The whole premise of retirement -- the leisure myth -- is a bit bothersome
So said Mitch Anthony, the founder and president of Advisor Insights and The Financial Life Planning Institute, who was one of 16 experts who spoke recently at TheStreet's Retirement, Taxes, and Income Strategies symposium in New York.
"What I found is that we live in a binging society," said Anthony, who is also the author of The New Retirementality. "We go from all work, no play to all play, no work -- and call it balance. It's not balance, it's shifting your binge, and it's not healthy."
According to Anthony, there are the diminishing laws of return on leisure, and this is a big concern. (Read A Theory of Education and Health.)
In fact, he said, "a life of total ease is two steps removed from a life of total disease." And the progression is this. First, people become bored. Then they become pessimistic.
Given that, Anthony encourages people who are on the cusp of retirement or who are retired and binging on leisure, to find the balance between vacation and vocation.
Golf, for instance, is fun when it's vocation while you're working, but it's less so when it's your job in retirement. "'Leisure is a beautiful garment for a day, but a horrible choice for permanent attire,'" said Anthony, quoting Shakespeare. "People have to find that balance."
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How to Find Balance in Retirement
So how can pre-retirees and retirees find balance?
For his part, Richard Salmen, the president of Family Investment Center and the 2018 chair of the CFP Board's Board of Director, said pre-retirees might strike that balance before they retire and "find a way to extend the value of their career asset," or retire later than planned.
"What if you could find a way to balance the time off that you want and the travel that you want to do, and rather than all that waiting until you're 62 or 65, start it now at 55 or 50, or whatever the age is, and then you're going to be more willing to work longer," Salmen said.
If, said Salmen, one could extend the value of their career asset by even five years in a way that works for them, many of the "really dismal things" about retirement "don't matter as much because there's still money streams coming in from their productive work."
Some research has shown a desire on the part of pre-retirees to cycle in and out of the workforce -- from work to retirement and back to work. "I think redefining retirement means redefining flexibility in the workforce," said Michael Finke, the chief academic officer of the American College of Financial Services. "If you think about what makes people happy, there's this idea called flow that what makes people happy is doing something that they're good at, that is just challenging enough, but not too challenging."
That's what really makes us happy, he said. And that's why playing golf in retirement might make you happy for a little while. "But what you need is... a combination of human interaction and challenge," said Finke. "You don't get a lot of that in retirement."
Instead, you get that from doing something, from working. "I'd like to see us become much more accepting of having part-time work in retirement, and also accepting that maybe our interests, and our skills, and our abilities do change as we hit our 70s, and what we do may change, and we may make less money when we do it, but that's totally OK because that's what we're doing at that stage in our life," said Finke.
Finke also said we probably need to be better about being flexible when we're younger so that we don't have to spend time saving money so that we cannot do anything when we're in retirement. "There's gotta be some sort of a balance," he said. "We've got to become more accepting of maybe not maximizing the amount of money that we make when we're younger, having a balance when you're younger, and also having a balance when we're older. We're probably gonna be happier in both ages."
Pre-retirees should also think more about what they are retiring to, rather than what they are retiring from. "I think this is the big retirement blind spot," said Anthony. "I spend a lot of time coaching advisers on how to broaden the dialogue with their clients. How is it that we talk about retirement with people, but we never talk about the thing they're leaving, which is work?"
Now work is not a four letter word to everyone, said Anthony. "What I'd like to do with people is start by redefining what work is. Work is an engagement that brings value to others and meaning to you. Now notice I didn't say anything about money. It's an engagement. You can engage at any age. As long as you sense that you're bringing value in your effort and it gives you meaning by bringing that value, then you've discovered the soul of work."
To Volunteer or Not in Retirement
That could be a volunteer engagement, said Anthony. "It doesn't have to be for pay, but I think where we've misguided people in retirement with this leisure myth," he said. "How many retirees have you encountered who feel aimless, worthless, used up, disposed? This is a crime."
To be fair, volunteering isn't the be-all and end-all for retirees. For some, volunteering becomes a full-time job in retirement. And others become frustrated with the pace and the lines of command. "Somebody who was an overachiever and a workaholic at work, guess what?" asked Salmen. "When they transfer that into their retirement and their volunteerism, it's probably (going to) end up the same way because they never developed the skills to find the balance, right?"
But on the flip side, Salmen said he's had clients that specifically were retiring to get to a certain volunteer opportunity. One client, for instance, retired to volunteer for the Red Cross. "This was her life's vision of what she was gonna do post-retirement," he said. "She came back so disillusioned that she wanted nothing to do with them after that. And the reason was, was the bureaucracy that she encountered and the difficulty of getting anything done, because within many of these volunteer organizations there's lots of little fiefdoms, and whether it's a local or church or whether it's a large organization, and the problem is they're all volunteers, you can't tell them what to do because when they work for you, you can fire them, right, or you can at least try to redirect their behavior, but with volunteers it's a much more challenging process."
In essence, Salmen said volunteering isn't the panacea that his retiree clients thought it was going to be, "and so then they had to redirect their energies."
For his part, Anthony said volunteering -- according to one study -- was the No. 1 source of new and meaningful social contacts in retirement.
But there are some caveats around the volunteering. "If you volunteer below your intellectual grade, so to speak, when you actually bring some intellectual capital to the situation, and they're asking you to lick stamps or something like that, it's not fulfilling," said Anthony. "And so you have to find a way to plug into volunteering activity that is a soul fit for you, where you actually feel like they need what you have rather than you're just a peg in the process of the volunteering community."
So, said Anthony, the volunteering thing isn't easy to figure out. "It takes time, but there (are) benefits, there (are) payoffs from it," he said.
How Will You Spend Your Money?
Another big issue has to do with spending money in retirement
Many retirees, especially those in the top quintile of income, don't spend down their savings. "We don't give ourselves the license to be able to spend, especially if we're one of these working couples that is very frugal, that we make saving a priority," Finke said. "I call them the ants."
The ants, he said, have a very difficult time in retirement, and they may be more likely to work in retirement because they feel guilty spending down their money. "The question that we haven't really talked about in retirement is, 'how do we spend our money in a way that gives us the most happiness? And how do we give ourselves license to be able to spend the money on the things that we really enjoy?'"
Even something like charity or giving money to relatives, can we give ourselves the license to do it? asked Finke.
"Can we get to the point where we're more likely to be able to feel comfortable spending?" he asked. "I mean, that's why you save all that money over all those years, is to do something with it in retirement. But can we actually bring ourselves to be able to do that?
According to Anthony, the one question that needs to get answered and never gets asked, and that is, "what's the money for?"
"Aligning the means and the meaning is what return on life is all about," he said. "What's meaningful to you? I define 'return on life' as getting the best life possible with the money you have. So when you introduce meaning along with means, it leads to a much richer conversation, and it takes the pressure off the ROI conversation, right? It's not about having a pile of money. It's about properly utilizing the money you have to get the best life possible. And that's what the new retirementality is... It's not just about the money. It's about you."
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