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What Are the Odds that You’ll Flunk Retirement?

Only 44% of the people who stop working ever consider themselves to be happy in retirement, a comprehensive study has found

By Mark S. Walton

About 15 years ago, two widely respected research psychologists conducted what is considered the most sophisticated and comprehensive study ever done on the topic of retiring from work.

Interviewing nearly 1,500 retirees from all walks of life, they posed a series of meticulously crafted inquiries designed to elicit candid, extended responses to a central underlying question: Now that you're no longer working, how are things going for you?

A man giving a presentation. Next Avenue, retirement
Mark S. Walton anchoring the PBS television special based on his previous book "Boundless Potential: Transform Your Brain, Unleash Your Talents, Reinvent Your Work in Midlife and Beyond."  |  Credit: Courtesy of Mark S. Walton

Additionally, they interviewed 400 people of the same age and demographic characteristics who were still actively involved in their careers. The goal here was to understand this second group's expectations about retiring from work and compare them to the realities of retirement through a statistical method called regression analysis.

Along with their professional interests in all of this, the psychologists, Dr. Rob Pascale and Dr. Lou Primavera, each had a personal agenda at stake.

Pascale, in his mid-50s at the time of the study, had recently stepped down as president of the powerhouse market research firm he had founded, Marketing Analysts Inc., and was in search of the secrets of a long, happy retirement.

What Is a Good Retirement, Anyway?

Primavera, who was approaching age 70, in addition to his corporate consulting and teaching activities, was Associate Provost of Touro College in New York and was considering his future as well.

Once the in-depth interviews were completed, and the responses cross-checked and analyzed, Pascale and Primavera's results scientifically reaffirmed the findings of numerous smaller anecdotal studies, namely:

Full stop retirement is not right for everybody — in fact, for a solid majority of people, it can turn out to be a seriously bad idea.

Most retirees are reluctant to talk about this, Pascale told me, for fear of sounding naïve, argumentative or personally flawed. But because the study guaranteed anonymity to its research participants, they felt comfortable telling it like it is.

Consequences to Consider

"We found that most people are not aware of the conditions you're going to face when you stop working," Pascale said. "You're not aware that you're losing your friends, that what kind of job you had mattered. There are so many aspects to what happens in your life that there's no way you could ever know without personally being retired."

"You're really happy at first, then, all of a sudden, and there's a very predictable cycle, you start to go down, down, down."

I ran across Pascale and Primavera's study and reached out to them while working on my most recent book, "UNRETIRED: How Highly Effective People Live Happily Ever After." One thing I especially wanted to know was: based on the data from their study, would it be feasible to reasonably estimate the odds that you, or I or any one of us, would personally flunk retirement?

"Over time," Pascale told me, "our research showed that only 44% of people ever consider themselves to be happy after they stop working. One of the things we have when we retire is expectations that life will be this or that, but our expectations are driven by what we did in our lives, in our careers and how interesting or fulfilling and satisfying our careers were."

He continued: "Now that's all gone and the idea that you can replace those things with personal interests, hobbies or making new friends, proves to be false. In fact, that's the way it was for me."

Yes, you read that correctly, and it's an important part of the story of Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera.

Early Retirement Is Not for All

As mentioned earlier, Pascale was in his mid-50s when the study was done, and part of his motivation was to learn how to deal with the personal hopelessness he started to feel soon after his retirement.

Instead, the study results served to confirm his greatest fear: that even though he could easily afford it, taking early retirement was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made.

"I definitely should have stayed at work at least a few more years," Pascale explained. "I could have found an alternate way to reduce the pressure, like working fewer hours or hiring more people. There were alternatives that I could have done that probably would have worked out better. I wish I'd known back then what I know now."

Who's Most Likely to Flunk Retirement?

What are the character traits of people who would be happier if they continued to work into their 60s or beyond, full or part time, in their original career or a new one, even if, like Pascale, they could afford to call it quits?

While interviewing dozens of happily unretired people for my book, I found that a combination of several, or all, of the following words best describes them: highly effective, accomplished, creative, competitive, curious, easily bored, goal oriented and altruistic.

Practically all of these descriptions applied to Pascale, who miserably flunked retirement, and they similarly characterized Primavera, his fellow researcher who, at age 80, still vehemently refused to call it quits.

In addition to his college administrative position, Primavera had continued teaching in the classroom and relished every minute of his working days.

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"I teach data analysis and research design," he told me. "I teach people how to do research studies, the kind of stuff you read about in the newspaper all the time. And I teach them how to do statistical analysis to understand the results."

Primavera credited the retirement study that he and Pascale had completed a decade earlier, for hardening his resolve to continue working as long as possible. Reviewing the results of their research, he said, had generated a moment of absolute clarity.

"There's always that initial elation, you know, when people retire," Primavera explained. "You're really happy at first, then, all of a sudden, and there's a very predictable cycle, you start to go down, down, down. And either you find a way up again or, if not, you're stuck at the bottom."

What About Involuntary Retirees?

Book cover of "Unretired". Next Avenue

"Seeing this in black and white, I thought to myself: 'I like doing what I'm doing, so I'm gonna keep doing it.' Do I need the money? No, but it's challenging me, it's having me learn new stuff. It makes me weary sometimes, upset sometimes, but would I give it up? Absolutely not."

And what, I asked him, would be his prescription, as a highly trained psychologist, for those of us who have reached or been pushed into retirement, and found ourselves bored, stifled and unhappy? Or for people who fear that, once retired, they might feel that way?

"Select activities that maximize your strengths," he recommended. "Analyze your skills going back to your original job or career. Where do they fit? Where will you feel good about what you're doing?"

Embrace Experimentation

"You've got to be willing to experiment, try out different kinds of work until you find something that's right for you. And then decide how to go about making it a part of your life."

If Primavera's advice resonates with you personally, you're far from alone. Based on government data, there are millions of Americans aged 65 or over with bachelor's or advanced degrees who are currently working — not because they need the money, but because they, like Primavera, crave the sense of meaning and purpose that a fulfilling job or entrepreneurship can provide.

Between now and the year 2030, their numbers are projected to grow by another 40%, as the seismic unretirement trend continues to change the map of life.

Mark S. Walton is chairman of the Center for Leadership Communication, an education and communication enterprise with a focus on leadership and exceptional achievement at every stage of life. He is a leadership educator, management adviser, and award-winning journalist (CNN's first chief White House correspondent) whose work has spanned nearly four decades. His most recent book is "UNRETIRED: How Highly Effective People Live Happily Ever After." Read More
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