Do You Really Need to Retire – Or Just Create an Easier Life?

On a visit to the picturesque seaside town of Kennebunkport, Maine, in August, I found myself sitting on a public bench in town. Now I was the lone male member in our group of five on this trip, which saw the four women browsing about the many shops, while I sought comfort and solitude at a well-shaded bench (I wasn’t being anti-social, I’m just not into shopping).

I wasn’t alone. A parade of several men came – all retired – stayed a bit, then left in an ongoing rotation. They probably sought the same refuge from shopping I did.

Create an Easier Life
Create an Easier Life

I tend to be a talker by nature, but I have moments where I prefer to just sit, listen, and take in what?s going on around me. I chose to listen carefully to the conversations of the retirees. Maybe this is painting with a broad brush, but I found their conversations to be repetitive and lacking in substance. The faces changed regularly, but the conversations were noticeably similar.

Kennebunkport tends to draw in people of means – which begs the question, what the heck was I doing there? It was clear these retired men weren’t struggling, at least not financially.

Yet despite their prosperity, these men seem to be completely bored. I don’t mean bored as in where they were or what they were doing, but bored in general.

That’s what made me ask the question, do you really need to retire, or just to create an easier life? Just listening to these guys for a while made me question the real value of retirement. And it raised another more provocative question, can it even be a self-imposed hell?

The Current Retirement Obsession – Does it Really Create an Easier Life?

This is a topic I’ve covered before in Why are Americans So Obsessed with Retirement? Largely in an effort to keep people in the investment game, the financial industry has pulled out all the stops in painting retirement as the ultimate financial goal. As an industry, once you create urgency, selling your product or service is pretty easy.

It seems to be working. There’s even an entire cottage industry, referred to as the “FIRE” movement. FIRE is a moniker for financial independence, retire early. The object is for people in their 20s and early 30s to scrimp and save outsized percentages of their incomes to be able to retire at 40, 45, or even 35.

It’s a worthwhile goal, IF you have a six-figure income, and IF you’re able to defer gratification by living on only a small percentage of it, and IF you’re willing to forgo most of the trappings and benefits that typically go with that income level.

But obviously that lifestyle is not for everyone. And obviously the vast majority of people don’t make anywhere near six figures. In fact, according to the Federal Reserve, median personal income was just over $31,000 in 2016. Even if we bump that up to couple thousand for the passage of three years, it still doesn’t approach six figures. Even median household income, which came in at $61,400 in 2017 disqualifies the vast majority of Americans.

An even harder reality is that the majority of Americans will rely on Social Security for most of their retirement income. Yet the dream of retiring to blessed nothingness is still imprinted on our minds.

But is that what we really want, or is it simply a byproduct of mass marketing?

Retirement – And Then What?

So let me get back to my public bench experience in Kennebunkport. The men I saw, most of whom were certainly among the retirement elites, financially speaking – and their blessed nothingness – seemed to be doing little more than treading water in life.

I know it may be a generalization to draw conclusions about how people live based on short conversations. But it’s also a fact that what people talk about provides real insight into what’s really happening.

Sure, there was plenty of talk about health conditions and medical treatments. That’s standard fare among many of the elderly. But it was the other topics that concerned me more.

There’s the trip here and another trip there. A bit of chatter about the children and grandchildren they rarely see. And the standard banter about sports and politics.

But that was it. None of them seemed to have a story to tell that seemed the least bit interesting. Maybe that’s what happens after you’ve been retired for several years.

On some level I get that. But it all seemed to center around a life without real purpose.

Maybe it’s just me, but that’s not the kind of life I want to live. Yes, a lot of jobs are boring. Many today are incredibly stressful. But we often fail to realize how much our work gives our lives purpose.

For better or worse, the average person’s life revolves around work. It’s not just how we earn a living, either. It also largely defines who we are, what we’re about, what we do, and perhaps most important – what our contribution to our fellow human beings is.

It seems to me that’s an overlooked aspect of the retirement regime. Is retiring to do nothing the goal? Should it be?

Do You Really Need to Retire – Or Just to Create an Easier Life?

