a significant minority who suffer in silence.  If you’re one of these people, don’t let the dark side of retirement consume your life.  Try applying some of the suggestions which resonate with you in this post, and never be afraid to reach out if you need professional help.  In time, you can work through the difficulties.  Identify one or two things you’d like to change, and take that first step.

Your Turn:  Have you suffered from The Dark Side Of Retirement?  If so, what have you found to be helpful?  Let’s share ideas for others who may be suffering the same fate.

46 comments

  1. Very informative post Fritz! Just got in from a cool morning run and about to get ready to go to work and several years away from retirement but the more I can learn about post retirement now – the better equipped I’ll be. Thanks

    1. Dusty, kudos for getting that early morning run in before work, I ran for the last 25 years of my career (tho usually at lunch, early mornings were always tough for me. Glad I don’t have to deal with early mornings anymore now that I’m retired! Wink).

  2. Great piece, Fritz. Very well said. I want to thank you. Your advice (especially your recommendation of the Choose FI book) has set me back on track. I look forward to your book.

  3. I’m biased but I think the focus on physical fitness should be priority number one. The obesity epidemic in America keeps rising, and the results are ugly. It affects everything from brain function to mood to sex drive and so on. And it’s the one thing that people have almost full control over. That’s why I blog so much about physical fitness and how it’s related to finance and will continue to do so. Great piece Fritz!

    1. Word! My friend was telling me the other day how his 19-year-old son and all of his son’s friends have seemingly no interest in exercising. They’d much rather spend all their free time playing video games than devote a mere 30 minutes to jogging or lifting weights. Sad.

    2. We’re of like mind, my friend. It’s been great to really have the freedom to focus on fitness in retirement, something I plan on doing for years to come! Makes you feel great, and adds years of active lifestyle to retirement. How can folks complain about that?!

  4. So true, Fritz. There is a dark side to retirement and a lot of retirees sadly find themselves there. I’m lucky. I enjoy people and I enjoy socializing, but I’ve always had a lone-wolf mentality. I thoroughly enjoy reading, writing, and tinkering in my workshop. Translation: I don’t need to be around people to feel fulfilled. If I needed to be around people, I’d be in trouble. I’d probably end up getting a part-time job. Great freakin’ post, my friend. Cheers.

    1. Retirees have plenty of options for socializing without getting a part time job… volunteering at a museum, non profit organization, school (homework help), hospital, meeting up with friends, taking classes at your local state university or through continuing ed. While in Texas, I met volunteers at the airport who were there to help travelers find their way.
      A friend of mine speaks with a recent immigrant to help her learn English. It is just a matter of finding what gives you pleasure but all will give you a sense of satisfaction and socialization.

  5. Great post Fritz. Thanks for attacking the harder subjects, but still including the good news of how great retirement can be. Getting outside and moving helps everything work better. Good advice. I choose mountain biking as my ‘go to’, but the winter here in Ohio forces me to consider hiking and other options. I have been very happy with my choice to retire (at age 54 this past March) and am always rebuffing requests to work from people who say “you’re too young”, and “what do you do?” My response is typically, “I do all the things we always talked about doing when we complained at work and dreamed about retiring.” Why is that so hard for some people to imagine? My beautiful wife will join me in another 9 months and I look forward to seeing how that changes things up. I keep sending her your posts as a reminder that my words on preparation are not just my own (and you say them so much better anyway). Otherwise with three kids in high school and every day things to do for ourselves and others, I stay pretty busy. Being with the kids before they fly the coop is something I would not trade for anything. God is good.

    1. We’re kindred spirits, Danny. I love mountain biking here in the Appalachian Mountains, and couldn’t be happier to be retired in a location that allows year-round biking on an amazing assortment of trails. I love your response to the “what do you do” question, I may have to incorporate that into my response when I get that same question. Exciting times for you to have your wife joining you in 9 months on this side of The Starting Line, thanks for making me a small part of your journey! And yes, God is good, indeed.

    2. WOW! Congrats on being able to retire with the potential of still having to put three kids through college. I cannot wait for my last one to finish (two years to go), because that’s when I retire!

