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How Do You Know When to Retire … and Begin Your Next Act?


As I write this first post based on the third edition of Stress: Living and Working in a Changing World, my emotions are mixed. On one hand, the idea of writing a blog is exciting. On the other hand, as a husband and grandfather, I must ask myself, “Do I have time to take on an additional task?”


All of us experience varying degrees of stress throughout our lives. In my own case, young adulthood was tough, middle adulthood was tougher, and late adulthood has been the toughest.


There are mile markers in life: going to work, getting married, having children. One day you may face another—retirement. “How do you know when to retire … and begin your next act?”


Should I Retire? The first time I faced this question was at an American Medical Association meeting in Chicago. My subject was “Physician Well-Being: Handling the Frenzy, Frustration, and Fatigue.” Afterward, a participant asked, “Should I retire?” I had no idea, but I thought what a loss it would be if he retired too soon.


The second time I thought about the question was personal. After a shower, I saw two old legs in the mirror. I thought, “Whose old legs are those?” and I realized they were mine. Then I thought, “Should I retire?” Although married men never look at their bodies in the mirror, I have been thinking about this question ever since. I have noted the experience of others, read current studies, and thought about it seriously. I have come to the conclusion that this is a case by case question—there are no absolutes on the subject, just general principles.


It is stating the obvious, but you don’t want to retire too soon. You don’t want to run out of money or meaning. You also don’t want to retire too late, never to learn that life can be more than work for pay. You want to retire when the timing is right, and this depends on your attitude. Life is partly events and mostly attitude, and a positive attitude requires saying “yes” to three questions. Three out of three is ideal.


Question 1: Is your family ready; do they want you to retire? Remember, they need to eat.


Question 2: Is your employer ready; do they want you to retire? Remember, they need work well done.


Question 3: Are you ready; do you want to retire? Remember, you need purpose in life.


Is Your Family Ready? For all your life, the family has needed your time and money. You have tried to provide both. As you consider retirement, ask, “Is the family’s need for my time greater than the family’s need for my money?” If the answer is “yes,” the family is ready for you to retire. My wife and I have been married 49 years. We have raised a family, and as the years go by, we miss each other more each day we are apart. A point to remember is that time alone can make time together richer and more enjoyable.


Is Your Employer Ready? Employers will pay employees who produce good work. At some point, an employee’s ability may fail. A carpenter once told me, “My knees are gone, my back is gone, and I forget things. I am not safe anymore.” An employer may accommodate your reduced performance for a period of time, but when the cost is too great, the answer is “yes,” the employer is ready for you to retire. It may be possible to hire a new employee for much less pay than you are receiving. This requires honest self-assessment.


Are You Ready? If your work brings personal satisfaction and economic reward, you are blessed. When you are challenged to do what you are good at doing, you have found your calling. On the other hand, if the joy of your work is less than the pain and drudgery of your work, the answer is “yes,” you are ready to retire. Your joy and passion may be found elsewhere. Also, if the quality of your performance no longer meets your high standards, you are ready to retire. One evening, I gave a lecture on a topic I knew well, but I had to use as much time trying to remember it as I had used 49 years ago trying to learn it. The day may come when, because of skill or health, I can neither learn what to do nor remember to do it, and I will be ready to retire. My goal is for my last course to be my best course and my last work to be my best work.


In my case at this time, the answer is “no” for the three questions of retirement. One day, the answer will be “yes” to any one of these, and I will be ready to retire and begin a next act. It may be more like turning a spigot than flipping a switch, but at that time I will begin Act III of life, either for pay or not. Act I was getting ready to work, Act II was doing work, Act III will be capitalizing on the work I have performed. I am not sure what I will do or where I will be, but it will be a glorious Act III, I hope. I know engineers who sing, teachers with stores, scientists who sail, and some who raise grandchildren. Preparation will be important, but with this attitude, life ahead can be the best to come.

Learning From Others Ralph Tesseneer, president of Northern Kentucky University in its early years, understood people and was a great teacher. Several years after he had retired, I asked him what he had learned about retirement.


From what he had observed and experienced, he believed that the best predictor of a happy retirement was a happy work life. Similarly, the person who is miserable during the working years is most likely to remain so.


What I got from this is the importance of personal qualities versus social circumstances. It is not age and employment that matter; it is health and attitude. As “Grandma Moses” said at age 90, “Life is what we make it … always was … always will be.”


Final Thoughts on Retirement There are three markers of a good retirement: physical fitness, social connectedness, and sufficient income. There are two inoculators against a bad retirement: someone to love and something important to do. There is a one sentence recipe for a successful retirement: Move your body, open your mind, follow your heart, and count your blessings.


I wish you well as you address this question personally, and as you help others answer the question, “Am I ready to retire and begin my next act?”


For related reading, see The Four Stages of Life’s Journey by Tom V. Morris.


For related books, see How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter, by Sherwin Nuland, and

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande.


For related facts, visit the links below:

Social Security Retirement & Survivors Benefits: Life Expectancy Calculator


Life Expectancy


When Do Americans Think They’ll Actually Retire?


Five Top Stressors in Retirement and How to Cope



George Manning, Author and Editor Professor of Psychology and Business at Northern Kentucky University LinkedIn


Jennifer Zimmerman, Author and Editor

Freelance editor, writer, and consultant

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