So let’s get back to the basic question, which is the title of this post. It seems to me the goal in the retirement years should mostly be about creating an easier life. And let’s not stop there either. We should be working to create an easier life throughout our lives, and not just at the end stage.

Yes, it is true that some people need to retire for health reasons. It’s equally true that as we get older, we slow down.

But that doesn’t mean we become useless either. Every one of us spends at least half a lifetime developing certain skills and acquiring experiences that add value to our lives and to those of people around us.

Should that be so easily abandoned in favor of nothingness? WebMD reports that depression is common among the elderly. Health conditions, particularly heart disease, are cited as a major cause. But it also cites loss of social support systems as a major driver. Much of that is caused by retirement itself.

How much of the loss of social support is the result of what amounts to disconnecting from the world? That includes retirement itself. When you retire, you not only stop working, but you also terminate the connection work brings with other people and with the world in general. And perhaps even more significant, is the sudden end of a sense of purpose.

Having a sense of purpose is more important than most of us realize. Even if your main purpose during your working life is to retire – and I’ve seen that with more than a few people – that goal, that purpose, that thing that motivated you for decades – it’s suddenly gone when you retire.

Then what? Should that be the end goal in life?

Now About that Create an Easier Life Thing

There?s no one definition of an easy life. That?s really the point, life really isn?t easy ? except on TV and the Internet. But it can be easier, and I?d like to offer that maybe that should be the goal, rather than retiring to do nothing.

At its core, the whole concept of retirement is a desire to join the idle rich. That seems more like an indulgent fantasy than living an interesting and worthwhile life.

Rather than retiring then, maybe the goal should really be about downshifting. That may not look like traditional definitions of retirement. But it can provide many of the same benefits, while including a sense of purpose, and removing the isolation that often comes with full retirement.

If you think about it, retirement virtually moves you into a subculture. The vast majority of people who lead interesting and meaningful lives are doing something productive. When you stop working completely, you essentially cut yourself off from that segment of the population. Because you no longer work, there?s simply no common ground.

I?ve been to a number of senior citizens homes and retirement communities, and I?ve come to think of them as something more like ghettos for the elderly. It?s as if the suburban conformists have relocated into enclaves where they can conform on a different level.

People in such facilities and communities may be enjoying retirement life somehow. But they?re cut off from young people, and from the people in life who are making a difference. There?s a pronounced lack of the very dynamics that create and maintain civilization.

I can?t imagine myself living in such a community, let alone having no substantial purpose in life.

Downshifting Without Retiring to Nothingness – Create an Easier Life Instead

Perhaps the major problem here is that most people spend their lives working in occupations they don’t like. I spent enough time doing the same in my life to know how numbing that can be.

Maybe the real purpose should be finding that occupation that best suits your talents, preferences, and lifestyle. Would retirement be an absolute necessity if you did such work?

Now I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t save and invest money for your later years. You absolutely should. But that’s also something you should be doing throughout your life.

Having money saved and invested is a big part of creating an easier life. Money works as an insulator against the hardships of life, and also opens up options.

But if you save and invest money with creating an easier life as the goal, the need to reach a certain dollar threshold is no longer valid.

Retirement planners are now saying you need to have $1 million, or even $2 million, saved for retirement to live a comfortable life. Financial guru Suze Orman has even gone on record as saying you need $5 million – at least! To my thinking, that disqualifies all but the top 1% or 2% of the population from ever retiring.

That’s only necessary if your desire is to live the life of the idle rich. And when did that become a prerequisite of retirement?

What’s wrong with just slowing down to a more comfortable lifestyle?

Is it any wonder there’s so much insecurity surrounding retirement? The person who has only a small nest egg – or even none at all – is essentially declared a hopeless case, a failure at the game of life. Is there any hope?

A Roadmap to Create an Easier Life

Millions of people are wasting valuable time and mental energy fretting about not having enough money to retire. But maybe that time and energy would be far better spent developing a plan to simply live an easier life. You don’t even need to wait for retirement to do that. It’s desirable at any stage of the game.

What might that look like?

