Two sets of interviews as a gentle introduction to thinking about retirement.
What you do after full-time work will probably be a combination of things. Some of it will be a continuation of things you did before that you enjoyed doing, some of it will reflect new opportunities, some of it will be unexpected. Reflecting on your past, your likes and dislikes, what others think of you; observing others, learning from their lifestyles – all these angles will help you when you leave full-time work.
Let’s start with a panel of interviewees. I asked them to think about life after full-time work now, while they’re still working. In some cases this was the first time they had given it any thought (though I think they were pretty coherent). I’ve artificially assembled portions from several separate interviews into a mock panel interview, changing and combining some details so that the interviewees don’t get recognized. Think of this as fiction based on fact.
Tour Guide: I’ve chatted with many of you about your plans once full-time work stops for you. And so I’ve asked some of you to join me up here and tell everyone what you told me.
Panelist 1: I’m not yet 40, so that’s a long way into the future, for me. But I admit I’m already worried about retirement. I’d like to retire young. It’s the freedom – not having to be somewhere every day, not even having to answer to anyone – go to the gym, run errands, whatever. There are happinesses associated with working, but for me working is just a means to an end. I’m not sure I want to work for the sake of working. Ask me in 20 years and maybe I’ll have an answer!
But I worry about what I’ll do with my time, after work. Not every career gives you the opportunity to keep doing the same thing part-time. So I’ll have to be proactive and take responsibility for my life. And I’ll have to link my life’s psychology to my physical health, whatever it is at the time. That’s as far as I’ve got.
Panelist 2: Well, my husband and I are a little bit older than 40! We’re hoping to retire in the near future. And on our vacation this year we discussed the sort of things we’d like to do. It’s good to find out that we’re in agreement!
Much as we love each other, we need social interaction. We can only be with each other a certain amount of time before we need to be with other people!
We hope we’ll have a good relationship with our kids and the partners they choose, but that’s not within our control. Like my husband’s parents. They let us live with them in the early years and save money, but they never interfered with our life plans. Whereas my mother kept telling me what to do – probably because that’s what she got from her mother.
What will we actually do? We want to avoid cold winters – maybe vacation together with another family (like my brother’s family). Volunteering. My husband coaches sports. Me with the church. A hospice too, now that I’ve seen a friend who needed one. Some fundraising for good causes.
And be grandparents! Please! Spoil our grandchildren! Seriously, help our children if they need us to help with raising grandchildren.
Do fun drives and camping. See the country and the countryside. We’ve always loved doing that.
Panelist 3: Retirement, like university, is about graduating to a new future. (I remember you used that expression in a presentation!) I want to help people who aren’t wealthy. I want to get into public speaking, it’s so very powerful, to share with others what you’ve learnt. Just as I like listening, to learn from the experiences of my colleagues, who may think of me as a daughter or a sister when they talk. Even now, my friends have younger siblings about to go to university – they listen to me more because I’m closer to their age and I’ve had the experience more recently. What’s useful is “If I could go back, here’s what I’d do differently” – and that’s mostly to keep a balance, don’t get all caught up in one thing.
I have a younger brother (there’s a big age gap) just going into high school. We had our first serious conversation. He’s interested in investing, and had no idea there’s someone in the family who works in the business. I want to bring him into the office, etc. Even if he doesn’t end up in the business, he’ll learn so much from being around it.
It makes me happy to have some impact in kids’ lives. Sometimes they need an outside third party, because they’re not inclined to listen to their parents. It helps the kids to find themselves, just to have someone to talk to.
It isn’t just kids. One of my clients has friends but none that he’s willing to talk to about his life, so he talks to me. It helps just to tell him there are lots of people in that position. Chatting about his daughters – I can’t give him advice, just how to think about the situation. It’s not just about investment questions.
Sorry, I’ve gone off track, talking about life in general rather than about retirement. Thinking about retirement excites me. I want to gather other people’s experiences so I can enjoy my own experiences – a huge field where I have the freedom to go wherever I want.
Panelist 4: I want two things when I retire. First, enough money to enjoy myself in the first few years. Then, when I’m decrepit, I won’t need as much, but I want enough to survive.
About our planned transition. My wife wants a retirement job of some kind, with no pressure to take home at night, to get paid “mad money” with some flexibility in working hours. Me, I want to apply my knowledge by “giving back” – I don’t care about being paid, I just want my expenses covered. I think I’m appreciated as a knowledge worker. And my employer has been good to me, so I’d like to make myself available to them rather than go somewhere else.
I’d like to write! I need to develop the discipline to do that. I think of stories – fiction – I think of an unexpected outcome and work my way to that. It’s not to become a famous author, it’s just for the pleasure of writing. Maybe I’ll take a creative writing course.
Where will we live? Our house is too big. Live near our grandchildren? There’s no guarantee our son will stay where he is. So we’re tentatively planning to go back to the town where we came from – our family origins – but we’ll have to re-establish close relations with them.
