Should I retire or not? This is an increasingly common and important question—one that challenges a broken paradigm and points to some intrinsic truths about your career goals and personal life vision.
In this post, we’ll look at “traditional” retirement, nonretirement, and unretirement, specifically discussing:
- The status quo of assumed retirement
- A brief history of retirement (hint: it’s sociological, not biological)
- 3 questions to ask before considering whether or not you should retire
- Some great (and growing) alternatives to retirement
Whether you’re thinking of retiring 4 decades from now or you technically retired 4 years ago, this is a conversation worth having.
The Status Quo
Beware the retirement ads! They’ll make you feel that a question like “Should I retire?” is borderline ridiculous. In fact, they may even box your thinking in so much that you never wonder such a thing in the first place.
These ads use scare tactics: “Are you really prepared to retire?”
They also “romanticize” a life of daily golf, lying by the pool, splashing on the beach, etc. These things are great! But whether or not they offer rest-of-your-life fulfillment…that’s another question.
Perhaps worst of all, they often insinuate that you’ve spent your entire life doing what you don’t want to do, and that doing next to nothing would therefore be a great improvement.
This advertised vision of retirement is built on “kicking back,” “relaxing,” and “taking it easy.” But the underpinned message reads more like “doing nothing,” “losing interest in life,” and “checking out.”
I don’t buy that most of us want that.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s foolish to be prepared for your future. Far from it! I’m a firm believer that you should consider the long term every step of the way—no matter where you are right now.
The last thing you want is to arrive at your “destination” only to realize that it was never your destination at all. In fact, you never stopped to think about where you wanted to end up. You just followed a map someone handed you, or took exit ramps along the way, based on whichever signs were loudest or fanciest.
When you do this, you eventually end up…somewhere. But is it really where you want to land? Fat chance.
Is traditional retirement your destination? Or someone else’s?
This missing question is the core problem with all the aforementioned retirement ads—and the thinking behind them and their industry.
They presuppose that you’ve already asked “Should I retire or not?” and answered with a big “YES.” They assume that your life vision is mapped out already, and that they know just what it is.
So many of us assume they’re right.
But retirement is not a foregone conclusion. And there are other options. Today, these options are becoming increasingly popular, for a variety of reasons. In fact, terms like non-retirement and unretirement are making the buzz rounds. And one of those terms may point to an approach that’s better for you.
A Brief History of Retirement
The widespread adoption of retirement is actually a relatively recent trend. Early in the industrial revolution, it was designed as a feature of union contracts, created to move people out of the workforce and provide room for fresh, new employees and union members.
As this happened, a variety of new issues emerged:
- Older populations didn’t want to retire and had to be paid to do so.
- Retirement remained unpopular, and campaigns were launched to bolster the public opinion of leisure time.
- Mental health issues emerged (and continue to remain problematic) among retired populations.
Today, the fact that many people speak of retirement as if it’s a basic necessity of human life is more a product of marketing—an echo of the pushed message that there’s an age at which we should essentially stop giving and start getting.
Turns out, that approach is more like a license to stop giving and start losing it: According to an analysis from the Journal of Economic Perspectives, the use-it-or-lose-it concept is right on. Our bodies (brains included) aren’t built for this do-nothing retirement model.
“If people want to preserve their memories and reasoning abilities, they may have to keep active,” explains a New York Times article covering the study. It goes on to quote Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Center on Longevity at Sanford: “Work actually provides an important component of the environment that keeps people functioning optimally.”
Brian Clark often writes about this topic, frequently making excellent points & pinpointing great resources. To quote him:
“…retirement isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. It can lead to depression, isolation, and even an earlier death. Losing your sense of meaning and purpose can lessen your will to keep going…Now people are living longer lives, and more importantly, gaining more active years, free of debilitating illness. Their biological age is much lower than their chronological age.That means it’s time to think differently about aging, and specifically the idea of retirement.”Brain Clark, Further
Today, a movement has started toward a more thoughtful, mindful model. As someone whose life vision has never involved retirement, I’m applauding this movement. And you may gravitate toward the new model as well, if your later-career vision involves
- Continuing to work in your current role
- Consulting for your company
- Becoming part-time in your current/former role
- Starting a new business
- Moving into a different role or organization
- Going all-in on your volunteering work or service to others
But what if you don’t know what you want? Glad you asked.
