Men v. women: Different views on retirement

Couples need to talk more to each other about their retirement plans

Published: May 07, 2015 06:00 AM

What do you want for yourself in retirement? What fears do you have about that new life stage? They may not be the same dreams and concerns your partner has. Which is why, long before you leave your day job, you need to have some serious conversations with your significant other. 

That message resonated with me recently while attending a weekend-long Paths to Creative Retirement workshop, sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. The workshop is designed to help pre-retirees and recently retired folks figure out how and when they'll retire, and to plan what they'll do afterward. If you can afford the steep, $850-per-person charge, it's worth a look. 

Throughout the weekend, the 32 attendees—16 men and 16 women close to retirement, or already retired—participated in sessions designed to help them examine their personal views on money; consider how they'd like to allocate their time in retirement; devise, plan and initiate a retirement goal or dream; find a post-retirement volunteer or paid vocation; deal with new family roles in retirement; and numerous other topics. The workshop, held twice yearly, was generally not about the money aspects of retirement. It was about understanding one's goals, dreams and challenges for the next stage of life, and planning for them. 

Notable was how men and women viewed the challenges of retirement differently. Many of the men expressed anxiety about losing their work identity. How would they craft a new role in retirement? How would they describe themselves when meeting new people? (Staffers at OLLI Asheville say they have a phrase for folks who can't shake their old, elevated roles: Previously Important Person, or PIP.) 

A number of the women had the opposite concern. After years of tending to family, home, and paid or volunteer jobs, would they be able to find their identity again? "I don’t know who I am anymore," said one woman. "When I’m retired, am I gonna get sucked in to everyone else’s stuff?" (As we've written, women who are single, divorced or widowed have additional retirement concerns.)

Consumer Reports' Retirement Planning Guide offers advice for making your second career fulfilling and financially secure.

Challenges for couples

Several couples attended the workshop. They had a particularly enlightening experience. Pairs were separated for several sessions so that they could talk freely, without their partners listening. When the group reunited to share what we had learned, the sexes sometimes were at odds. One married man described his hope that once he was retired, he could shed the mantle of being responsible for supporting the family, a burden he didn't think women shared. Several women in the room shook their heads vigorously. "A lot of us have our own mantles we'd like to shuck," one of them said.

"With one or two exceptions, a common theme is that couples have not had the dialog about what they want and their shared vision," said a man from Florida who attended with his wife. "Having now had this shared experience, we also have the shared vocabulary. We’re going to start these discussions on the drive home." 

Of course, you don't have to spend $1,700 per couple to go through the exercises we experienced in the workshop. Numerous books, recordings, magazine and web articles address the issue of the "softer" side of retirement planning. Or, you can just wing it.

The important point is to start talking to your partner early in your retirement planning. You may find your views are wildly polarized, but more likely you'll find enough common ground to begin serious financial, logistical, and emotional planning. And, as some recently retired presenters at the weekend recounted, that can be the beginning of a very exciting time. 

"Retirement gave me the freedom to reinvent myself," one retiree said.

Said another: "I have never been as happy in my life as I am today."

—Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

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