San Francisco, 2013
The decision to retire is a very idiosyncratic one. I was a private practice clinical psychologist for over 30 years, working with many older adults, so I had the opportunity to learn from them. One of my earliest clients had absolutely gorgeous skin, so I asked her about it, and she said she had avoided the sun all of her life (and this was in Los Angeles!). From that time on, I used sunblock and avoided tanning, with good results.
I heard wonderful stories, and learned about life at the turn of the century, during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and during World War II, both in this country and in Europe. I always listened carefully because there were life lessons to be learned, and also because the coping mechanisms developed during these times of struggle would usually be the same skills that the individual would be able to use to deal with their current problems.
The Depression had a profound effect on my parent's generation. It caused them to be very frugal, and to seek a great deal of financial security. At times this made it difficult to spend money "frivolously," which included taking a vacation just to enjoy themselves. They were the first generation to benefit from Social Security and Medicare, and they believed that they had truly earned it, first by their service during the war, and second by their hard work and taxes. Many more people were affected by mandatory retirement at age 65, which had both positive and negative effects. If you know you are approaching retirement and you have no choice, you begin thinking about what you will do as that age nears. My parents, for example, took up golf in mid-life, and it became the social center of their lives when my father retired, and for many years after that.
Fifty years ago, people expected to "down-size" when they retired because they anticipated living on a "fixed income." Their lives literally shrank to match their decreased income. Because they were considered "old," financial planners believed that they would have less energy and less interest in activities. The mental image I get is of a couple sitting in rocking chairs on a porch watching the world go by. There have been many changes since then, and while many fewer people have employer-provided pensions, most people have their retirement funds in a variety of investments, some of which are tied to the stock market. This creates the ability to have some degree of control over one's income stream, which is no longer "fixed."
In the past twenty years, I have seen "seniors" who look and behave much younger than their predecessors. They travel extensively, and participate in active endeavors, like going the gym and hiking. Many of them do have more disposable income, and they seem to feel much more comfortable spending it on themselves.
Early in my career, I remember a number of clients who told me that they regretted not having traveled with their spouse when they were young and able. They kept thinking they would do it when the children were grown, when they had retired, when they had "enough" money. By the time I saw them, they might have lost that spouse, or one of them could no longer travel. I came home and said to Steve, "We're going to travel when we're young enough to do it. Period." He loves traveling, so it really wasn't a hard sell. And as soon as our youngest left the house and was well-established in college, we started traveling internationally. We've been to Europe and Asia many times, and have several trips planned in the near future. No regrets.
Another thing I learned was that there are so many different unknowns in trying to plan for the future, that it is wise to have fairly short-term goals. It's impossible to know exactly what will happen with your health and mobility for the next thirty years (which the financial planners seem to think we will have), but it is possible to plan for the next five to ten years. That seems like a much more manageable and predictable period of time.