She was laid off in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic alongside millions of other U.S. workers. Suddenly without employment, Ms. Sinclair, now 50, realized she had been burned out at her IT project-management job in Overland Park, Kan. After reviewing her retirement savings, she decided not to go back to the job search.
“I never planned it, but when I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture I was like, ‘What do I care about in my life?’” she says.
As more American workers retire earlier than planned during the pandemic, some are grappling with building new, post-paycheck lives and identities.
For some, the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges many retirees face when transitioning away from work, including how to find purpose in the day-to-day, as well as financial anxiety, says
a counseling psychologist and author with a focus on life transitions. In some ways, the challenges of early retirement are a fortunate problem to have, but they are nonetheless difficult to navigate.
Those who retired into the pandemic might have found fewer opportunities to pursue nonwork-related passions, like traveling or building new relationships, Dr. Schlossberg says. And financially, it can be frightening to see money stop coming in after decades of receiving regular paychecks, she says, especially when there are complications in returning to work such as fear of exposure to Covid-19 and changing office rules and dynamics.
“You’re going through income withdrawal syndrome, you’re dealing with identity, changed relationships and purpose, and it’s pretty overwhelming,” she says.
Roughly 2.6 million Americans retired earlier than expected between February 2020 and October 2021, according to estimates from Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis senior economist Miguel Faria-e-Castro. Some, like Ms. Sinclair, left the workforce after being laid off or furloughed from jobs. Others retired after finding that working from home caused additional stress and burnout, or because they were concerned about health risks associated with returning to the workplace.
55, retired from his IT role in May 2021, he was looking forward to spending more time playing guitar and brewing beer and wine from his home in New Jersey, but also hoped to travel. The pandemic put that on a temporary hold.
“I do think there’s going to be a point where my routine does start to feel a little boring and a little limiting,” he says.
Ms. Sinclair says she is also feeling a little stir-crazy. Despite finding meaning in her work with local activist groups, she is hopeful about traveling more often and getting back out into the world as the pandemic eases.
“I still have doubts about not working ever again,” she says. “Every day has become the same and blending into each other.”
Workers who are considering early retirement should plan for the potential emotional impacts in addition to the financial ones, Dr. Schlossberg says: Identify your support system, explore options to build new relationships outside of work, and plan what your days will look like.
“You’ve got to be connected to people and replace the relationships that are ending,” she says. “There are going to be a lot of ups and downs. It’s a process, not an event.”
Mr. Placer and Ms. Sinclair say despite the challenges, their overall mental health is better now than it was before retirement—and they are not alone. The St. Louis Fed research found that retirees reported lower rates of anxiety in 2021 relative to their similar-age working peers.
a postdoctoral research fellow at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, found people generally had a higher sense of purpose after retirement, according to a study she conducted in 2021.
“They retire and then have more time to spend in activities that are meaningful, like social activities,” Dr. Yemiscigil says.
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30, found his own sense of purpose postretirement in parenthood and creating audio and video content about his early retirement journey on platforms including TikTok. Mr. Niu, who lives with his family in British Columbia, Canada, retired from his engineering job at a large entertainment-streaming company in late summer 2021, after his net worth exploded during the market boom. It has shrunk slightly as the market slumped more recently, he says, but is still strong.
“I’ve read lots of stories about people languishing, especially people who are high achieving, who have attached a lot of their identity to their career, where they’ll experience some sort of depression or loss of identity afterward,” Mr. Niu says. “My sense of identity has shifted from, ‘I was a software engineer,’ to, now, ‘I’m a content creator and I’m a full-time dad.’”
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