When? 55. Why 55? Scared of either physical or cognitive decline. I’ve seen it with aunts and uncles – late 60s, early 70s, and then they couldn’t enjoy life any more. You don’t live to work, you work to live.
Panelist 5: I told my husband: if we get to $X, I’ll stop working. He said: no you won’t, you like it too much! But even though I don’t show it at work, things do get to me sometimes. The thing is, whatever I do, my heart has to be in it.
I’m not sure I could stop cold turkey. Maybe in the next five years we’ll be able to afford it, but I don’t like big change. I’ve been lucky, even with a couple of work changes – it’s never been difficult, finding something good. I could even go back to being a bank teller, the way I used to be.
TG: Let’s stop there, for now. What a fascinating exposure to philosophies of life! And it’s those philosophies that will either be put to the test or enable us to cope, as we graduate from full-time work.
And now an interview with two actual retirees.
Tour Guide: Toni and Toby, please introduce yourselves and tell us about your lifestyle.
Toni: I’m Toni, and we retired a few years ago. Or Toby retired a few years ago. I’m a teacher and I retired before him. Then we moved to M [something between a small town and a farming community]. And that’s it, really!
Toby: Our grandchildren.
TG: I was about to ask …
Toby: Yes, our grandchildren are why we moved to M. There’s not much to say about our lifestyle, really. We’re not role models for anyone.
TG: Tell us what you do all day.
Toni: Nothing much. My brother-in-law jokes that we wake up with nothing to do, and by the end of the day half of it is still undone!
TG: Tell us about your volunteering.
Toby: Well, we spend a lot of time volunteering. We drive old people around, we read to them, we help organize events. The list is never-ending, if you really want to find something to do. And then on top of that we just enjoy being in the country. There are rolling hills all around, and lakes and ponds. We walk the dog, we visit baseball diamonds in the summer and the skating rink in the winter. There’s a beautiful cemetery we walk around. And then we got bikes to explore it better. So we actually get a lot of exercise as well.
Toni: And then of course our grandchildren! We always loved visiting them, and after Toby retired we could be even closer. And their parents are happy having us here, because we get along and it lets both of them work. So between the babysitting and taking them to school and bringing them back home – yes, we’re really busy!
TG: I’m curious, does your being so involved with raising your grandchildren create conflict with their parents?
Toby: No, because the parents’ standards have to apply. We’re clear about that. We have the privilege of helping to raise our grandchildren, but that doesn’t give us the right to replace their values with ours. Not that there’s a real difference.
Toni: You have to have a single set of values. If you don’t, kids get confused. And after that they’ll exploit the differences – you learn that, as a teacher!
TG: Anything else?
Toni: Actually, a lot more! Our social life extends to the church and a book club and other local social groups. We read a lot. We enjoy our old music. We even go to dances! All in all, it’s really busy. But as I said, there’s nothing different there that makes us role models for anyone. It works for us.
Toby: It’d be boring for many people. My younger brother, for example. He retired long before us. He made money in his business, that’s how he could do it.
TG: Do you mix with his family much?
Toni: We spend Christmas with them. They don’t want to travel to “the sticks,” and we get a chance to see the Christmas lights in the city and do some shopping. At first they used to make fun of “the country bumpkins,” but now they just accept us. They live a much more extravagant life, but I’m not sure they’re happier. They seem to always be restless and planning some big adventure in some new foreign place. I guess they don’t seem to be content. Their lifestyle seems to us like doing stuff for the sake of doing something. To each his own. It’s all in your head, I guess.
Toby: It’s my brother’s third marriage and my sister-in-law’s second. But this one seems to have taken, which is great. And it’s mellowed him a bit, I think.
Toni: He’s always been someone who is very decisive and always in the right. Now he’s willing to admit others can have a valid point of view, even if it’s different!
The really nice thing is how the grandchildren get along, when they get together. Our sister-in-law’s oldest is a real leader. She’s a little older than the others, and she’s always got something interesting for them to do. They worship her. What a teacher she’d make, one day!
TG: When you moved to M, did your new life take shape right away?
Toni: No, it took a little while, actually. It’s a close community. We felt a bit like outsiders at first, but the church and the book club helped. And of course through our grandchildren and their school activities. We and the other parents and grandparents really connected through them.
TG: Thank you for your story. I don’t want to suggest (as you fear) that you’re role models. But that’s because I wouldn’t do that to anybody. We’re all different. I just wanted to bring to life the fact that money isn’t everything. In fact you didn’t even mention money once. We’ll leave that for another time. But meanwhile you are the embodiment of the saying that “success is getting what you want, and happiness is wanting what you get.”
Toby: That reminds me of something our son said. He’s an actuary, and he says it’s always important to actuaries, in analyzing experience, to compare the actual experience with what they expected. It’s the same with happiness. How happy you are depends not only on what you experience, but on how high you set your expectations.
Everyone is different, with different things that turn them on. Learn from your own past and from observing others.
I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.