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Single senior in retirement.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from The New Retirementality: Planning Your Life and Living Your Any Age You Want, 4th Edition by Mitch Anthony. Copyright © 2014 by Mitch Anthony. All rights reserved.

If you want to get an accurate picture of what retirement might feel like, it is better to learn from someone who has been suddenly retired at an early age, as opposed to learning about it from someone who worked for 40 years in a job he didn't particularly like and then retired at 65.

Sudden retirees are those who ended up in a retired state because of unexpected events such as the merger or sale of a business, downsizing, injury, sickness, caregiving for a family member, or the death of a breadwinning spouse. The experiences of these individuals might be a better looking glass for previewing some of your concerns in the early phases of retirement. Many of the people who have been cast into unexpected retirements are often still young at heart, energetic, and full of vision for their future–this description may apply to you, regardless of your age.

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Sudden retirees find themselves having to make many life decisions before they are ready. Ideally, we want to learn how to live within our activity needs and financial limits before we reach the retirement stage of life. We hear and read plenty on the financial aspects but not as much on the activity and existence ledgers of life. One study I read found that many people articulate that they are merely "resigned to their retirement" as opposed to truly being satisfied with it.

Over a decade ago when I first began theorizing that the full story wasn't being told around retirement I was quite amazed at what I learned in research, both formally established and empirically confirmed again and again. What I discovered were the four Ds and the Big B of retirement: Death, Divorce, Disability, Drunkenness, and Boredom. Today's research confirms these patterns. I remember research from a generation ago from IBM demonstrating that their average retiree didn't make it to his 24th pension check! While longevity rates have increased, I still hear stories about people who retire and die within a year's time.

I'm convinced that there are two specific reasons this happens. One is that the individual literally worked himself to death by burning the candle at both ends and retiring into his final decline. The story I hear more often, however, is the person who wakes up on day 32 of retirement and realizes she has no specific purpose, plan, or meaning. These are the individuals who die of aimlessness.

In a cohort study of thousands of employees who worked at Shell Oil, investigators found that embarking on the retirement path at age 55 doubled the risk for death before reaching age 65, compared with those who toiled beyond age 60:

"Failing health might have played a role in the younger retirees' higher mortality," said Shan P. Tsai, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Shell Health Services, according to the report in the British Medical Journal. Dr. Tsai and his colleagues challenged the notion that early retirement means less stress and a more relaxed lifestyle which has fueled the belief that retiring young boosts longevity. Their results indicate the opposite: Mortality rates improved with an older retirement age.


The trend toward working longer because of economic necessity may feel discouraging to you at the moment, but it's important to consider the upside of this predicament. The economist Josef Zweimuller at the University of Zurich recently coauthored a study that found that even though many crave early retirement, it seems to be bad for our health: "[A]mong blue-collar workers, we see that workers who retire earlier have a higher mortality rates and these effects are pretty large."

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The study showed that for every extra year of early retirement, workers lost about two months of life expectancy. Other researchers, including University of Florida psychologist Mo Wang, who studies retirement, and Steve Levitt, author of the bestseller Freakonomics, have found the same phenomena around earlier retirement. Levitt has personally settled on a plan to retire and keep working at the same time.

Welcome to the real world of retirement. In an article for CBS Money Watch, Steve Vernon made a commentary on the RP-2000 Mortality Study, which included a table that compared the annual death rates among two groups of men aged 50 to 70. The first group consisted of men who were working, and the second group included men who were fully retired. The death rates of those who were still working were roughly half that of the death rates of men the same age who were fully retired. "What's going on here?" Vernon wrote, "I thought retirement was supposed to be good for you!"

Does working actually enable you to live longer, or is it simply correlative with no direct cause from work? An example explanation that was offered on the correlative side of the argument is that people who are in poor health and disabled would fall into the retired group, whereas only healthy people can continue to work. But this argument doesn't hold water, as those on disability benefits and those in failing health were excluded from the study.

There are numerous longitudinal studies and plenty of anecdotal evidence appearing on the side of work being a causative factor in longevity. George Vaillant's book Aging Well summarized this evidence in detail. A vital engagement with life is a primary factor in prolonging life. You can get engagement with life from working, but you can also get it from taking up causes, volunteering, pursuing hobbies, and contributing to your family and community.

Vernon's conclusion on the matter was: "Here's the takeaway for me: Finding powerful reasons for getting up in the morning in my retirement years is as important as my financial planning. We may need to work a little in our retirement years to make ends meet. In this case, I won't be bitter–working may be keeping me alive!"

Amen, brother. That's the attitude required.

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