Retirement: who’s a happy little Vegemite?

July 15, 2013

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 1344 retirees found the large majority described themselves as feeling happier in retirement than in their previous life. Around 60 per cent felt happier, 33 per cent felt the same, and 7 per cent felt worse, researchers Garry Barrett and Milica Kecmanovic, of the University of 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.”

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 per cent 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 with an income less 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 per cent) but boredom came next (28 per cent).

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, this 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.

How do you feel about retiring? What are your experiences of retirement? Please leave a Comment.

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