Jul 8, 2022 Rethinking Work: What to Ask Yourself Before You Retire

What to ask yourself before you retire

For most of the past 20 years, retirement rates in the U.S. were declining. People were staying in jobs longer, experts speculated, because of factors such as increased life expectancy, higher education levels and the rise in the minimum age to collect full Social Security benefits.

In the past two years, that trend began to reverse: Beginning with the pandemic-related economic shutdown, a significant number of U.S. adults who hadn’t necessarily planned to retire did so. It’s estimated that two and a half million “excess” retirements took place between March 2020 and the second quarter of 2021.

“What we’ve been seeing is a wave of people who have rethought the contract between themselves and the world of work,” says Frank A. Ghinassi, PhD, Senior Vice President of Behavioral Health and Addictions at RWJBarnabas Health and President and CEO of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. “The question is whether they made the choice with a complete understanding of what the consequences would be.”

Reasons to Leave

Fear was a motivator for many, Dr. Ghinassi says. “Early in the pandemic, before we had vaccinations and better medications, lots of people were dying,” he says. “People began to ask themselves, is going into work worth my personal risk? You saw this in people who couldn’t work from home, such as environmental services workers, first responders and health care workers.

“Also, many individuals began to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. Surveys indicate that’s been true for an increasing number of people in the past two years.

“Then, as the pandemic ground on, making decisions about vaccination and risks and new variants have all begun to weigh on people,” Dr. Ghinassi explains. “Older adults started thinking about how they wanted to spend the rest of their lives. A lot of employees began to examine whether they could make retirement work earlier than previously planned.”

For a fortunate subset of people, personal wealth grew during this time period due to a heated housing market and booming stock market. With more money came more options.

And Then What?

“Some people have a good plan for retirement and have really thought out the budget and what they’ll do,” says Dr. Ghinassi. “But often, people have a fantasy of retirement life that’s based on their vacations: You don’t have the stress of work, you go somewhere nice and spend more money than you usually do. The reality of retirement is that you have to create a lifestyle that can fit your budget, 52 weeks a year for the next 25 to 30 years.”

Retirees also need to be prepared to find new ways of being with their families, he says. “Americans tend to be very hardworking. That means you were away from your family 45, 55, sometimes more hours a week,” he says.

“When you retire, your family members are going to see you infinitely more than they have before and that’s a big change, even in happy, well-adjusted families,” he says. “Now you have to find structured ways not only to be together, but to be apart. People deal with issues like, how do you get your alone time when your spouse is always around?”

Selling a house and downsizing to a smaller space can present challenges as well. “You’re not only spending way more time together, but now you’re doing it in a smaller space,” Dr. Ghinassi says. “That’s not necessarily good or bad, but it does require renegotiation. Ideally, retirement is based on a realistic plan.”

If it turns out that full-time retirement doesn’t suit, the current shortage of employees in the U.S. offers opportunities to return to the workforce. “Some people,” says Dr. Ghinassi, “decide to rejoin the workforce in a totally different profession and become reinvigorated about work.”

8 Questions to Ask

“It’s important to walk through the actual realities of retirement as thoroughly as you can before you take that step,” says behavioral health specialist Frank A. Ghinassi, PhD.

  • How are you going to cover medical costs?
  • What is your debt situation? How much of your nest egg is tied to the stock market? Finances can be a source of significant stress.
  • Are your friends retired and if not, how will that affect your social life?
  • How will you structure a typical day, from the time you get up until the time you go to bed? What will a typical week look like? A month?
  • What are your hobbies, and how will they help provide structure for your time?
  • Have you talked to people you know well and asked them what retirement has meant for them?
  • If you’ve decided to move away from where you’ve lived, how will you make new friends?
  • If your partner is also retired or not working, how will you negotiate daily life now that you’re together for a greater part of the day?

To learn about mental health services at RWJBarnabas Health, call the Behavioral Health Access Center, which is open 24 hours a day, at 800-300-0628.