If you read any news about retirement, you have no doubt seen headlines like these:
Retiring Early Just Might Kill You, Says New Research — Bloomberg, December 2017
Does Retiring Early Mean an Early Death? — The Guardian, May 2016
Study: Retiring Early Might Actually Kill You — Uproxx, April 2016
Retiring Too Early Can Kill You — Newsweek, March 2015
And while it’s easy to brush that stuff off and say to ourselves, “Well that’s just talking about regular retirement, and I’m not doing that. I’m aiming for early retirement, and that’s different,” it’s worth examining whether early retirement is truly all that different when it comes to impacts on our health, happiness and life factors like divorce. Just as it was worth digging into that ominous “Won’t you be bored?” question instead of just brushing it off.
So let’s do exactly that. Let’s look at what the evidence says about whether early retirement is good for us or bad for us.
While we in the FIRE community like to wax poetic about how wonderful early retirement is and how much better life is without work, early retirement is not a magical cure-all.
Case in point: Last week I had a raging six-day migraine and couldn’t blog at all (hence the radio silence here), something that never happened when I was working, stressed out and sleep deprived. My ever-optimistic self hopes that that was just the last hurrah of my migraines, one last, apocalyptic exorcism of the bad brain juju on the path to early retirement happy brain. But more likely I’ll keep getting migraines sometimes, though (I hope) less frequently.
And maybe it was the multi-day stabby/crushy feeling over my right eye, combined with the hangover-style migraine nausea, or maybe it was seeing another fresh round of “Early retirement will totally kill you!” headlines the week before, but I started to wonder if maybe I’d been too quick to dismiss those studies in the past as not really being about us. Maybe it actually was possible that early retirement would lead us down a road toward worse health or greater unhappiness. Could it be?
After all, I’d read stories like this one in Harvard Business Review of former striver careerists who found themselves in the depths of depression after losing their career identities, and I know that mental health is closely linked to physical health. I’d heard the arguments in those doom-and-gloom early retirement stories saying that it’s so much easier to be sedentary when you don’t have to go into work every day and walk around your workplace. I’ve written many times about how easy it is to become socially isolated when your friends are still working and you’ve got this free time, and how critical social networks are to health and longevity.
The idea that early retirement might not be as rosy as we all hoped suddenly seemed a lot more plausible. So I decided to dig into the research. Really dig. Because this is important stuff, and I want to know whether there is anything innate about early retirement that’s bad for us, and if so, what we can do to guard against it.
So what does the research say? Let’s start with the slightly less complicated subjects and build toward health, with its multitude of factors and questions of correlation vs. causation.
According to Rob Pascale, a retired marketing research executive, and Dr. Louis H. Primavera, dean of Touro College School of Health Sciences, co-authors of The Retirement Maze, in that HuffPost story: “Some couples might find they don’t have quite as much in common as they once thought,” they wrote. “While still in the workforce, underlying differences can be masked, because so much attention is taken up by work and raising a family. But these differences can come to the forefront when couples are more focused just on each other.”
They go on to list other factors that make couples feel out-of-sync after retirement, like mismatches in assumptions about who will do what chores (ahem, emotional labor), how they want to spend their time and so on, before dropping in this telling nugget:
Then there is the issue of social over-dependency. Psychologists assert that being socially connected is essential for mental health, and we found that happily retired couples have active social lives with lots of friends. Women seem to grasp this — they are generally more socially integrated, having more and stronger emotional ties to friends and family. Men, in contrast, have fewer close relationships, and many depend on their wives to keep them socially involved. A certain amount of social dependency is reasonable. But for some wives dependency can become extreme. In fact, we found that many men expect to be the primary focus of their wives’ attention when newly retired. This of course is not at all realistic nor is it healthy for either spouse. And many wives might become angry and resentful if they have to surrender more of their personal time than they’d like to.
This gender imbalance pops up again and again in stories about retirement and divorce. Here’s another example:
Miriam Goodman, author of Too Much Togetherness: Surviving Retirement As A Couple found that most of the women she talked to said, “I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about my husband … he’s not allowed to retire because he won’t know what to do.” Outside of general concerns, many women fear their husband’s retirement because they’re worried about losing their personal time and space, having their spending restricted, or being constantly questioned about where they are going or what they’re doing.
Goodman made the issue very real by noting that Japanese researchers have come up with a clinical diagnosis called Retired Husband Syndrome. “Japanese women were showing up at doctor offices with physiological reactions like rashes, nervous tics, upset stomachs and headaches, which they were able to conclude was a result of a spouse’s recent retirement.”
It’s interesting to note the trends observed by social scientists, but it’s also striking in the divorce stats how much of what goes on in couples is a matter of dynamics that can be changed. Not that it’s easy or obvious how to guard against the problems that can arise at early retirement, but it’s highly possible, especially if you know what to look out for.
In addition, my highly unscientific theory is that the longer your career (meaning the more time you have away from your spouse or partner), the more time you have to grow apart or develop divergent aspirations. In this way, it makes sense that traditional retirement would be more perilous for marriages than would early retirement.
Verdict: Early retirement is a potential danger to marriages and partnerships but you can guard against those problems.
