When your retirement dream can hurt you

Somewhere in our culture's past, the ability to retire early became a mark of success.  I admit, it sounds enticing.  Walking out of the office one last time when you're 55, young enough to enjoy a long life, sounds like a dream.  The thought of golfing every weekday while ex-collegues fight rush hour traffic to sit in a cubicle for eight hours surely must be gratifying.  Unfortunately, it's not healthy for you.

It seems like common sense that getting away from the stress of the workplace would be healthier for us, and that we should live longer.  After all, without work we'll have a lot more "free time" for healthy activities like exercise or golf (although for some of us golfing is more stressful than working).  We can move to the country, plant a garden, and live happily ever after.  But research shows that what we think is common sense just isn't so.

One of the most comprehensive studies of retiree health was conducted by Shell Oil Company.  They wanted "to assess whether early retirement is associated with better survival."  Shell has the advantage of many years of data - for this study they collected 31 years of data from 1973 to 2003, looking at employees who retired at ages 55, 60, and 65. For those who retired at 55, they only included them in the study if they were still alive at 65 to exclude those who retired because of a serious illness.

The results and conclusion were shocking:

"Subjects who retired early at age 55 and who were still alive at 65 had a significantly higher mortality than those who retired at 65."

"Retiring early at 55 or 60 was not associated with better survival than retiring at 65"

According to this study, it's clear that we live longer when we work longer.  There was no difference in their findings for males vs. females, for higher paid people vs. lower paid people, or when they retired in any year from 1973 to 1993.

This study does not explain why people who worked longer lived longer, but I propose there are a few things we should consider:

  • Avoid falling into the trap of saying "when I retire I'll...[fill in the blank with your activity or goal]".  Instead, plan your life and finances to accomplish meaningful goals while you're young, healthy and working.
  • Work in a vocation you enjoy, whether it's commercial, non-profit, or government.  I've had people tell me they want to retire early because they want to get out of their industry or profession, but they feel trapped.  Instead, do something you enjoy rather than something you feel trapped in.
  • Throw out the outdated notion that the younger you are when you retire, the more successful you are. 
  • Don't wait until retirement to start healthy nutrition and fitness habits - start now.

When working with clients, I like to discuss important ideas like these to help them articulate their values.  When your retirement plan reflects your true values, it becomes more meaningful than pages full of numbers and statistics.  Sound planning can help you enjoy a longer and healthier retirement.