Let’s start with shifting into an occupation that’s more agreeable

Maybe you hate the job you’re in right now, or the one you had before you retired. Fine. Is there another occupation that would work better for you? If you’re retired already, you can start building it now. If you’re not, you can decide what that occupation will be, then get it rolling so you’ll have it fully up and running by the time you retire.

We often forget the whole concept retirement for the middle class isn’t even 100 years old. It really only became a thing after World War II. And for my own part, I don’t think we were created to do nothing. In Ephesians 2:10 we’re told:

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

And that was written at a time when people did much more physically demanding work than they do now. And a couple thousand years before retirement was even a dream.

Get out of debt

Debt is one of the biggest sources of stress in life. And it’s becoming a rising burden among retirees. Simply by getting out of it will make your life easier. It’s even more important if you don’t have a lot of retirement savings.

Keep your lifestyle simple and inexpensive

This is admittedly easier said than done with today’s cost of living. Yet, there’s actually a lot of potential. For example, you can create a cohousing arrangement to save on housing costs. If you can create a home-based business, you may be able to move away from a high cost metropolitan area. And if you live in an urban area well served by public transportation, you may want to consider doing without a car.

Radical suggestions yes, but worth considering if you won’t be able to retire rich.

Save and invest as much money as you can

Once again, you don’t need a million-dollar retirement plan. The vast majority of people entering retirement don’t have one, but somehow many seem to be doing fine anyway. Yes, having a big retirement portfolio is better than not having one. But it shouldn’t be the end of the world if you don’t. If you can accumulate $50,000 or $100,000 or more, it will at least insulate you from unexpected expenses, or a temporary reduction in income.

I realize that kind of retirement savings scenario doesn’t fit within the conventional wisdom. But if there’s no chance of having the kind of retirement savings that will give you the life of the idle rich, you’ve got to do the next best thing. And your life isn’t a failure if that’s “all you can do”.

Remember that your life has value apart from your financial situation. Embrace that reality and vow to live your life for all it’s worth, no matter how much or how little you have.

A Glimpse of an Easier Life, Rather than Full Retirement

Let’s put all the above together, and see what it looks like. Let’s assume you’re 65 years old and about to retire, and you’ve got the following working in your life:

  • You’ve left a job that didn’t agree with you, and began a new occupation, perhaps a business, that you actually like doing.
  • By continuing to work, you’re able to interact with people from all walks of life. You enjoy a life of meaning and relevance.
  • You work something less than 40 hours per week.
  • You’re collecting Social Security for additional income.
  • You downsize your home to something smaller and less expensive, or even live in a co-housing arrangement.
  • You’ve managed to save $75,000, and you’ve got it invested conservatively. You’ll never retire on it, but it enables you to sleep well and to live a life with relatively little worry.
  • You’re completely debt-free. All your income is your own.
  • You can’t afford to move to a retirement community or to travel the world, but you learn to appreciate and enjoy the life you have each day, without relying on expensive entertainment – or expensive friends.

Despite not having a million-dollar retirement portfolio, I’m betting your life will be pretty easy and comfortable.

If you’re on your way to accumulating a seven-figure retirement portfolio, good for you! But if not, it may help to lower your expectations and focus on working to create an easier life. It may not be retirement in the traditional sense, but if it keeps you comfortable financially, gives your life meaning, and allows you to live a lifestyle of your choosing, it could even turn out to be better than retirement.

If you won’t be a millionaire in retirement, do you think working to create an easier life is a goal worth pursuing?

( Photo by Beige Alert )

18 Responses to Do You Really Need to Retire – Or Just Create an Easier Life?

  1. Good article. That?s exactly what my husband and I will have to do!! It?s not the end of the world though. In fact I have a retirement job right now so I?m ahead of the game!

  2. Hi Terri – If it helps, I’ve known many people in the retirement years – maybe even the majority – who worked nearly until the end of their lives It didn’t seem to hurt any of them, in fact most seemed to have a deeper appreciation of life perhaps because they were continuing to experience it at a deeper level. Years ago I had a good friend who was in his 70s who used to say “what am I going to do, retire and play shuffleboard?” Humorous, but I think it made a serious point. The last thing I want to do with my life is spend it killing time.

