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Why Do So Many Dream About Retirement?

Years ago I met a man who retired in his late 50s and when I asked if he is happy, he said: “Retirement is a scam”. He told me it was a big dream that turned into disappointment. He was not happy. He felt alone and kind of useless. That inspired me to write an article called Retirement is a Scam in 2017 not only because of what he said but because I read a lot of research about the realities of retirement. I do not want to repeat what I said there but it is a big topic worth discussing again.

Let’s start with this question:

Why do you think so many people wait for retirement with so much enthusiasm? 

The first reason is they don’t like work they do or some hate it.  Second, they are burned out since many workplaces suck the soul out of them by making them feel like a machine or a number (instead of a human being), while demanding them to work long hours. When you have work that kills you (literally in some cases like the book Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer explains), of course, you will daydream about retirement every single day.

It is actually very sad that work environments make people feel so miserable and even if they have the potential, capacity, and experience to be vital for many decades to come, they force people to choose to retire as soon as they can.

When I started learning about the history of work though, I realized there was no concept like “retirement” before the Industrial Age. People worked all their lives because that was the only way to live and make money. Once people traded their time to make money, they were made a promise that it will pay off at the end by this new concept of “retirement”. At the time though, people died 5-10 years after retiring. Now, someone who retires in their 50s, 60s have at least 20-30, sometimes more years to live. First, we need more money to last that long and then we need some kind of purpose in life. Not everybody has great plans on what to do.

More research shows we are hard-wired to contribute as human beings, even if we are not always conscious of it. When we stop learning and contributing, we feel “not needed”. Our health deteriorates as the Wall Street Journal article “The Case Against Early Retirement” explains. (I have the whole article as a subscriber that I can send you if you are interested.) Especially men who have their work as the biggest focus of their lives have a very hard time when they retire. As I wrote in the article I mentioned above, SCORE mentors I met who are giving away their hours as volunteers even in their 70s and 80s said retirement was fine for the first few years but nobody can travel and play golf all the time. They wanted to feel useful. They want to feel needed. That has so many benefits for society too. Younger generations have a chance to learn from their vast experience and wisdom which would otherwise go to waste.

As the WSJ article points out, when men delay retirement, it reduces their mortality rate by 32%. That says something significant about the role of work in our lives. It also says “many people feel like they should retire by a certain age because it is the way it has been”. We sometimes do it without questioning or having a good plan. Then there are those who are forced to retire. This is also a big discussion among the labor department, businesses, and government entities. Those people who are willing to work but forced to retire have to go through a very difficult emotional turbulence and sometimes financial hardship as well.

If you have been following me for a while, you know why I care about this so much.

The saddest truth about this is people want to retire mostly because they hate their work and they are burned out.

(Hence my article titled “Who else wants to quit their crappy jobs?” got viral-like none before.)

What if none of this was true? That is what we need to change.  People are born to bring meaning to their lives. The concept of separating work and life is wrong in the first place. Work is a big part of our lives.

The second worst thing is the fact that people postpone their dreams until retirement not knowing for sure if they can get there.

One reason I love this new generation is they want to do what they love now, not wait for an arbitrary day they will have time. Don’t we all hear or read something that says we need to stay in the moment and talks about the power of now? The only thing we are certain is that we have at this moment. We have this all upside down until now.

We need to find the system to have people do what they love, use their strengths, bring more meaning to work so that they do not chase weekends and retirement.

In order for people to do what they love now and stop dreaming all day about the day they retire, we need to create a whole new DNA for work. We need to find the system to have people do what they love, use their strengths, bring more meaning to work so that they do not chase weekends and retirement.  People need to have the flexibility to have time to do things they care about. We should love our lives as a whole instead of having an artificial separation between work and personal lives. My husband (I learn a lot of from him about retirement since he does the financial planning for it) and I both had our share of doing work we did not care about or worked at toxic environments. That is why we chose a different path to do work that is deeply meaningful to us and created flexibility to make sure we do not wait for any future date to fulfill our dreams.  That is probably why we don’t have dreams about retirement as many people do. Even if we were to hit the lottery today, I know we will do our work. Because it has never been only “work” in the traditional sense for us. It is who we are in essence. There is no separation between who we are and what we do.

