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Federal Employees News Digest

Early retirement? For some, it makes sense

Here we are, with autumn closing in—yet again. Labor Day has come and gone. And for some of you, it brings to mind that you aren’t sure if you really want to tough out another winter slogging through your professional career, both at the same time. But before you pull the trigger on that retirement date, everyone tells you—rightly—to make sure to get your ducks in a row. Usually, on these pages we interview these types, the most cautious advisors. This week, however, we talked with an adventurer on this subject who recommends that more people should at least consider early retirement or semi-retirement: Ernie Zelinski, author of several books focusing not so much on the money element but on how to mentally prepare for retirement, and how to ensure you enjoy a full life once you’re in it. Zelinski moved early in life from full-time work with a conservative employer—a utility company—to locking down studying for an M.B.A., then on to teaching and presenting seminars, and finally to a life of semi-retirement as a writer. He acknowledges that this route is not for everyone—but advises, with some humor, on the psychological bugbears that must be surmounted whenever anyone finally decides to retire. Nathan Abse interviewed Zelinski. 

Q&A with Ernie Zelinski

What are some titles our readers might know, among your books on retirement? 

Zelinski: My flagship book, as I call it, is How to Retire, Happy, Wild and Free (2004). But my first big one was The Joy of Not Working. It’s been 30 years since that first one was published. I continue to write. How to Retire still sells pretty well. 

What kinds of psychological considerations should people make when thinking about early retirement—so it’s got some “wild and free” to it?  

Zelinski: There are many. I’m in the middle of answering a letter from a reader right now on this. She’s worried. People worry. And yet she’s partly worried for very practical reasons—how will she get or afford health insurance, at 55 in the U.S.? So, along with the psychological considerations—which sometimes don’t have a practical part—there are often legitimate practical worries. Short of it is it’s sometimes a blessing when one person in a couple is okay with continuing to work for a time, and therefore earns benefits that both can use. If you have such a partner or can earn enough in semi-retirement, that’s great. But if you can’t, sometimes the only other way is cutting costs massively. It can be done. I did it. Or for some it means moving—if you want to retire early—to a cheaper country, at least for healthcare, such as Mexico. 

But you see situations where, practically speaking, people actually could retire or semi-retire young, and want to, right at home, but still don’t out of … fear? 

Zelinski: It happens. A lot of the decision when to retire is psychological. Sometimes you have the resources and the desire, but you still need courage. That is, sometimes you just have to have or strengthen some risk-taking in you. (Of course, I’m way like that—I semi-retired at 42. I cut my hours of work massively—with no savings, and for me my seat-of-the-pants plans that followed worked out. But, no, you can’t count on that.) You can use methods I outline to help you—in practical ways—decide and then get through and enjoy an early retirement. 

Can you share some of the methods you lay out, then? 

Zelinski: I can sketch a few. In my book I create one tool called the “Get-a-life Tree.” It’s basically what I’d call a “mind map” of what to do in retirement. On one branch, for example, you write in activities you already like doing. On another branch you map out activities you’ve always wanted to do but somehow haven’t. On yet another branch you put in things you used to like to do but didn’t have time for or let peter out—for instance, often this includes traveling. And so on. You should write in enough activities that you end up with enough on the tree not for one lifetime but three or four lifetimes. There’s much more to it, but that’s part of how this exercise works. It works for many people. 

Why do you need to sketch out and decide among so many things you’d like to pursue—there has to be more to your advice, right? 

Zelinski: Sure, there’s a lot more. But for one thing, there’s a kind of shape to life, beyond the things you write on the tree—and it’s another part of the method. That’s that you understand there are three main areas of life that must be maintained in retirement, for it to work out successfully. Because generally your life in your job provides these, and you want to continue to have them. They are: structure, purpose and a sense of community. Of course, for many people some or all of these are sadly lost when they retire. With my book, we outline how you can maintain or replace these. 

Can you name the toughest of the three to maintain in retirement? 

Zelinski: It can be any of them. But I see that the sense of community aspect, that can be very tough. Many people—especially men—have a hard time making friends, creating community. When you leave the job you’ve had for years, you think you will maintain the friendships, but with many people—and studies show this, generally—that’s not the case. One author, to describe this phenomenon, calls these job-dependent connections “workships” instead of friendships. 

But don’t people make friends pretty well, after retirement? 

Zelinski: I’m 72 years old, and I think Is am able to make friends, better than most people. But still, it’s not easy when you are not bound to work or a jobsite. It’s a crucial but often overlooked fact, again shown in most studies, that what makes people have an enjoyable life as you age has to include several factors. But believe it or not what’s more important even than whether you are married or have a strong partner at home, whether you’ve had kids, or anything like that—it’s how many close friendships do you maintain. Turns out, that’s the biggest factor! And many people overlook this. 

What is the worst problem people you’ve advised run into, when things go wrong with retiring early? 

Zelinski: Well, there are those who end up enjoying retiring early, and find purpose and community and what they need for a good life. And there are those, as you asked me about, who have enough, practically speaking, to go ahead and retire, but just don’t know how to live, how to fill their days once they are retired or leave their career.

I ask again, a different way: What’s the worst pothole, financial or psychological, among folks with the courage to retire early?

Zelinski: Early retirement is certainly not for everyone. But sometimes even when it should go right, and there’s enough money or alternate ways to earn it, it all goes wrong anyway. Point is, the real problem sometimes is not the lack of money in hand.It’s that people semi-retire or retire, and they drift. They are just not motivated now that they are out on their own. No one is making decisions for them anymore, about their day or anything. And they tend to spin around over and over again: “I could do this, or I could do this, or I could do that, …” and so on, ending up not doing anything much at all. They end up watching a lot of television. I’m not kidding—and studies show retirees do tend to watch a lot more TV, on average. It can go either way. 

2021 Digital Almanac

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