Retirement: who’s a happy little Vegemite?

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The history professor was sick of people assuming he was bored and depressed now that he was newly retired. Even a young researcher doing a thesis on retirement who’d interviewed him had presumed he was facing a crisis. The professor wanted to tell people, “Hey, retirement’s pretty good; don’t be scared.” When I met him, I was a full-time working journalist, and if I thought of retirement, it was with fear and trepidation. But this engaging man with a big intellect couldn’t have been more cheerful. We sat on his balcony that overlooked sparkling Sydney harbour and he said he’d never been happier.

Retirement is getting bad press these days. At a conference I attended recently, one speaker said the ‘R’ word should be banned. Baby boomers are being exhorted to work as long as they can. The already-retired are being encouraged to take up ‘encore careers’. Yes, some people can’t wait to retire. But a lot are terrified of the abyss.

From the BBC comedy, One Foot in the Grave, here’s how the typical retiree is portrayed: “So how are you coping now, Victor? Bit of a big one isn’t it, retirement? … Suddenly being thrown on the scrapheap of life, a prisoner in your own home with no prospects, no purpose, nothing to live for … It’s not getting you down, I hope?”

Or another stereotype, no more comforting, is of the retiree who insists she’s “never been busier”– but busier at what? Borrowing the title of a recent book on retirement, a cynical worker might ask, “Are you just existing and calling it a life?”

Well, my husband retired last week, and though I avoid the R word like the plague in describing myself, I’ve been out of the paid workforce, too, for almost a year. So it seems a good time to dig deeper into the retirement quandary. Does it bring a loss of self-esteem, isolation, boredom? Is it as bad as I feared back then on the balcony when I wondered if the jolly professor was kidding himself?

Let’s look first at the research on retirement. A recent Australian study of 1,344 retirees found the large majority described themselves as feeling happier in retirement than in their previous life. Around 60% felt happier, 33% felt the same, and 7% felt worse, researchers Garry Barrett of the University of Sydney and Milica Kecmanovic, of the University of Technology, Sydney, found.

As I looked further afield, the story repeated itself. Most retirees are satisfied with their lives. Sixty it seems is the new thirty. The latest British study by Britain’s Office for National Statistics shows that people in their late 60s feel like they’re back in their prime. They rate their physical and mental health higher than at any time since their 30s. Since the 1950s, people have been trying to show retirement is stressful, bad for health, and destructive of people’s sense of self. But according to US gerontologist David Ekerdt, of the University of Kansas, “the evidence, when you pile it up, says that’s just not the case”.

Unhappy campers

That’s the big picture, the majority experience. But some studies also show up to one-third of retirees aren’t happy little Vegemites. Even with the more usual 7% to 10% being disgruntled, it represents a significant number having trouble adjusting. A key is choice, the Australian study shows. People who choose to retire are happier than people forced out at younger ages through job loss or ill health, and on lower incomes than anticipated. And according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics a sizable number of retired people – over one-third – leave the workforce because of sickness, disability or job loss.

So the retirement experience is more nuanced and diverse than first appears. The Australian study points to other factors that may influence the transition. Being healthy, having a partner who is healthy and owning your own home make a difference. For some retirement is like a sugar hit. Particularly if you’ve been unhappy beforehand, the extra sleep and reduced stress retirement brings can boost happiness.

But how long does it last? Some new unpublished Australian data shows for most retirees, all is well for the first three years, then many experience a dip in satisfaction with life. Dwindling finances may be part of the story, and health problems. But so may boredom. Almost 230,000 previously retired Australians, the majority women, were back at work or looking for work in 2010-11, according to the ABS. The most common reason was money (41%) but boredom came next (28%).

For me, taking voluntary redundancy with about 80 of my colleagues from a contracting newspaper was a good move at 61. Even so, I was a candidate for the disgruntled retirees’ club. I had no hobbies, no grandchildren, I loved to work, and I didn’t want to devote my life to leisure and travel. I doubted that volunteer work could fill the void. I think baby boomers want and need to continue to contribute and that an ageist society must get over its hang-ups and allow us to do so.

What’s kept me happy is having projects, including writing a blog for a start. I’m re-creating a work life with its structured day, albeit less pressured, with time for friends and exercise. Perhaps I lack imagination; I’m failing to explore new paths. But I figure retirement is not an event. It’s a process. And I’ve got lots of time.

Adele Horin was the social issues journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald for 18 years prior to her  ‘retirement’. This article was first published on Adele’s Coming of Age blog (adelehorin.com.au), and is reproduced with her permission.

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3 Responses to Retirement: who’s a happy little Vegemite?

  1. Warren Bird December 16, 2013 at 11:27 AM #

    I’d love to see some decent studies on this, ones that don’t make the usual statistical errors of casual empiricism.

    For example, seeing someone who isn’t enjoying retirement doesn’t mean that it’s retirement that is the reason they aren’t ‘happy’. They might just be a grumpy old man, who didn’t enjoy work either.

    Or, just as valid, someone who’s really happy in retirement may well have been really happy when they were at work too. If they are a well grounded, self-actualised individual then they aren’t defined by the circumstances of their life and make the most of whatever they are up to.

    There is far too much “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” analysis that takes place in such areas. That is, observing two events and presuming that the one that happened first caused the other. EG someone retires, then you see them happy. Are the two connected, or is there more going on that person’s life?

    Financial advisors need to be careful here. They aren’t trained as personal counsellors, so it’s not their place to help people become happy in retirement or whatever. It’s their place to help them work through their financial needs and strategies to achieve their goals.

  2. Ramani Venkatramani December 13, 2013 at 2:39 PM #

    Adele has brought badly needed perspective to the issue.
    Like everything in life, R is multi-dimensional. Those who depict it from their single dimension based on averages provide disservice and myopic view. Think of the elephant and blind men!
    Mea culpa from the Finance industry, a major culprit: Even discounting the self-serving exhortations to save more (with no hint on how to defray current demands), our input ignores that R encompasses paying for living, health, creative needs, continuity with the past, fear of death of oneself and those close , relationship difficulties and resulting expectation gaps.
    A boy or girl around 18 has a surfeit of help in getting into work. At 60, one is left to fend for oneself getting out of it. Self-help stories, including from finance gurus, are self-interest thinly disguised.
    As with the predicted boom in geriatrics and funeral services industry, a bonanza awaits the entrepreneur who will serve this behavioural need: this entails accepting increasing irrelevance to one’s traditional environs (look back how we treated our old in our prime?), knowing death is stressful only during life, preparing alternative interests in our fifties and valuing relationships.
    The last word should go to Oliver Goldsmith:
    His best companions, innocence and health;
    And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.
    The goal must be:
    To husband out life’s taper at the close
    And keep the flame, from wasting, by repose.

  3. keith December 13, 2013 at 10:46 AM #

    Thanks Adele for that. You are right – most people portrary retirement as something to be wary of and perhaps a bit ‘scary’. I will be in a position where I can choose to retire in a couple of years and, at this stage, am probably going to do so. A lot of that decision is looking for a less stressful life but the flip side is trepidation about ‘what will I do’. So your story does help to reassure me.

    All the best.

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