Retirement Is Hell

Kimmie Meissner was an Olympic figure skater from my home county in the state of Maryland. Figure skating had consumed both her days and aspirations throughout most of her young life. She practiced every day, traveling after school up the I-95 highway 35 miles to Newark, Delaware, where her coaches watched her perform amazing maneuvers. She was a fearless jumper who landed a triple axel in competition, became a World Figure Skating Champion at the age of 16 in 2006, and placed sixth at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. She won other competitive titles, too, until injuries, frayed relationships, and the passing of several people close to Kimmie deflated her normally buoyant spirit. In 2010, she retired from the sport that had been her whole identity and didn’t step on the ice again for another five years.

She became depressed. She could not cope with life without the sport that had consumed her whole being for as long as she could remember. “I had no ideas who I was without skating,” she says. “It all hit me at one time, and it was like, you know what, I’m done. Anything that I used to like, I stopped liking, and I just kind of shut down from everything.”

Kimmie goes on to explain, “When I was in college, I remember studying very hard (at least most of the time) for final exams. It was a trying time, cramming all that knowledge into my head and trying to recall and retain those things that I had learned throughout the semester. There were long hours of study and a constant focus on the final exam.” Still, she recalls, “After the exam, when it was all over, I had a feeling of emptiness. My recent life schedule had been focused on the exam, now that was gone. If there was another exam to study for, then it was somewhat easy to transfer my attention to the next exam. After the last exam for that semester, there was a rather long period of vacancy that sometimes lasted for several days.” Like Kimmie (and myself), many others have also complained about a “letdown” following an exam or other very intense activity.

That is oftentimes a typical response to retirement. It is very difficult for those of us who are used to hectic, busy schedules to stop them all of a sudden. The lifestyle many of us take on during our long years of working is filled to the brim with requests, requirements, and deadlines for both. When they are no longer there, a void begins to appear. Many times, it is difficult for people to cease habits that they have become accustomed to during their professional lives.

For some people, retirement is the ultimate goal they aspire to reach at the end of their professional careers. For others, retirement is like a death knell to one’s ambitions. Work confers status and validation, giving our lives a purpose. In the absence of our work, we can feel lost and without worth. Retirement can bring an end to our feeling of place in the world.

Pat Horner, a very ambitious, capable, and personable woman who had been executive director of several professional societies, eventually reached the age when retirement was the next stage of her life, and she hated it. She had a very difficult time adjusting to a world of leisure and extra time, a world in which she was on the sidelines rather than in the midst of the action.

Before I took a position at the University of Maryland, I worked for several years at Edgewood Arsenal as a U.S. government employee. I saw countless examples of fellow employees who had reached their ultimate goals of retirement, were retired, and had died within a year or two after they stopped working. They had reached their lifelong goals and had nothing more with which to sustain themselves.

Most TV ads about retirement are concerned with financial planning, and that is an important aspect to life after structured work. But there also has to be a life plan about what a person is going to do with all the extra time he or she will have after retirement. Working for an employer may be arduous, but at least it gives someone a reason to awaken each day. After retiring, one must fill this need with one’s own choices, but the need is still there.

In my case, I was lucky. I had a farm that I had been operating for many years before retirement; I was a full-time professor and a part-time farmer. After retirement, I still spent some time at the university, but now I spend most of my time on my farm—and have become a part-time professor and full-time farmer.

My wife and I grow fruit organically and sell it at a weekly farmers’ market. This schedule gives me lots of time outdoors and weekly contact with customers who have become friends. We sell fruit free from dangerous chemicals, so we feel good about the service we provide to people, especially those with young children whose bodies and minds can be harmed by exposure to chemical pesticides. In addition, because growing organic fruit in the humid northeastern United States is so difficult, there is ongoing experimentation to try to improve our growing methods; thus, there is an intellectual challenge to this existence. It is a good life and a rewarding one as well.

I had several friends who faced retirement, and I urged each to plan ahead about what they would do after the end of their professional lives. Some planned; others did not. The ones who did not make adequate plans were lost for as long as two years after they retired. Planning is a necessity.

Pat Horner did not know what she would do to keep herself involved and active after retirement, so I understand why she told me what she did. Everyone should learn from this. Our employment lifestyles are not going to change; we will work long and hard days for most of our professional careers. We need to recognize that the loss of that lifestyle creates a void to be filled once we no longer have an obligation to a formal employer.