  6. Yet another great post. Thanks for diving into this topic. My wife and I are both considering retiring at the end of next year at age 63. I am more social and have a hobby (restoring and collecting classic cars), but my wife really doesn’t have any hobbies and I’m afraid after she leaves her job (41 years as an RN) that she may feel lost and unfulfilled in retirement. I hope as we talk and prepare over the next year that we can make our “to do list” that will be fulfilling for us both.

    1. Dale, I’ve always been intrigued by classic cars, but afraid I don’t have the mechanical aptitude to restore them. I think I’ll stick with writing…

      Congrats on your pending retirement, you’re doing well to “talk and prepare over the next year”, I firmly believe that’s the most important thing you can do to ensure a successful retirement. Good luck on your journey!

    2. Dale, I can certainly appreciate your reply, as I’m in exactly the same situation. We’re also both retiring next year. And like you I have a few hobbies, including that expensive car hobby, but my wife has none. With the car hobby, I always have shows and cruises to attend even if I have to slow roll a car project due to expenses. But I don’t know what my wife will do, and I’m a little worried about it…

      Fritz, What can I say but another in a great line of posts.

      1. Craig, you should be “a little worried about it”. My wife struggled a bit with the adjustment to my retirement, it wasn’t until she began her charity Freedom For Fido that she really got into the swing of retirement living. Make sure you’re having good, honest discussions with your wife through the process, it’s a major adjustment for both of you. Good luck on your journey!

  7. “56% of workers don’t know how much they need to have saved for retirement.”

    This is the scariest part for me to read. The fact that millions of people are leaving their loved ones every day to go to work for an undefined period of time. It’s unintentional and sad, to think that we’d be giving up decades of our lives without an end goal, and that actually running the numbers could influence us to make changes and get out earlier.

  8. Great timely article for me Fritz. Though SORR risk is in back my head, I knew financially I was okay to retire at 59. However, it was the unknown psychological aspect that concerned me. I do believe my final 12 years of work which I was a “road warrior” helped in the transition since I did not have an office per se where I can gather around the cooler to have that social interaction. My main concern was my wife who is 10.5 years younger who enjoys her work, and thus, will work 7-8 years more. We obviously are not synced. Therefore, I am going at it alone, albeit during the day. I have filled my days by making new friends who are similarly retired, cycling, working out, reading, and planning vacations. The latter is difficult because of my wife working; however, she was a trooper last week when we returned from our third out of country venture this year traveling 12 hours from Stockholm to Tampa and she went back to work the very next day! I am glad you emphasized the need for social interaction, fitness, hobbies, volunteering, etc. Afterall, I want to dispel that notion that Tampa Bay is known as “God’s waiting room”. Not for me!

    1. Eduardo, I think a lot of us reach the point where we “know” the money will be ok. The “unknown psychological aspect” SHOULD be a concern for all of us. Getting that part right is truly the key to a great retirement! You’ve got an interesting situation with your wife 7-8 years away from retirement, glad to see you’re making your retirement great, in spite of living in God’s Waiting Room. Haha.

  9. Fritz:
    You are Brilliant! Such an informative writer/ communication expert. I planned about 5 yrs out for the soft side of “Retirement”. I didn’t want to Retire….I wanted to REWIRE! I’m 4 yea in now and the buffet meat adjustment has been claiming a new role/sense of functional identity. I knew that would be a big hurdle going into this Retirement space but actually experiencing it is the true test. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster but I believe I have exited “the land in between” and have a new sense of identity…I and an ENCOREPRENEUR….the freedom to pursue the projects, experiences and relationships that matter most in the second half. I coach, consult, teach and am a visual artist. Some work I do for a fee and some I do for free. I orchestrate all these projects at a pace and in the places that align with my calling, mission(s) and goals. I am a work in progress.

    1. I’m Brilliant!? Wow, I hope my wife reads these comments! Wink. You’re absolutely correct in saying the adjustment to retirement is a true test that can’t be fully understood until you’ve taken it. I’m pleased to hear you’ve found a new sense of identity as an encorepreneur (cool word!). It sounds like your “work in progress” is going well, congrats on continually working to figure it all out.