    Good on you for having a retirement job already in place. I suspect the transition into the traditional retirement years won’t be very difficult for you. I know we all dream of a life without responsibility, but I don’t believe that’s what we were put here for.

  3. This article was s great! Everyone is different but I retired four years ago and was bored and depressed because I had lost a sense of purpose. I started working full time again at 63 and I am happier than ever. I won?t retire until I?m forced!

    Thank you for a great article.

  4. Hi Lynne – Thank you, I like to take a different angle on topics in the hope that it will resonate with some people, at least those who prefer to think differently than the crowd. I totally get the sense of purpose motivator. I’m not at retirement, but one thing I’ve been noticing in myself in recent years is a desire to be relevant. The people I’ve known who continued working in some capacity in the retirement years have been a lot more interesting from what I’ve seen. For better or worse, the world does judge us for making or not making some sort of contribution.

    It also holds hope for those who won’t be rich in retirement. You don’t need to be, and you can still lead a compelling life. I think that, in combination with slowing down a bit and eliminating stress wherever possible, will be the real goal for most people. I’m seeing too many elderly people working in retail and other jobs, making me think a lot of them jumped the gun retiring, when they really weren’t as well prepared as they originally though. And even if you do have a lot of money saved, continuing to earn money is one of the best ways to make your nest egg last longer. This is especially true in an environment where the best you can do on safe investments is 2%.

  5. Reaching the fourth year of my “forced” start of retirement in 2015, I am glad I made a plan of action starting 5 years prior to when I had to stop working full time. First of all, you are completely right in stating that debt needs to decreased drastically once one is dealing with a fixed income. Your projected budget spending should be based on the income you received via those sources which are not equal to work income. Next plan how you want to spend your time. The only thing work was that it was an expected activity. Unless you are in your dream job, work to most people is just a means to earn money to pay bills. My first priority after stopping work and fixing a workable money budget was to rest my body from the trauma of the extended hours of work and the commute times, but I did make a mental list of things to do within a given time period. Okay, most men won’t consider this something to do, but I finally found time to re-arrange sections of my apartment a little at a time, a modified Marie Kundo but not as radical. Perhaps, men need to revise their view of life after work better. I am not bored and I am healthier because I make all my meals and do daily walks. Retirement doesn’t mean to stop living your life, but to open a new chapter on how to live it without the pressure of working within a forced expected performance. Just like changing how you eat healthier.

  6. I see what you’re saying MariaRose, but I also think we can choose to “work healthier”. That can start at any time, but retirement may be a prime time for anyone whose felt trapped in a job or occupation that didn’t fit well. It can offer a fresh start to anyone who needs an additional income in retirement, but is tired of the same-old-same-old job.

  7. Good article! Is true some people want to retire to do nothing and find themselves bored. My husband and I took early retirement in 2016. We both worked for the same employer, our jobs were stressful and required long hours (50 to 60hr/wk), on call time, travel, and long commute to different sites. We both worked in information technology, it paid really well but at a cost. We are both happier now. We take college classes, volunteer, take care of the grandson and a little bit of travel. Once we complete our degrees, we plan on working at least part-time to keep our minds active. Sitting in the porch watching life go by is not for us.

  8. Hi Yadira – That sounds like a plan! I get a sense that after a busy life, the idea of becoming idle won’t work for you and your husband. I think that’s true for a lot of people, but some only find that out after they’ve been retired a while. It may be that the option to retire is better than actually doing it, but that’s just a guess.

  9. I enjoyed reading this. It’s actually something I feel I needed to hear. I’m no where near retirement age, but I’m at the point where I do need a plan in place to make me and my wife’s life easier for when we reach that age.

    I turn 41 next week on the 15th, and rather than drive myself crazy wondering if I’ll be eating canned pet food (I’ve heard a ton of weird retirement horror stories), or not have to worry about money; while doing something I enjoy in my later years. This article was a nice point in the right direction ?