3 Questions to Answer before You Ask, “Should I Retire or Not?”
If smart people and scientific evidence don’t convince you, maybe you can convince yourself by considering 3 big and personal questions:
1. What is your personal definition of retirement?
My clients often respond to this question with something like, “Doing what I want to do.”
If that’s your response, I suggest you do it tomorrow!
I know that sounds overly simplified. But you can take steps toward your doing-what-you-want life right away. Namely:
- Define it! What do you want to do? Get clear and specific on this, and write it down.
- Map out your steps for getting to the goal.
- Establish a system of accountability.
Hint: if you don’t know where to begin with the above 3 steps, that’s 100% normal. So normal, in fact, that it’s one of my 3 questions (and it comes with an action plan):
2. What do you want for your life and your future?
If you’re ready to start digging in and defining your life vision, begin by setting aside a block of time each day to pursue it. (It doesn’t matter how small these time blocks are! 15 minutes per day adds up to more than an hour each work week that these important steps weren’t getting before.)
Here are some resources to get you started:
- Read these: “Personal Vision and Life Purpose” or “Peel the Paint: 4 Tools for Discovering Purpose”
- Go deeper with this book: Lead or Be Led: A Guide for Intentional Living
- Take action with this course: Personal Vision Academy
- Schedule a call to talk it over
3. Who do you admire?
List the 1 – 3 people age 70+ who you most admire and enjoy.
How many of them have disengaged—chosen the do-nothing version of retirement?
How many are still involved and serving?
What does this mean to you?
Alternatives to Traditional Retirement
Muscles atrophy with lack of use. And we’re discovering that brain cells do the same. So when you’re planning your version of retirement, look beyond the advertised model and think of what you want for your future.
Non-retirement often refers to investment accounts that are not retirement related. So to avoid confusion, let’s just keep this simple and call not retiring what it is: not retiring.
The secret to not retiring is twofold:
- Define how your ideal post-retirement life would look different than your life now.
- Map out a plan for moving your current life toward that vision—because why wait to shoot for ideal?
(See the steps outlined above for the how.)
Whether this means you’ll start living the dream at 22 or 72, great! It’s never too soon…or too late.
I did it 30 years ago. And it’s why I’m still working now. Because my vocation reflects my passion, purpose, and power-alley attributes.
And that beats lounging by the pool every day. By a lot.
More and more people are choosing to unretire. “Unretirement” refers to a period of time where one takes a break from working, followed by a return to the work force.
Think of it like a sabbatical after wrapping up one career path and moving on to another.
At a glance, unretirement seems to stand in stark contrast to the recent trend of early retirement. But upon further investigation, the two are more closely related than they seem.
Due to its rapid increase in popularity, several groups have conducted studies related to unretirement. The results clearly indicate the older workforce is gravitating toward the idea of a multi-level retirement. And the younger generation is quickly embracing it.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that one in five workers in today’s workplace is 55 or older – and that ratio will jump to 1:4 by 2024.
According to a recent Rand survey, 41.5% of retirees end up going back to work. Initially, the upward trend was attributed to improper planning. But as it turns out, 82% of those in unretirement actually planned it ahead of time.
Retirees who opt to join the ranks of the unretirement movement often seek a drastically different role than the one so familiar to them.
A retiring bookkeeper with a passion for painting may want to teach art classes.
An art teacher with a penchant for logistics might decide to learn a programming language.
And an IT rep might turn a woodworking hobby into a new career.
There’s no right or wrong answer. But you get to choose your own vision. I guarantee it won’t all go exactly according to plan, but at least you’ll have a plan of your own.
Good luck, and let me know how it goes!