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A Time of Change Part II: Retirement
by Allan N. Schwartz, CSW, Ph.D.

The July issue of Message of The Month discussed the fact that life is filled with constant change. To deal with change and in order to adjust to those changes, people must accomplish both practical and emotional tasks.

This of Message of The Month is about how to live after the changes have already occurred. The particular change to which this article is dedicated is Retirement. According to the Federal Government, every year since 1980, 1.6 million Americans retire and begin to receive Social Security benefits. In a nation where people define themselves by what they do, retirement becomes a matter of self-redefinition or identity change. Retirement also brings people into direct conflict with the major American work ethic. According to this ethic, a person is not valuable or useful unless they are working to earn money. Being productive is so highly valued that, for many, retirement leads to feelings of being useless. These feelings often lead to lowered self-esteem and depression. For too many retirees, the solution to depression is to start drinking heavily in an attempt to reduce these painful emotions.

The American work ethic is very connected to the rapid pace at work that many people experience. Everything, from the daily rush hour to get to work to heavy work loads to done at a rapid pace, provides workers with an adrenalin rush, which makes them feel stimulated, harried, pressured, and worried. Despite the fact that these hurried work experiences are painful, it becomes difficult for many retirees to relinquish them. Consequently, one of the commonly felt experiences soon after retirement is a sense of boredom. Especially for individuals with Type A Personalities, a slower and less pressured life style is difficult to adapt to. Type A Personality is defined as an individual who thrives on pressure and hard work. A common term for this type of person is the “work-a-holic.”

The fact is that after having worked most of their lives, people deserve the opportunity to retire. The question becomes how to retire and avoid feeling depressed?

Retirement Without Depression

  1. Spend more time with your spouse and plan how that time will be used. Adjusting to being together all the time can be difficult even for those with the best of marriages.
  2. Rehearse retirement by semi retiring and learning to how to spend your extra free time.
  3. See how it will feel to live elsewhere by renting space and vacationing in those areas.
  4. Speak to other retirees and learn where they live and how they spend their time.
  5. Either develop or return to previous interests and hobbies. These can be anything from hunting and fishing to stamp collecting.
  6. Engage in volunteer work that feels satisfying and fulfilling.
  7. Develop new friends and relationships through the volunteer work, new community, or new hobbies.
  8. Some people prefer to find part time work in order to feel useful.
  9. There are those who decide to develop their own businesses after working for someone else their entire lives. The Type A Personality is the individual who best enjoys a new business adventure.
  10. Have realistic expectations about retirement. Like most things in life, it is not as glamorous as some people believe, nor is it as awful as some may fear.
  11. Prepare for retirement by assessing the amount of money that will be available after leaving work.
  12. Learn to live on a smaller budget than you had before you left work.
  13. Perhaps, most important of all, it is necessary for retirees to be flexible in their thinking about themselves and what they would like to do. Retirement is a major life transition and, as such, a time to redefine one's role in society and in life.

Unanticipated Retirement

Many people, age fifty and older have experienced retirement as a result of a company's “downsizing.” Of course, downsizing is often a euphemism for cutting that part of staff that commands the highest salaries. Older workers are most often the people who fall into the category of those who are targeted for downsizing. The net result is that people find themselves forced into retirement before they had planned.

The following is a case study of just such a person and how he failed to adjust to the new circumstances in his life.

Case Study

Several years ago, Mr. A., a man well into his fifties, consulted me. He was forced into retirement two years prior to his consultation with me. Because of a huge loss of profits, the company for which he worked was forced to down size after the World Trade Center disaster of September 11, 2001. He was depressed and anxious because he could not find another job in the same field. He was a man with an intact marriage and two adult children.

Mr. A consulted me because he thought I could provide him with “career counseling.” However, what he really needed was psychotherapy because of the level of his depression. He denied this depression and attributed his problems solely to not being able to get a job. What he was not able to see was that, now that he no longer was obligated to work, he could start to do the things he always wished to do. One of those things was purchasing old, worn out houses, refurbishing them and selling them at a profit. Carrying through with such a plan would have satisfied several of his needs:

  1. He would be investing in real estate with the potential of earning a lot of money, which was extremely important to him.
  2. He would be using his hands; something he always dreamed of doing but never had the opportunity to do because of his regular job.
  3. He would have felt fully employed and “useful,” things, which he believed he lost.

Unfortunately, this man was so self defined by the way he worked for his entire life, that he could not make the transition to a new kind of life in which he could earn money, work and really enjoy himself. For him, it all came down to getting help in finding another job to replace the one he lost. Any other way of thinking was alien to him. Interestingly, his wife demonstrated creative thinking and flexibility by developing an Internet-based home business. He could not see himself as an investor in real estate despite having friends who would have been happy to join him in such a venture. Ultimately, this patient was not able to change his rigid way of thinking and left treatment in quest of help in finding employment.

This case illustrates some of the pitfalls having to do with adapting to change:

  1. Mr. A. continued to think about employment in his outmoded and inflexible way, despite the fact that he was now living under circumstances that were completely changed.
  2. He could not redefine himself and his role in society once that he was forced into an early retirement.
  3. His entire identity and self esteem was based on the way he worked for most of his life.
  4. For every suggestion made and every option discussed in therapy, Mr. A. found reasons and excuses why they could not succeed.
  5. Mr. A. was very security minded and did not adapt well to change. However, life had dealt him a severe change that he could not accept.
  6. For Mr. A., the fact that money was in plentiful supply and was not an issue, made no difference at all to the way he perceived his life and his situation.

Comments and questions are welcome about this, or any other articles, written by Dr. Schwartz.


Dr. Allan N. Scwartz, CSW, Ph.D.Dr. Schwartz is a clinical social worker with training in psychoanalysis and family therapy. He has more than twenty years of experience working with people seeking help with feelings of depression, anxiety, relationship issues or family problems. Marital life and the experience of raising children have given him a deeper understanding of the joys and difficulties of family and work life. These experiences have deepened his effectiveness as a psychotherapist. He has a private practice in New York, NY and Rochelle, NY. You may visit Dr. Schwartz's website or contact him via email.

Last modified: August 7, 2004

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