We also know now that doing purposeful work makes us stay healthy physically, emotionally, and cognitively. (Dr. Eric S Kim from Harvard School of Public Health studies.)  I always got fascinated by people who love their lives; it seems like all of them had work they cared about. They do something useful at later stages in life too. I am also extremely lucky to have an example like my dad who is turning 90 this month who always had purposeful work to this age.

I am definitely not saying retirement is bad for you. Some people are ready, they have all the means, they have a plan. All I am saying is it is not always glorious as it seems for some of us based on research, especially if we retire really early like in our 50s. Just considering why you want to retire early, being prepared financially, and for what is to come and having a good purpose to live beyond it will help you feel much happier and healthier in your golden years. It is worth putting some thought into it. Make yourself feel needed and useful since that seems to be a common theme among retirees.

In the meantime, many of us try to build a system that supports all this as the younger generations force the change by questioning the status quo.

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Brooke O. Erol
Brooke O. Erolhttps://www.purposeful.business/
Brooke O. Erol started her career at IBM following the traditional path she was given to be "successful". She quit her "great job" on paper after 11 years, feeling she is not aligned with it. She started her journey to find her purpose in life. She started her first business in 2003; Your Best Life to help professionals who don’t like their jobs and want to find more meaning at work. After being around so many unhappy people at work as her clients, she decided to help the organizations and leaders who employed them. She started her second business; Purposeful Business to help leaders catch up with our times and grow their businesses without sacrificing the well-being of their people; where profit becomes a by-product rather than the main goal. She believes life is too precious to live only for weekends and retirement. She is the author of Create a Life You Love. She is also the co-author of "From Hierarchy to High Performance: Unleashing the Hidden Superpowers of Ordinary People to Realize Extraordinary Results" that became an International Best Seller in 2018. She speaks and writes about Leadership, Purpose-Driven Life and Organizations, Future of Work in the US, and abroad.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Brooke – Great thinking, and so well said. I watched my father work his entire life. He grew up during the depression, so work was all he knew. When he retired, he had no interests or passions to pursue. His marginal health from working hard all his life contributed to him literally wasting away. I vowed never to let that happen to me. My days now — podcasting, writing the book, coaching — are often as busy or busier that when I was “working.” And I’m doing what I hope is making a difference for some.

  2. Thanks, Brooke.
    Maybe it’s not an either/or: Savings, protocols (I have a neighbor who retired as a pilot at 65 – it’s mandatory), love/hatred of job, and so on. I think it’s more a question of moving beyond traditional frames – graduate from college, marry and have 2.3 children, manage a career while the wife takes care of the household, retire at age 65, move to Florida . . . .
    It’s hard to accept alternative possibilities until we give ourselves permission to entertain them.
    Have fun. Then more.
    Mac

    • So true Mark. Appreciate your comments. Since I have been with people who are made so unhappy at work they almost start dreaming about retirement early in life because they do not live their meanings at work and the motivation is in the wrong place. They do not even know who they are to entertain alternatives or know how to spend a good time. Thank you.

  3. I loved my career and my various jobs along the way. However, I retired at age 53 and never looked back. That was 27 years ago and I have never felt unwanted or unproductive or that I had a huge void in my life. For the next 14 years, I walked in the woods, sat by our stream and contemplated life, did some wood carving, some writing, a lot of reading, some mentoring, and helped my wife create a world-class formal English garden. I spent time with our animals, raised some vegetables, and played with my tractor. We now live near the beach and my age doesn’t accommodate a lot of physical activity. But I still write, mentor, and spend a lot of time reading under a canary date palm by the pool.

    I think that the reason so many have trouble transitioning into retirement is they identify themselves with what they were in their working world. If I’m not a teacher, a nurse, a VP of Sales, or a …., then what am I? Those people have no hobbies, no interest in exploring, no curiosity, and nothing to transition into. Thus, they find themselves living in a vast void.

    • So true Ken. Love examples like yours. You knew how to use your time, entertain, rest and enjoy life. It seems like you knew what makes you happy and you knew yourself. I agree many identify themselves with work, becomes their identity; they never take the time to understand what makes them happy. They feel lost. The reason they dream so much about retirement at an early age is because they don’t like their life and wait it to pass while that is their life! The fact that you mentor means a lot to me. That is one of the best things we can do with our life experience. I wish everybody can enjoy their retirement as they do. Always love to hear these great examples. Thank you.

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