- Research tells us that the number of people who feel happy in retirement is rapidly shrinking, with upwards of 40 percent reporting dissatisfaction with retirement.
- Stress researchers consider retirement from work to be the 10th most stressful event in a person’s life, whether that retirement is forced or by choice.
And then there’s the whole question of what happiness is, really, and what that has to do with well-being in retirement. This recent New York Times story analyzes recent research to suggest that purpose is the most important factor for both health and fulfillment in retirement, even if purpose doesn’t always look on its surface like “happiness”:
Being a pediatric oncologist, for example, is not a “happy” job, but it may be a very rewarding one. Raising a family can be profoundly meaningful, but parents are often less happy while interacting with their children than exercising or watching television.
Having purpose is linked to a number of positive health outcomes, including better sleep, fewer strokes and heart attacks, and a lower risk of dementia, disability and premature death. Those with a strong sense of purpose are more likely to embrace preventive health services, like mammograms, colonoscopies and flu shots.
And people with high scores on measures of eudaimonic well-being have low levels of pro-inflammatory gene expression; those with high scores on hedonic pleasure have just the opposite.
Doing good, it seems, is better than feeling good.
(If you’re not familiar with the terms — as I wasn’t — “eudaimonic well-being” is the well-being that comes from feeling self-actualized and having a senses of meaning in your life, while “hedonic well-being,” which you may recall from the hedonic treadmill, is seeking of pleasure while avoiding pain.)
Verdict: Early retirement can hurt happiness if it brings financial stress, if you don’t go into it understanding that the transition is going to be stressful and if you don’t spend time in early retirement living with purpose. But if you are well prepared financially, you brace yourself for the stress of the transition and you know what you’re retiring to, there’s no reason why early retirement can’t be the happiest time in your life.
Brace yourself, because this research is all over the map.
In the bad column:
- A long-term study completed in 2005 (the Shell Oil study) showed that, “Retiring early at 55 or 60 was not associated with better survival than retiring at 65. Mortality was higher in employees who retired at 55 than in those who continued working.”
- A 2011 study says, “It is found that retirement significantly increases the risk of being diagnosed with a chronic condition. In particular, it raises the risk of a severe cardiovascular disease and cancer. This is also reflected in increased risk factors (e.g. BMI, cholesterol, blood pressure) and increased problems in physical activities. Furthermore, retirement worsens self-assessed health and an underlying health stock.”
- A 2008 study says, “Complete retirement leads to a 5-14% increase in difficulties associates with mobility and daily activities, 4-6% increase in illnesses, and 6-9% decline in mental health. The adverse health effects are mitigated if the individual is married, engages in physical activity, or continues to work part-time post-retirement. Evidence also suggests larger adverse health effects in the event of involuntary retirement. Retiring at a later age may lessen or postpone poor health outcomes for older adults, raise well-being, and reduce health care services utilization.”
- A 2017 study on mental health found, “The results display no short-term effects of retirement on mental health, but a large negative longer-term impact.”
- A 2007 study in Israel found that early retirement did not improve longevity.
- A 2018 study says, “Overall, subjective health is negatively affected by spousal retirement and positively by own retirement.” (Tying into that earlier stuff about divorce.)
In the good column:
- A 2010 study showed that, “Retirement did not change the risk of major chronic diseases but was associated with a substantial reduction in mental and physical fatigue and depressive symptoms, particularly among people with chronic diseases.”
- A 2009 German study found that early retirement does improve longevity significantly for those who were healthy when they retired, by 12% for men and 23% for women.
- A recent Dutch study of employees offered early retirement at 55 found, “induced early retirement decreased the probability that a man dies within 5 years by 2.6 percentage points.”
- A 2014 study found that, “Results indicate that the retirement effect on health is beneficial and significant. Investigation into behavioral data, such as smoking and exercise, suggests that retirement may affect health through such channels. With additional leisure time, many retirees practice healthier habits.”
- A 2017 study‘s authors wrote, “We find that retirement has a long-term detrimental effect on cognition for individuals who retire at the statutory eligibility age. It plays instead a protective role for those who retire on an early retirement scheme.”
- A 2016 study reported that, “Using official early and normal retirement ages as instruments for retirement, our causal analyses suggest significant positive effects of retirement on meeting the [recommended physical activity] Guidelines. We also show that the effects of retirement on physical activity are larger for persons with higher levels of education and wealth.”
Correlation or Causation?
It’s easy to dismiss studies linking retirement and mortality with the argument that of course we’re going to see this effect because it’s the people who are already sickest who need to retire before they reach age 65. However, as the 2016 Guardian piece sums up pretty well:
You might assume the effect was caused by sicker people retiring earlier and dying prematurely, but this study really tries to take that into account. The researchers analysed data from 2,956 people who were part of the Healthy Retirement Study funded by the National Institute on Aging in America. People were divided into unhealthy and healthy retirees based on whether they said sickness influenced their decision to stop work: about two-thirds were healthy and a third unhealthy. During the 18 years of the study, 12% of the healthy and 25.6% of the unhealthy group died. After taking into account factors such as the healthy group’s better education and finances, they found that healthy retirees who worked a year longer (over the age of 65) had an 11% lower ‘all-cause mortality risk.” Even the unhealthy group reduced their likelihood of dying by 9% if they delayed retirement.
