Federal Employees News Digest

Retirement: A practical and emotional decision


Since COVID hit, the pace of retirements—both in government and in the private sector—has increased. This trend is understandable given the virus’s much-publicized dangers, especially to older adults, along with the uncomfortable unknowns and life changes demanded by the pandemic. Adding to the enormous burden on society of illnesses, lives lost and personal economic damage has been that those who wish to stay in their careers have seen the day-to-day facts of life on the job turn upside down—with heavy health restrictions in the workplace or mandatory new technologies to master if working from home. This week FEND looked for insights on current trends as well as advice on retirement from a long-time Forbes magazine reporter and Wall Street Journal-bestselling author specializing in employment and retirement issues, Robin Ryan. Ryan has reported and written voluminously with advice on the workplace, careers and retirement. Nathan Abse interviewed Ryan.

Q&A with Robin Ryan

Why did you name your most recent retirement book as you did?

Ryan: I titled my latest book Retirement Reinvention, because I see retirement nowadays as another phase, a final phase, in a person’s career. That’s what it usually is now—so, “retirement” has changed, and that’s why I named the book this way.

So, if someone is fed up with their longtime career—as we hear so often since COVID—or it’s simply the time to retire, what advice do you offer them?

Ryan: Let’s start by looking at trends. First, remember I’m a career path type myself. I write for Forbes. Here’s what I’ve seen happening in the last year-and-a-half. The point is it’s not always a choice, recently. Many companies and organizations couldn’t afford to keep all their people anymore. So, they offered them early retirement buyouts—often offering a benefit, or else no one would go. Behind the scenes, managers are coming to these employees and saying, “take the deal, soon there will be involuntary layoffs,” etc. The carrot is a stick—take this deal or live with the consequences. But, there’s also a second track, as you mention in your question. Many people just discover they hate their jobs now, in this COVID situation. Baby boomers are less tech-savvy than younger people, and many find it very hard to convert to the online world, the online version of their job. Gen Z and Millennials didn’t have as much trouble. So, you have a big group of people taking retirement because of this part of the picture.

So, COVID turned many jobs into online operations, and that hastened retirement for many?

Ryan: Yes.

Unlike some private-sector professionals, most feds aren’t facing that squeeze—so, what factors go into would-be retirees that aren’t being pressured to leave?

Ryan: Right. A lot of federal government people are very security-minded. From the beginning, they’re given the opportunity to work with a financial planner—at no cost to them—and that professional helps them go over all their options for retirement. They go over their pensions, their 401(k)s if they have any, their Social Security money and crunch the numbers. Let’s take an example—a federal family considering retiring soon might foresee an income of about $7,000 per month, between pensions and Social Security. But as they review expenses they see—uh-oh—they’re spending $10,000 per month pre-retirement.

And what does that tell them? Don’t retire?

Ryan: Not necessarily. It tells them they need to trim about $3,000 per month in expenses. And when people see the numbers and that a 60-year-old is likely to live to 90, they understand they have a long time ahead—and they find ways to trim costs if they really want to retire.

What solutions exist for people in that situation—wanting to end the career track, but seeing there’s a money gap and many years left on Earth ahead?

Ryan: What I hear most from people getting ready to retire is this: “I am done with my day job!” They don’t want to shift to similar long days of work elsewhere. No. They want more life, more socialization, to meet new people, to have something interesting to add to their life. Obviously, COVID has changed things—but still, now, the country is opening up again. Everywhere you go you see “Help Wanted.” Of course, for many career people they find the openings are in retail and service jobs, yet they want part-time work and many make it work for them.

Can you give me an example?

Ryan: Sure. I have many. Mary, for instance, loves gardening. But it’s just been her hobby. Now, however, she wants to retire and as she starts looking for part-time work—to help close that dollar gap—she looks for overlap with this interest. She goes for a job at Home Depot, since they have openings in the gardening department. People retiring these days want this—to be around like-minded people, work that’s enjoyable in an area of their interest, often practically mindless, and they want absolutely no pressure at all. And it’s got to be part-time. As soon as that job stops being fun, they’re out of there. That’s what my reporting tells me

How does that work though, financially?

Ryan: Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, the minimum wage is about $15 an hour. Consequently, a person working part-time can walk away with $200 or $350 per week. This is what most I speak with who can want to do. The vast majority—three-quarters of them like this level of work. Now, for people who are financially set, the money isn’t the issue. They too want to work part-time—but often where they feel they are helping make the world a better place. Many volunteer. For instance, a retired very accomplished executive I interviewed, and his wife now work at a food bank. Why? They say they get a lot out of helping people “not to be hungry,” if only for one day at a time. This drove home to me all over again how a mission can touch someone.

You say retirement decisions are hugely about social considerations and are about continuing to find meaning in life—can you elaborate?

Ryan: Yes. much of the decision, people tell me, has to do with the idea of continuing to find meaning in life, after they leave their career. Think about it. You’re used to seeing people every day. You are used to belonging to something. But when you retire, if you don’t do something else with your time, you just belong to your house! Many of your old friends are still working, and your relationships with them change. It leaves a big hole in your life.

So, finding new friendships is a big part of preserving “meaning in life,” right?

Ryan: Absolutely. And many retirees report it’s very hard at the beginning of retirement to make new friends. Most working people met their friends through their kids and at work. Now your kids are grown and gone, and you’re retiring. And COVID has disrupted a lot of traditional ways people meet new friends. So, now people in that situation are turning to technology, to Facebook and Facebook groups and other social media. I myself found a fiction readers group, started by five fiction writers unable to do a normal book launch. There are over 50,000 people in that group now! Social media really has helped fill this gap in spaces to make friends created by COVID, and it’s something retired people are using. Many use it and feel again like they are part of a community—that’s helpful these days.

But online groups are geographically far-flung—what about your old identity?

Ryan: Let me tell you what happens as soon as you retire, another social fact these days: No one cares where you used to work. The questions put to you when you retire now are: Where do you live? What are your hobbies? What do you do with your time, now? No one cares and no one asks: Where did you used you work? It’s not a main interest. New relationships and activities are based on the here and now.

So that’s a trend: corporate or agency identity falls away fast. Any other trends?

Ryan: Sure, and some new trends are old trends. Many retirees want to be snowbirds. Baby boomers are retiring, and if they live up north I hear from them they really want to be snowbirds. Midwesterners and northerners want a foothold in Arizona or Florida. There’s a lot of moving to or getting part-time places in warm places, and moving nearer grown kids, of course. Part of this is financial. Many people, once they retire, can’t afford their old home. So, they rent it on Airbnb three to six months a year—or sell, and make Florida or Arizona their new home.

Those are the trends—but what about long-term advice that you give retirees?

Ryan: I share my personal story, and it gets that advice across. Nine years ago, I got breast cancer. For two years, dealing with the cancer was horrible, and many more there was severe nerve pain. That was my situation. At the same time, my secretary also got cancer, as did one of the hockey moms I knew—and within months they were both dead. All these events changed my thinking. A lot. The lesson here is simple: When planning retirement, think about health and think about time.

In sum, your work finds retirement is a calculation but it’s also emotional, right?

Ryan: Right. Retirement involves a lot of factors. It involves finances, but it’s hugely an emotional decision. But it’s important for people to see the health facts too. The likely fact is you are more active now than you will be later.

2021 Digital Almanac

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