With ten years of retired life behind them, the authors review their 2008 article on retirement to see what they got right, what they got wrong, and what they have learned since.
Nearly a decade ago, we both had recently retired from EDUCAUSE and the IT profession. In the time leading up to our retirements, the two of us had shared a great deal about our thinking, some of which eventually appeared in the EDUCAUSE article "Going . . . Going . . . Gone: Thoughts on Retirement."1 After the article was published, we received more requests to republish, reprint, and repurpose that article than we did for anything else either of us had ever written. And those requests are still coming today.
Now, with ten years of retired life behind us, we still regularly discuss the issues we faced as we entered retirement. As a result of these discussions, we decided to review what we had written to see what we got right, what we got wrong, and what we have learned since.
Right and Wrong
We believe that our recommendations in the original piece remain valid and appropriate. Although the two of us have chosen different expressions of retirement life, we firmly agree on the fundamentals.
Our biggest omission was brought to our attention by Polley McClure, a friend and fellow former CIO. Polley told us that we were generally right on the mark with what we had written, with one notable exception. She said we should have warned potential retirees that they were in for a shock (and some serious perils) when the time came for them to provide their own tech support instead of depending on someone else to take care of upgrades, viruses, etc. We had learned this ourselves, in very painful ways, and quickly knew that this was an additional bullet to be added to our original list of suggestions.
In addition, there was one recommendation that we got right but that, on review, we realize we did not emphasize nearly enough. In planning for and living a satisfying retirement, don't underestimate the need for a dynamic activities plan. In our original article, we suggested that all retirees develop four separate and distinct plans: financial, medical, recreational, and activities. We even stated that the activities plan might be the most important of the four to develop. In retrospect, we cannot overstate the absolute need for developing an array of options that will utilize your energy, capture your enthusiasm, and give you reason to get out of bed each day. Some of our colleagues have gone back to work, not because they need the money but because the new part-time job offers them a chance to become socially engaged or to spend time talking about things they enjoy. One friend, who loves using and talking about tools, got a part-time job in a hardware store.
Our dear colleague Charlie Warlick passed away last January, and the following paragraph was part of his obituary: "Following his retirement from The University of Texas and moving to Nacogdoches, Dr. Warlick became involved with the SFA Steen Library, where he helped with the design and development of the computer network, eventually becoming a member of the Library staff. This association of almost twenty years was most gratifying, not only providing the opportunity for continued involvement in his lifetime profession, but for the personal and community relationships he developed and enjoyed so much. He loved being on campus, staying current with computing trends, and watching the growth of technology in education."2
Be inventive in considering new ways to contribute to the community. You need a broad set of options to explore. If you decide to move to another community in retirement, you may not have the advantage of a known network that can help open doors. You need to be aggressive in searching out and recognizing opportunities. Don't get stuck trying to hang on to your professional identity. Retirement presents the perfect opportunity to blast out of professional constraints. You are free to be, in whatever expression you choose.
Finally, it is particularly important that your activities plan be dynamic and continually updated as opportunities play out and you need to replace them. Having purpose, which these activities provide, is an essential ingredient to a happy and fulfilling retirement.
What We Have Learned
Based on our own experiences over the past years, as well as what we have seen in others as they retire, we have come up with four additional recommendations for a successful retirement.
During our work lives, many of us fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves largely in terms of what we do in our jobs. Our jobs are a huge factor in defining how we see ourselves and how others see us. However, in retirement, who you are is less what you do, and certainly, it is not what you did. This raises the question, who will you be next? In retirement, nobody cares about your former title . . . only about who you are and what you are doing now. If you want to be at the top of the heap in retirement, you're going to have to climb a new and different ladder.
Avoid denial. Sooner or later, the reality of retirement catches up with everyone. Denial simply prolongs the uncertainties of the disengagement period. Adapting to retirement requires commitment, determination, energy, persistence, emotional resilience, and courage. The longer you wait to deal with it, the older you get and the less equipped you are to muster and sustain these behaviors.
You're starting anew. What are your interests? How do you want to spend these latter years, and can you find the courage to reinvent yourself and be the person you now want to be when you grow up?
One of the challenges you are likely to face is the decision regarding how much you want to relate to your previous work life. On retirement, most of us discover the extent to which our positions determined our relationships with our associates. We experience the out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon; email and phone calls diminish quickly. If you want to retain some of your professional associations, you are the one who will have to work at it. But don't waste your time attempting to perpetuate the past. It's over. And leave your baggage behind as well. Being worried or angry about past transgressions takes up too much energy. There's an expression in yoga: "Energy flows to where the mind goes."
We both confess to enjoying an occasional walk down memory lane. We recently spent a day walking in the desert while discussing this article. For a few hours we were transported back in time to our working relationship. Neither of us anticipated the emotional impact of that brief encounter with our past professional selves.
Another challenge concerns whether to move to a new location or to stay where you are. For many of us, career decisions led us to our last location. That may or may not be where you want to spend the rest of your life. Some people want to stay where they're known. Others want a new start. This is a critical and personal decision that only you can make. Do you want to stay where you are and where social networks are already defined, or do you want to go where nobody knows who you are (or were)? Is that good or bad for you? Be aware that making this decision, like many other life changes in retirement, takes a lot of emotional and physical energy.
Recognize and Overcome the Fears and Uncertainty
In retrospect, it seems that we spend our entire working lives trying to gain skills, develop expertise, and engage in a wide variety of activities that give our lives stability and that reinforce our identities. At work, we received not only a paycheck but also accolades, and for most of us, our work was a — if not the — defining characteristic of who we were.