A larger number of the studies I referenced attempted to correct in some way for people in poor health being the ones who tend to retire early. And of course none of the studies looked at early retirement in people’s 30s and 40s — the very earliest “early” retirement analyzed began at age 50. So that’s certainly a gap in what we can look at. But it’s safe to say that quite a few studies show that even people who are healthy when they retire sometimes end up worse off by retiring early than they would have by staying at work. Sobering stuff. Just as many studies show the opposite, but there’s enough critical mass on both sides to tell us that we can’t be cavalier about it.
Verdict: For any of us, early retirement could in fact lead to worse health or earlier death, if we don’t prioritize our health and all the factors that go into that. Staying healthy has to be a front-and-center priority for everyone, but especially for early retirees.
No One Is Just a Statistic
All of that said, if there’s anything that’s clear from seeing how varied these studies’ outcomes are, it’s that individual differences are important, and we each have a lot of say in how early or traditional retirement impacts our health, happiness and relationships. As this Harvard Medical School essay puts it:
If you’ve had a stressful, unrewarding or tiring job, retirement may come as a relief. For you, not working may be associated with better health. People who loved their work and structured their lives around it may see retirement in a different light, especially if they had to retire because of a company age policy. An individual who has a good relationship with his or her spouse or partner is more likely to do well in retirement than someone with an unhappy home life for whom work often offered an escape hatch. People with hobbies, passions, volunteer opportunities and the like generally have little trouble redistributing their “extra” time after they retire. Those who did little beside work may find filling time more of a challenge.
To me, that means that it’s up to any of us considering or living in early retirement to be honest with ourselves about what our pre-FIRE factors are — maybe even think of it as your pre-existing conditions. If work provides some fulfillment, then you have to go into early retirement knowing that you’ll have a bit of a purpose vacuum, and you will have to work a little harder to fill it. If you don’t have many hobbies, then you’ll have extra work figuring out new ways to spend your time that keep you from feeling aimless and lonely. If you lean too hard on your spouse for social time, you have to commit to branching out and creating new social circles on your own. All of that is doable, but only if we can acknowledge that we’re going to have to do the work, and not expect early retirement to magically resolve these challenges for us.
Things That ARE Clear
Looking across all the research, good and bad, several big themes emerge that tie everything together. These are the things we should all be making a point of doing in early retirement, traditional retirement — heck, probably every stage of life!
Stay (Or Get) Active — The number one determinate of health in early retirement, and the best predictor of how many good years each of us will have, is how physically active we are. Get active, stay active and don’t think you can put this off until later.
Stay (Or Get) Socially Engaged — We all need lasting social circles, even the most introverted among us. Make sure you’re keeping your friendships strong and that you have friendships outside of your relationship, if you’re partnered up.
Invest In Your Relationship — For those in a couple, make sure you’re investing in each other every day, not putting it off until early retirement. And make sure you’re communicating about what you want in each stage of life, so you don’t get to early retirement and realize you want totally different things.
Stay Curious — Keeping our minds open and active is critically important to long-term physical and mental health. Always be a learner, and find new ways to learn outside of work once you’re no longer in the workplace.
Live With Purpose — The research is unequivocal: feeling like you have something to live for improves your health and makes you live longer. That purpose might be spiritual, it might be a drive to give back in your community, it might be throwing yourself into something you’re passionate about, it might be your relationships with loved ones or it might be a cat.
Sasha Cohen, the U.S. figure skater who won the silver medal in 2006 wrote an op-ed called “An Olympian’s Guide to Retiring at 25” that ran in the New York Times over the weekend, and I think early retirees and FIRE aspirants will find a lot of resonance in it. While most of us may not feel like we have a lot in common with the world’s best athletes, I bet you can relate to this: “Yes, striving to accomplish a single overarching goal every day means you have grit, determination and resilience. But the ability to pull yourself together mentally and physically in competition is different from the new challenges that await you.”
Even though Sasha is talking to elite athletes who find their careers over in their 20s, her message is exactly the same as what the research suggests: find a new purpose.
So after you retire, travel, write a poem, try to start your own business, stay out a little too late, devote time to something that doesn’t have a clear end goal — in short, do everything you couldn’t do when you were training. There are endless ways to find purpose and meaning after the Olympics. Just give yourself some time. Learn to live for the process again without being defined by the results, the way you did when you first started your sport.
You probably already mentally swapped “career” for “sport,” and “FIRE” for “Olympics.” ;-)
What Do You Think About the Research?
Time to weigh in, and there are so many options here! I bet we all have theories, so share yours in the comments — What’s your take on how applicable retirement research is to early retirees? What do you make of those doom-and-gloom predictions about early retirement? Do you have anything you’re focused on doing in early retirement to guard against bad outcomes? Care to comment on divorce trends and whether they will hold up for early retirees or even just for Gen X or Millennials generally? How about the happiness research? Do you buy that it’s possible early retirement could possibly make someone less happy? Let’s discuss!
Categories: we've learned