  10. Thanks Ahmad. At 41 you’ve got plenty of time to build up a nice retirement cushion. But if you can’t, you also have plenty of time to build the kind of occupation that will make retirement less necessary. You’re in a good place, but use the time between now and then wisely.

  11. Thanks for the reminder!
    As I consider my actions getting closer to retirement, I recall my Grandparents and Great-Grandparents. Coming from rural backgrounds they didn’t just retire to the rocking chair.
    Your point that we weren’t created to do nothing is well taken.
    All the best to you and yours!

  12. Thanks Wade. Actually, part of my inspiration for this article was thinking of my grandfathers and many others who reached the retirement years successfully. They didn’t have fat retirement portfolios – it wasn’t even a thing in their time. Instead, they stayed out of debt, kept costs low, saved money (always), and continued to work at something, but at a slower pace. I remember when my grandfather lost his job at like 77 and he was depressed. A few months later they called him back and he was walking on air.

    Also, if you look at most of the people in the FIRE movement, the continue to work at something, even though they’re in a position to retire. I truly don’t think we’re meant to do nothing. Maybe take periodic sabbaticals, but then go back to contributing and using our skills.

  13. Hi Kevin, a great post as usual and one that drew me as I plan on getting my social security early this year. Yes, wanted to wait for the larger amount but my body is yelling, get it and take some time to figure out my next season in life. Lol, one thing I do know, I never want to do retail or customer service again. Between my age and my body complaining, I now have to figure out something that will interest me and not wear my body out more. Love to walk, but my left knee is rebelling. Yes, retirement can be time to do the things we have wanted to do over the years. Or maybe time to spend with family, maybe traveling. As I age, I now make my only child my priority. It had been 2 years since we had seen age other and it was awesome seeing her last year for my birthday. I want future birthdays to be special and based on spending quality time with each other. We got to see the penquins here in Virginia. Yes, they are the African species. No cold required. Now to figure out what next to do. I am also working on moving. Getting harder to get up my tiny studio apartment steps and over the awful youngsters above me who do not believe in sleeping between the hours of 11pm to 6am daily. Kind of scared but excited about the move. Thought about moving back to Florida where my daughter moved back to from Virginia. But rethought that idea. Too much family drama and hot!!! Love the 4 seasons. Best wishes to you and your loved ones. Angela

  14. Hi Angela – Good to hear from you again. What I like about your “plan” is that it’s very loose. I think that’s the way all plans should be. None of us know what the future holds, so the best we can do is head in a certain direction, but be prepared for variables and unexpected outcomes. Some of those outcomes will be unpleasant, but others will be blessings. We need to be prepared for both, and ready to adjust direction as needed.

    Collecting Social Security early definitely has its advantages. I know most financial people tell you to wait as long as possible, but that only makes sense if you’re in a stable income situation. If you’re not, it makes more sense to collect early. That will open up some options, as well as providing an additional income source.

    Now what you’ll be looking for is more of an income supplement. That’s a lot less stressful than needing a job that will provide 100% of your support. I’ve found that the less dependent you are on any single source of income, the greater your ability to find work that you actually like.

    I think this shift will open doors you never imagined in the past. Just be ready to step out and take some chances. You never know what’s behind the next-door.

  15. Great article. I have always been afraid of retiring and doing nothing. I watched my mother sit in front of the TV after she retired and just slowly slip away. I am a nurse and I have been trying to think of a way to turn that into a part time, independent service gig where I could stay relevant and help others while earning a few supplemental dollars each month. Thank you for pointing out that we all don’t have to follow the herd to be happy.

  16. Congratulations on choosing your own path for your life Brian. You have to do what will work best for you, and ignore the herd. I have zero plans to retire even as I get closer to retirement age. My plan is to semi-retire, though I haven’t set a date for that. Maybe it’ll be when I no longer feel the passion to write. But I have a feeling I’ll just shift gears and take up something new. Leisure only feels good when it’s limited. When there’s nothing constructive to do, it’ll lose it’s shine. If you think about it, life is and always has been about balance, and that’s at any age. That 65 thing is completely arbitrary, designed to get older people out of the workforce to make room for young people. I get it, but that doesn’t mean we should quietly disappear.

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