What We Lose

Jonathan Clements

WHEN WE RETIRE, we win back control over our daily life. Gone is the boss, the expectation that we’ll be at work at a certain hour, the worry about what the next office email will bring. We have a degree of freedom that, in many cases, we last knew when we were students contemplating a long summer vacation.

But even as we gain that freedom, there’s also much that we lose. If we’re to be happy retirees, we need to think hard about how we’ll cope with these losses. For some, what’s lost won’t seem all that bad. But for me—someone for whom work has been so central to my life—the seven losses below loom large.

1. Income. This is the most obvious loss, we all know it’s coming—and yet many folks are left anxious by the disappearance of their paycheck, even if they have ample savings. Moreover, with that paycheck gone, not only do we lose the ability to save, but also our financial life goes into reverse, with savings coming out of our nest egg instead of going in.

Given that, it’s hardly surprising that studies suggest retirees tend to be happier when they have ample predictable income, such as from a pension. Don’t have a pension? To ease the anxiety of retirement, consider delaying Social Security to get a larger monthly check and perhaps also purchasing immediate fixed annuities. I plan to do both.

2. Identity. When we meet folks for the first time, one of the questions is almost always, “So, what do you do?” Instead of “engineer” or “lawyer,” you’ll be saying, “I’m retired.”

How does that answer sit with you? For some, it’ll be just fine. But others will hunger for an answer that lets them reclaim the pride they felt when they described their old profession. Even now, I tell people, “I used to work for The Wall Street Journal,” resting on those old laurels, even though my last Journal byline was more than eight years ago.

3. Purpose. Our new identity will be tied to the meaningful things we choose to do with our retirement years. It might be volunteering, helping family or a “hobby.” I put hobby in quotation marks because the word can suggest something that’s little more than a way to while away the hours.

But to give us a sense of purpose, a retirement hobby has to be more than that. It needs to be something we feel we’re good at, find challenging and fulfilling, and which strikes us as important. As I scale back my work in the years ahead, HumbleDollar will be the “hobby” that provides that sense of purpose, and I know that’s also the case for many of the site’s writers.

4. Structure. I’ve worked for myself for the past nine years, and I regularly worked from home for more than a dozen years prior to that. I lack many talents, but self-discipline isn’t one of them.

For others, however, saying goodbye to the workweek’s predictable rhythm could leave them feeling lost and unsure how to allocate their time, even if there’s plenty they want to do. I suspect the vast majority of retirees soon settle into a new routine that feels not unlike their old workweek. Indeed, many retirees tell me that weekends continue to feel distinctly different from weekdays. But until you find your daily rhythm, don’t be surprised if there are some uncomfortable weeks or months.

5. Community. You may not have great fondness for your colleagues. But at least you see them every weekday and have some interaction. By contrast, as a retiree, you may have scant dealings each day with anybody other than your spouse or partner—unless you make an effort.

So, who will you interact with? Don’t count on it being your old colleagues. While some retirees regularly get together with folks they used to work with, all too often it seems those connections fade with surprising speed. In retirement, friends are like gold, as Dennis Friedman has noted, but it takes work to nurture existing friendships and make new ones.

I’m no great fan of retirement communities. Still, from what I gather, they often offer an active social scene and residents are typically open to making new acquaintances. That strikes me as a huge plus, especially when faced with retirement’s potential social isolation.

6. Relevance. When we’re earning a paycheck, our employer expects us to be productive. One way or another, we’re helping to move the world forward. We may be small cogs in big machines, but we’re part of something larger. What happens when we retire? It can feel like the world has left us behind. While some may be happy to step off the treadmill, others may feel like they’ve become irrelevant—something I worry about.

7. Power. In recent years, I’ve seen frequent references to “ghosting,” usually in the context of dating. One moment, a prospective partner is responding to every message. The next moment, he or she is gone, with no explanation or even a curt goodbye.

But this ghosting also afflicts those of us who leave the work world behind. I’m astonished by the emails I send to folks I’ve known professionally—often for decades—that are now simply ignored. That never would have happened when I was at the Journal. Whatever modest power I once had is now long gone.

I’m reminded of a story my father used to tell. His first job out of university was working for the Financial Times in London. But he left to become city editor of the Glasgow Herald, a far less prestigious publication, at least for the denizens of the City of London. Among my father’s contacts in the financial world, he quickly learned who his true friends were—because they were the only ones who still returned his calls.

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.

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