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Are You Afraid to Retire?

Recognize the emotional fear factors to make the leap

Fear of Retirement

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Experts say there are steps you can to take to ensure you’re ready to make the leap into retirement.

Organizational development consultant Kate Utt, 68, is easing into retirement — and taking the next three or four years to do it.

She moved from California’s Bay Area to Portland, Ore., to get ready for what’s next. But Utt, whose career includes helping others adjust to change, has the same angst about a postworking life as those she counsels.

“It’s big and an important life event,” she says. “I didn’t escape the anxiety.”

Utt is part of the 55-and-older segment of the nation’s labor force — the only age group to grow since 1994, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A BLS report released in May, with projections for 2024, shows that about 41 million people in the labor force will be 55 and older, including 13 million who will be 65-plus. For some of them a regular paycheck will be the reason to stay on the job, but for others the idea of leaving work may create such uneasiness and trepidation that they’ll get cold feet and stay.

Why? Experts see three emotional fear factors: the loss of professional status that's closely bound to self-image, change and concern over how to spend the extra time.

“Work structures us and gives us routine in our lives," says psychologist Louis Primavera of Touro College in New York City, who cowrote the 2012 book The Retirement Maze: What You Should Know Before and After You Retire. “We plan around work. It is part of our identity. We go to a social gathering and people say, ‘What do you do?’ Clearly, what happens is people say, ‘What am I going to do? What am I going to be?’ The fear of loss of identity is a major fear.”

In his book, Primavera says the change from a strong work identity to a postwork identity can be a slow process, especially for those with significant emotional connections to their careers. He recommends retirees focus efforts on changing their self-identification to meaningful nonworker roles, because you can’t discard the worker role without replacing it with something else. By that, Primavera suggests increasing involvement with nonwork-related activities and strengthening relationships outside of the office environment.

Retiring is "a series of transitions," says Nancy Schlossberg, a professor emerita of counseling psychology at the University of Maryland, and now of Sarasota, Fla., where she is a consultant and public speaker on life transitions.

“Change is very unsettling. There are people afraid because they can’t forecast the future,” she says, and because they fear they no longer will have a purpose.

In her 2009 book Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose, Schlossberg talks about “mattering,” which she describes as “the degree to which you feel you’re appreciated, you’re noticed, you’re depended upon.”
But there could also be a downside to mattering, when expectations about retirement could bring conflict. For example, Schlossberg says, “One woman said her daughter expects her to babysit and will want her to babysit more. She said, ‘When I retire, I’m afraid I’ll have to do certain things that the culture expects me to do.’ ”

Schlossberg recommends an “expectation exchange” — a conversation between parent and adult child or between spouses to articulate expectations and avoid misunderstandings by giving concrete thoughts on how each envisions the future.

Retirement should also be about simplifying life and taking on fewer obligations, suggests psychologist and gerontologist Ken Dychtwald, of Emeryville, Calif.

“It’s a great time to think about all the boxes of who you used to be — materially and psychologically — and unload them,” he says. “Secondly, it’s a time of new beginnings and making new friends. [Developing social connections] creates healthy brains and more vibrant people.”

However, Dychtwald cautions, retirees need to make sure they don’t render themselves irrelevant once they stop interacting with others at work.

“If you’re not current with technology or paying attention to the latest performers and entertainment or fashions and styles, you’re relegating yourself to being a remnant of the past,” he says. “It takes a lot of work to be relevant.”

Dychtwald says surveys by his company, Age Wave, show initial discomfort about retirement lasts about 18 months and then “the level of happiness soars.”

“There is a life beyond work,” he says, “but it can be very unnerving for people making the transition.”