  10. The ‘dark side’ of retirement… ? What can I say?
    Of the several hundreds of retired people I have met, just 1 or 2 have said they would like to be back at work.
    Of those living on the UK state pension (Probably less that the US Social Security equivalent), I’ll be honest, I know some who are at the ‘subsistence’ level, but for them the state ‘pension credit’ kicks in. But our UK rules are becoming less generous as each year goes by. So anyone aged 65 or less today needs to prepare for themselves…

    In my experience, as many of the people who have commented above, have said in various different forms – health, money and attitude make the big difference.

    So in my simplistic view, the ‘secret’ to a successful retirement is
    1 – look after your health, first and foremost. It isn’t much good having $5m+ in the bank, if you are in poor health. You won’t get to enjoy it
    2 – conversely, if you are blessed with amazing health, and are very short of money, you might get less enjoyment from it. (I am hesitant on this, because i know quite a few people who have a pretty low income, but they enjoy every day that comes!)
    3- attitude. This should probably have been No 1. Your attitude is all. Think you are going to hate retirement – you will. Think you will love it, you will – A self fulfilling prophecy. I personally haven’t looked back since I took early retirement in 2011, even though I have a smaller pension than i might have. So what? I chose that outcome, in full understanding of the repercussions.

    Retirement often brings so many different opportunities. You only have to do a few searches.
    Fritz has retired from the ‘corporate’ world, has discovered a life as a blogger, author, dog rescuer, company director, grandfather etc.
    I have retired from IT, loving life -I now define myself as a metal artist & blogger. I am also a voluntary governor for an educational charity, and support a few other local charities. Not to mention (fingers & toes crossed, I will be a grandmother in just a few weeks… Dec 2019)

    so retirement is what you make it. Plan for it, save for it and enjoy it

  11. Another great post, Fritz! Unfortunately, there is a retirement crisis that I fear will only get worse as more unprepared Baby Boomers retire. It’s going to get even more complicated for society against a backdrop of student loans and high health costs. For these that have prepared it should be the best years of ones life! I retired at 56 (8 years ago), blessed with a corporate pension and a liberal match on my 401k. Our lifestyle has actually been upgraded in retirement! I believe the secret to retirement happiness is finding a balance in all the things one “loves” and this will vary from person to person. I live in So California so for me it’s playing golf 2x a week (not more unless I’m on a golf trip), traveling (w/ wifey), meaningful volunteer work, physical activity, all dosed with family, friends and reading. Everyone (who can) needs to identify their own equilibrium.

    Keep up the great work, Fritz!

    1. Fred, thanks for your kind words regarding the post. I agree 100% that there is a retirement crisis and it will get worse in the coming years. We can only impact so much, and beyond that our focus needs to be on finding that balance and contentment in our own lives. Thanks for showing that it’s possible!

  12. Great article Fritz and I really like the “suggested steps” although I would also put health in the #1 position as many had suggested however as they all are great and should be looked at I guess it doesn’t matter really. I am also a HUGE fan of the bucket list (or in our case the Dump Truck list). I find speaking with people very different from oneself; chronologically, socially, and from different geographies not usually your “close friends” provides the greatest exposure to different opportunities to fill the dump truck. AND many of these activities are quite inexpensive and very gratifying. Happy to drop some links and comments if valuable.

    1. Kirk, I love your “Dump Truck list”, and the reality that you’re living it. I’m constantly amazed at the adventures you’ve woven into your retired lifestyle, and looking forward to that guest post you promised me regarding your journey on the PCT, or the Himalayas, or your secret islands in the Everglades…wink.

      And yes, please drop a few links, you’ve experienced a lot in your early years of retirement, always good to share some great ideas with the readers (or, of course, you could include them in that guest post. Haha).

  13. Both my wife and I retired from teaching this past school year after 39 and 22 1/2 years respectively. My wife has adjusted beautifully with retirement. I thought I would, but have been blindsided by a process of adjustment. There are many things that I love (i.e. sitting at a Starbucks in the middle of the morning as I write this 🙂) about it but as a person who enjoys structure and organization I have found it to be challenging to not have that in my life to some extent. So I’m trying to stay busy by scheduling my days with exercise and other things to keep my mind occupied while reinventing myself as a retiree. Thanks for the article. God bless!