After retirement, all of this disappears. The result can be destabilizing, even leading retirees to question their self-worth. The disappearance of these ties that anchored their lives for decades can create uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. This is when being grounded in yourself, your loved ones, and a smaller and perhaps more isolated community can render a new equilibrium.
However, you may have to redefine your relationship with your significant other. Some people use professional obligations as a way to avoid difficult discussions. The rules of engagement are about to change. This is the time to talk about the future. If you decide not to go in that direction and don't have these conversations, at least be aware of the consequences. Being out of sync can lead to tension, resentment, and withdrawal.
There are essentially two kinds of motivational factors: those that are extrinsic and that others give to us, and those that are intrinsic and that come from ourselves and from a sense of accomplishment. During our work lives, we got new titles, pay increases, accolades, and professional recognition. All of these are given by others. But in retirement, these extrinsic motivators just are not present.
It is up to you to find intrinsic satisfaction from whatever you decide to pursue. Sure, you may receive a few extrinsic rewards as well, but many retirees are not prepared for the fact that the external world spends far less time telling you that you have worth. It is important for you to know that this is natural and to have the strength to be satisfied with the rewards you give yourself. Your future happiness is in your hands.
Savor Losing the "Tyranny of the Clock"
Perhaps one of the best parts of retirement is no longer being beholden to a schedule that is imposed on you. You can sleep in, stay up late, linger over coffee, and just enjoy your leisure. This new freedom doesn't necessarily change the need that many of us with Type A personalities have for making lists. The difference is that these lists no longer have to define your day. You can let things slide to the next day or week with impunity, and this can be a freeing, albeit new pattern, since it doesn't usually matter if you don't get things crossed off the list. One of the challenges is learning that it is OK not to be overcommitted. You don't have to feel guilty for relaxing, doing what you want (or don't want) to do, and just enjoying yourself. Have some fun.
After a pattern throughout a work career of constantly (and deliberately) adding more and more to the list of work and other obligations, plans reverse and now you can do less. As odd as it may seem, consciously taking on less, and not overcommitting, requires effort. Despite our previous suggestion to develop a robust list of activities to keep yourself meaningfully occupied, don't overdo things. Recognize too that your level of commitment will probably decline further over your years of retirement, partially due to the fact that you may not find the energy to keep up the schedules that you once did.
Another good part of retirement is having the time for physical activity. You can no longer hide behind the excuse of not having time to fit exercise into one's schedule. Both of us have enjoyed the luxury of now having the time for hiking, swimming, going to the gym, etc. Not only is such activity enjoyable, it is more important than ever as the aging process takes its toll.
Acknowledge the Markers of the Transition into Retirement
In retirement, you may well discover some markers or key indicators that your life is different, which may give you reason to take pause and realize that this is truly a new phase of life. The following are some of the markers that we have noted:
- You find yourself getting rid of an enormous amount of professional clothing that you no longer need. Perhaps some of this is due to the much more casual lifestyle in retirement or to a changing society in general. But with only the occasional trip to the theater, a funeral, or some special occasion, there is no longer a need for the number of professional outfits you once required.
- Your reading patterns change. These changes are both in the amount of time you can afford to spend reading and in the breadth and range of areas you finally have the time and curiosity to pursue.
- You quickly lose most of the technology currency you once claimed. Those of us who spent careers in IT fields become obsolete even more quickly than those in less technical professions.
- Your mental processes slow down. You may deceive yourself into thinking that you're as quick, sharp, and edgy as you have always been, but those who associate with you pick up on the difference.
- Generational differences creep into (or, more likely, take over) the world in terms of goals, priorities, and ways of working, such as totally new trends in privacy and communication.
- You realize that your vocabulary needs to evolve if you want anyone around you to understand what you're saying when you insert tech talk into conversations.
As the two of us worked on this update to our earlier article, we realized that we would have benefited from reading our own advice before we retired. For this reason, we want to be frank in presenting the challenges that can arise during the transition to retirement. Anticipation of the consequences can cause one to freeze and stay in the comfort of a familiar mindset. We encourage those of you facing the prospect of retirement to think about these matters and decide how or if you want to address them. In some respects, your worst fears will come to fruition. Everything changes. That's why you should create your own best future. Look to the future, not to the past. Retirement is more than just the next chapter in your life. It is a new book that you can write or rewrite as you see fit. It involves thinking about who you are as a human being, what you want to do, and how to get there — and then executing that plan, rather than simply drifting in the currents of retirement.
Retirement is about looking forward, letting go of the past, and making sure that you are enjoying the present. But the satisfaction and enjoyment of your days in retirement won't just happen. It is a result of your conducting an assessment (and continual reassessment) of what you want and then intrinsically rewarding yourself with a life you enjoy living. Life is good; adapt.
- Brian L. Hawkins and Carole Barone, "Going . . . Going . . . Gone: Thoughts on Retirement," EDUCAUSE Quarterly no 4 (2008).
- "In Memory of Dr. Charles Henry Warlick, May 8, 1930–January 6, 2017."
Brian L. Hawkins, President Emeritus of EDUCAUSE, was the founding President and Chief Executive Officer of EDUCAUSE from 1998 to 2008, when he retired. Prior to joining EDUCAUSE, Hawkins was Senior Vice President for Academic Planning and Administrative Affairs at Brown University.
After seven years as Associate Vice Chancellor for Information Technology at the University of California at Davis, Carole Barone joined EDUCAUSE in 1998 as the Vice President responsible for the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII), retiring in 2006.
EDUCAUSE Review 52, no. 6 (November/December 2017)
© 2017 Brian L. Hawkins and Carole Barone. The text of this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.