Forced Retirement: Getting Upright When Your World Turns Upside Down
A psychotherapist/retirement coach offers helpful suggestions for bouncing back
(A recent study by ProPublica and the Urban Institute found that 56 percent of older workers suffer at least one layoff or other type of involuntary job separation between turning 50 and retirement. After that, just one in 10 earn as much as they previously did. In this excerpt from the new book, The Retirement Challenge: A Non-Financial Guide From Top Retirement Experts, psychotherapist Phyllis Diamond, founder of Strategic Retirement Coaching, offers guidance for people 50+ who’ve been forced out of their jobs.)
What makes a forced retirement different from normal retirement is who decides to terminate the employment relationship. When you’re forced to retire, the ending of your employment is not directly of your choosing and you are retiring earlier than you expected. You are not alone!
In an era of company downsizing and consolidation, it is not uncommon for older and more highly paid employees who have been with their employer for many years to be put on the chopping block.
Forced Retirement: His Industry Retired Him
For example, there’s Gary, a 63-year-old married photojournalist who was forced to retire two years ago. As the print news business began to contract, he lost his full-time position and began freelance work. Over time, he was getting fewer assignments and was required to work terrible hours for less pay. Gary found the work demoralizing and felt rejected. He hadn’t wanted to retire — rather, Gary felt the industry retired him.
After a forced retirement, it’s easy to feel you’ve lost your equilibrium. Individuals facing involuntary retirement were found to have the lowest life satisfaction scores compared to those who made a voluntary departure from the workforce, according to a 2013 study on the Impact of Types of Retirement Transitions on Perceived Satisfaction with Life.
The 5 Stages of Grief After a Forced Retirement
The loss of a career can feel like a death. The resulting grieving process is similar to that following the death of a friend or loved one. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross has outlined five stages in the process of grieving a loss after death and they’re similar for grieving after an involuntary retirement: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.
Denial: You can’t believe this is really happening. You feel paralyzed.
Anger: Once the shock has worn off, you begin to feel angry toward your company, supervisor and the world. For many retirees, the job is how they define themselves. When this is taken away, they feel frustrated and angry that they’ve lost their identity.
Bargaining: You might want to try to get your job back, even with reduced pay, hours or responsibilities. This rarely works.
Depression: Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness take hold and the future looks bleak.
Acceptance: When your anger and depression are no longer consuming, you accept your new reality and begin to develop plans to make the most of your life.
Each individual passes through these stages at his or her own rate and may move back and forth through some of the stages.
The Suddenness of It All
A major problem of forced retirement is the lack of time to plan because of the suddenness of the termination. When someone voluntarily retires, there has been time to think about the future. Do you want to kick back and have a leisure filled retirement? Or do you plan to continue in some form of work or volunteerism? Is there some life passion you’ve been waiting to fulfill? The forced retiree hasn’t had the chance to think about these things.
Work provides us with five important functions the forced retiree will suddenly lose. How will you deal with the changes in your financial situation? What about the time management and structure to your day that has been a major part of your working life? What will happen to the status you had and the recognition, reputation and sense of achievement that came with it? Where will you find the sense of usefulness you felt at your job? And how do you replace the social connections that are gone from your everyday life?
These losses can lead to feelings of emptiness, shame, embarrassment and worry. You can feel like a failure.
Depression, Anxiety, Addiction
Individuals retiring involuntarily are more likely than others to suffer depressive symptoms. Some examples: a feeling of hopelessness, worthlessness, helplessness, guilt, fatigue, changes in sleep patterns and appetite, loss of interest in things once pleasurable (including sex), irritability, restlessness and trouble concentrating.
These feelings will often pass once you regain your equilibrium. If you feel stuck in a depressed mood it will help to talk with a mental health professional.
Forced retirees often suffer from increased anxiety, too. You can feel like you are at the edge of a cliff and the wind might throw you over at any minute. Anxious symptoms can be characterized by feelings of tension, worry and recurring intrusive thoughts and concerns. People with high levels of anxiety can have physical reactions like increased blood pressure, tightness in their chests, nausea and headaches.
Anxiety generally subsides when the new retiree takes action steps to create a satisfying retirement.
When forced retirees have not been able to move past depression and/or anxiety, some turn to alcohol, drugs, gambling or other addictions. The use of substances feels like a quick fix to life’s disappointments, but the impact on family relationships, health and quality of life is a big price to pay.
The forced retiree is not the only one to suffer from sudden unemployment. It has a major impact on relationships between couples. Tensions can run high and you may feel more guilt for having brought this on your family. There can be resentment about the new household tasks the other spouse is now expected to take on.
Managing Your Life After a Forced Retirement
The first step to managing the life-altering event of forced retirement is to recognize that you are not alone. You are allowed to grieve. Give yourself time to sit with the feelings.
Talk to your spouse, friends or other family members. You can ask them to listen, but let them know you would prefer they not give you advice. Only you will be able to figure out what comes next.
Don’t rush into something out of fear. Impulsive actions don’t always turn out the way you expect. Now is the time to just think and feel.
And breathe! Relaxed breathing is one of the best tools to deal with stress. It slows down your heart rate and anxious thoughts. I like a simple breathing exercise of inhaling through your nose to the count of four and exhaling through your mouth to the count of four. That focus keeps your mind occupied instead of thinking about your worries.
It helps to practice relaxation breathing for a couple of minutes twice a day. Then use it whenever the stress of your situation feels overwhelming.
Making Time for 'Worry Time'
Another helpful technique for dealing with anxiety is called “worry time.” Schedule a 15- to 30-minute time each day to do your worrying. (Avoid bedtime when it can interfere with sleep.) When a worry comes up at other times, tell yourself to save it for your worry time. During worry time, allow yourself to do as much worrying as you need and then let it go until the next day.
This is also a good time to start a journal. Write down any of the thoughts and feelings that come to you. Allow it to be a “mind dump.” If an idea, dream or passion comes to you, let it flow. These thoughts and feelings can become a reference point for you at some time in the future.
Once the feelings and emotions associated with your new situation have sunk in, action is a good antidote to anxiety and depression. Most people think action requires motivation. In truth, it works the other way around.
Small Steps, Not Big Ones
Take micro steps. It is too overwhelming to imagine changing your whole life. If isolation is one of your fears, first make a list of people you might meet for lunch; then make a date with someone (anyone).
If you don’t know where to begin to find volunteer opportunities, pick one interest from your journal and begin by Googling volunteer possibilities in your community. Each small step brings you closer to achieving your goals.
Finding Structure in Your Life
One of the scariest feelings about suddenly being retired is creating structure to your days. You might want to write down the hours of the day with a blank space next to each hour. Then, begin filling in what an ideal day would look like. It is a useful reference point even if your actual days don’t follow it precisely.
Try to do a daily activity that makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something. And get out of the house so you can find a community to replace the lost social engagements provided by your job. People find new communities through religious organizations, classes, volunteering and exercise programs. The choice is yours.
Passions and Pursuits
You can rediscover or find new passions you never had time to pursue. You will have time to improve your health and wellness. You might even decide to explore new work possibilities now that you are in control of how much you want to work. It can also be a time to take classes in areas of interest.
Once you find your footing, you will discover that retirement doesn’t have to be an ending. It can be a time for personal growth and self-actualization, a new engagement with life and rediscovered dreams.
(This article is excerpted from The Retirement Challenge: A Non-Financial Guide From Top Retirement Experts by Retirement Coaches Association members.)