How Will You Spend Your Retirement?

Why It Matters:

  • The freedom of retirement may lead to more worry, not less.
  • Today’s retirement comprises multiple decades—it’s a phase of life, not a vacation.
  • A lack of structure and guidance, plus too many choices, can all become overwhelming.

Dr. Joe Coughlin, Founder and Director, MIT AgeLab tkc.profilePicture Written by: Dr. Joe Coughlin, Founder and Director, MIT AgeLab
Dec. 18, 2018

2 Min readClock Icon

The prime luxury that retirement affords us — maybe the prime luxury of life itself — is freedom. Freedom from work, freedom from commuting, freedom to sleep in whenever you’re tired, freedom to do whatever you want to do. When most of us are continually working for the weekend, retirement can look something like the weekend to end all weekends. Once we’re there, we’re free, and there’s nothing else to worry about.

The Paradox of Choice

But, it turns out, the opposite might be the case: the freedom of retirement can lead to more worry, not less. The general idea that more freedom equals less happiness is known as the paradox of choice. The paradox of choice is an everyday part of modern life. We experience it when we enter the supermarket, browse Amazon, or any situation when we find ourselves overwhelmed by the number of options we have at hand.

Retirement might be the ultimate example of this paradox of choice. With its lack of obligations in regard to career or parenthood, our decades of life after work can begin to look like a vast, undefined landscape. There are few societal guideposts that tell us where to go next. For the most part, we are on our own.

A Permanent Vacation

Even worse, the common guideposts that are out there are not particularly useful. Instead they tend to only reinforce the popular-but-misleading idea that retirement is nothing but a really long vacation. The images of this “classic” retirement are no doubt burned into all our brains: walks down the beach, bicycle rides up urban promenades, visits with the grandkids, golf, golf, and more golf.

But retirement in today’s era of longevity is a complete phase of life comprising multiple decades — not a vacation by any reasonable definition. Even if we could afford to go on vacation for thirty years, I doubt many of us would be able to stand it.

Retirement Planning Entails More than Financial Planning

During a recent visit to a fairly sleepy, upscale community in Florida, I fell into conversation with my Uber driver, a man in his fifties. He had recently retired early from an extremely lucrative position as an investment banker. What was he doing driving people around for money? He explained, “Every morning, my wife, my dog and I take a walk on the beach. Every morning we see the same faces going up the beach, and then we see the same faces going back down the beach.” He drives not for money, but so he can meet new people — a necessity he never thought he’d have to plan for. His financial outlook couldn’t be better, but his social capital? Not so much.

Successful retirement planning requires us to think seriously about the simplest parts of daily life. What’s getting me up in the morning? How am I keeping myself occupied and engaged? Who am I calling up and meeting for lunch?

None of these questions will be decided for us. In the far-better-established phases of life that come before retirement (adolescence, young adulthood, midlife), our social networks and communal obligations are often set in stone before we even come to them. In these periods of our lives we often lament our lack of freedom to choose. But the other side of having freedom, as retirement teaches us, is ambiguity, decision-making, and complexity.

Places and People Matter

To make the most of our freedom in retirement, there are two primary things to keep in mind. First and most fundamental is where we live. Many retirees think about making a move when they’re no longer tethered to their careers. But wherever we choose to go (or stay), we should be sure we have sufficient activities to keep us involved in our communities as we age. An example of what not to do: I once met a couple with plans to move to a lonely seaside house in rural Maine that could only be reached by a winding hillside road. What they imagined as an idyllic fantasy was really solitary confinement.

Second is nurturing our interpersonal relationships and becoming immersed in resilient social structures, whether through family, a church, a volunteer organization, a club centered on a common interest or background, or a part-time job. We should also think hard about the kinds of pursuits that will make us feel like we have room to grow and flourish. That might be through community service and mentoring, physical exercise, learning new skills, or even starting a new career.

None of these things will present themselves to us of their own accord. Instead, we have to make the conscious decision to make them part of our journey. That’s what the freedom of retirement is: a journey with no map, both a gift and a responsibility, both so heavy and so light.

Things to Consider:

  • Make the most of your retirement freedom by envisioning what you want your new life to be.
  • Strategically consider where you’ll live in retirement based on the activities you’ll want to do.
  • Create a long-term plan for how you’ll stay connected in your community.

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