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SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? The Retirement Conundrum (Part 1)

Do you know anyone who is years away from retirement exhorting, “I’m not working a minute after my eligibility date!” and then laughing at people who could be golfing 9:00 to 5:00 rather than working?

This article is the first of several musings on a huge midlife decision - retirement. Speaking from experience, the decision turned my life upside down, to the point of questioning my own emotional stability. In order to make sense of this conundrum, I had to channel tools I used regularly in my lengthy career in human services and apply them to my own situation (Spoiler alert - it could be narrowed down to Change, Transition, Emotions, and Self-reflection!)

Even if you are one of the fortunate ones for whom finances are not the driving force behind your decision, it does not mean that the decision to exit the workplace is automatically an easy one. In fact, despite years of responsibility and competent decision-making, you might suddenly be feeling wholly inadequate and questioning your ability, even your mental stability. What if you have had a fulfilling career doing something you LOVE and you are fit and healthy but are of age to retire? You might be asking yourself, “If this should be such a happy time, why am I not happy?”

Well, there might be a logical reason for that! It might be a comfort to know that what you are experiencing is totally normal! (This is also a heads-up for managers, often far from retirement age, to help them understand what their usually-decisive and high-achieving employees might be going through.)

The decision to join the ranks of the ‘retired’ is not made lightly and certainly seems like a journey, sometimes an arduous one. In fact, it is one of the heaviest decisions we have to make in life. For me, the decision to marry, to have children, or to buy a house was easier than the retirement decision. (Of course, the intuition of youth might have factored into those decisions!) I thought of Prochaska and DiClemente who literally wrote the book (books) about change – and retirement is certainly a BIG CHANGE in life – for some insight into the journey. There is massive information on Prochaska and DiClemente available, and their theory is well-known in social service fields. (I refer to as a reminder). Prochaska and DiClemente presented the concept of change occurring in stages – the decision to make a change does not occur instantaneously; there is a process involved that can take months or even years. I would hazard a guess that the bigger the change, the more the “Stages of Change” come into play!

Think about this from the retirement decision perspective. The first step is Pre-contemplation – the person has NO THOUGHT whatsoever about making a change, in this case, to retire. The next stage is Contemplation which means the person is starting to think that maybe a change MIGHT be warranted - retirement might have some validity. The third step is Preparation during which the person has decided that a change IS warranted and begins to think about what else he or she could do - what would retirement life be like and what does he or she need to do to get there? The next step is Action in which the person has made the decision and puts the plan into action - the person has decided to retire and is now taking the steps to exit the workplace and, at some point, does leave. Finally, the Maintenance stage is reached, and the person is taking steps to establish the new behaviour for the long term - in the retirement scenario, the person is fully retired and taking steps to become comfortable with that lifestyle. But, hold on! All might not be rosy . . . a Relapse can occur when the person falls back into old behaviour, and this is to be considered a normal part of the change process - the retired person might make the decision to return to the workforce before again 'retiring' (I note that an acquaintance told me NOT to accept any work in the first year of retirement due to the risk of returning full time!).

Prochaska and DiClemente teach us that our decisions for change occur in succession, one stage after the other – we may fall back at times but we then re-enter the ‘circle’ and have to work through each stage until the new life is now ‘normal’.

But it is not that simple. I found that my thinking was muddled by a huge emotional component after experiencing a long, satisfying, and enjoyable career. Emotions can really knock the stuffing out of logical decision-making!

Interested? Please read Should I Stay or Should I Go (Part 2).


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