    1. Bob, thanks for your transparency. You’re certainly not alone in finding the transition to retirement a bit of a struggle. I suspect you’ll find a lot of value in my book (available April 2020), I’m writing extensively on this exact subject. I’ll be thinking of you as I finish up my final draft with the publisher over the coming weeks!

    2. Bob, I’m not retired yet but for what it’s worth I found the book “Retire Happy Wild and Free” by Ernie Zelinski helpful in thinking of all the things I could do and ways to be busy in retirement. The cover is a little cheesy (my opinion) but the book offers a plethora of ideas.

      1. Deb:

        Thanks for mentioning my book “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” (despite the cheesy cover) which has now sold over 400,000 copies and been published in 11 languages. Go to my website “How to Retire Happy” ( http://www.how-to-retire-happy.com/ ) and you will see a list of 30 media (including AARP Bulletin) and Retirement Bloggers who have recommended the book, often as the number 1 retirement book in a list of recommended retirement books.

    3. Bob, I totally relate to you as a person who also enjoys structure and organization in my life. When I retired at age 60, I created a daily routine (like “block scheduling”). My day started around 6:30am with dog walking (or whatever time the dog woke me up). Then, on to coffee/emails, my artwork, bike riding or weights before lunch, then lunch, then reading every afternoon. I found this to be a great way to transition into retirement as it covered the old “9-to-5” work mode. Now 2 1/2 years into it, I still like the structure but it’s expanded a lot to include new activities and time frames. And I also feel free on any given day to forget about it all, and head to the beach with a cooler of beers!

  14. Great post, as usual, Fritz. Retirement…like the rest of life…is not all “rainbows and unicorns.” The quote from your article, “Keeping busy in retirement is the best way to ward off the dark side of retirement that “boredom” represents” certainly holds true for Dan and me. Boredom never factors into our retirement equation! We spend some time each evening talking about what the next few days hold in general and get more specific about the following day in particular. We have house projects, rv projects, boat projects. Dan fishes, I blog & read & knit, and we boat, cruise and rv together.
    We have a “bucket list” and are making our way around to following through on it while our health permits. For example, that big RV trip is a bucket list item as we both really want to experience the beauty, grandeur, and different cultures/customs within our own USA. We have pensions and a budget and try to stay within it, but also have $$ in the bank for unexpected expenses.
    I believe you are right, your readers are planners and in some ways you are “preaching to the choir.” Planning takes discipline; discipline is hard for some folks. We retired sooner than many and left some pension money on the table. We deliberately traded a larger monthy pension check for the time and health gained by retiring “early”. (But not as early as you!!!) But not worrying about money is a huge deal and I can see why that would put a cloud on people’s happiness in retirement.
    Thanks as usual for a great read.

  15. On the average, it will take approximately 3 to 4 years for people in their late 50’s to get into the grove of a new life.

    It will take longer if you are Financially Independence at 50 or younger.

    Financial Independence is the detachment from other people money – their money can no longer enslave you.

    Financial Freedom is the freedom from money itself – money have very little or no role in the true meaning of your life.

    It is classical conditioning is the underlying mechanism that requires time to disassociate money from doing something that brings you joy and passion without having the money mindset.

    Once you have crossed the Financial Independence barrier, focus on something that gives the passion without the instant gratification of a payday.

    If the passion brings benefits to others, financial reward is nothing more than a metric that measures the utility of your passion.

    1. Insightful comment, TE. I agree it takes a lot of time to make the transition into finding true joy in retirement. Patience and a willingness to experiment are valuable as folks work through the process of breaking that “classical conditioning”. Great advice to “focus on something that gives the passion without the instant gratification of a payday”, I would emphasize the value of finding “passion that brings benefits to others”. Thanks for stopping by and adding value to the discussion.

  16. Great post. The life plan might be more important than the money plan. It takes a lot of work and reflection. You have to go in with retirement years filled with incredible purpose. That then makes the fun more fun.

    Thanks Fritz.

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