Societal Expectations for Retirement

I’ve written a number of times how I’m highly prone to feeling like I should follow expectations.  And I’m probably not alone. I have come to realize that, even now, I regularly hear the societal expectations for retirement.   And for early retirement.  And for retirement of an “executive woman”.  Looking back on my own Retirement Transition, I wanted to share what I feel some of those (spoken and unspoken) expectations are and how I am (still) working to know myself better so I can focus on what I want, versus what society dictates.

Since I’m becoming more aware of when I “hear expectations”, I noticed them again in a few blog posts related to retirement. I’ve probably done my fair share of setting them up as well as I do often present “how to” blog posts on retirement! 

In retirement, you are expected to:

  • Spend more time with your grandkids.
  • Volunteer regularly.
  • Travel regularly.  I heard the term gray-nomad recently on this one.
  • Have a meaningful hobby – creative is best or something to “master”.
  • Play golf regularly, or pickle-ball at least. Tennis or even a runner’s club works, too.
  • Downsize, or at least de-clutter (don’t leave it all for your kids to deal with!)
  • Eat healthy – pick a trend – clean, smoothies, vegan.
  • Exercise regularly – of course that includes daily walks.
  • Find a part time job to keep you occupied.

If you’re an early retiree, add in have a second career (a big expectation!).  If you’re a retired executive woman, make that volunteer work a board position, of course, and do something to use your skills to give back.

I’ve recently realized that another current societal expectation for a retiree was you’ve figured out the system and gotten your vaccine.  My “I’m not old enough to be eligible” explanatory response for not meeting this expectation was not well accepted.

Yes, some retirees fully meet many of these expectations. For many, fulfilling some of these expectations is exactly what they want.  But what if you don’t.  How do you manage to not feel like a retirement-failure?  How do you separate out personal choice from societal expectation?

I have spent quite a bit of time to figure out really what I want in retirement, versus what I thought was expected of me.   It is more than understanding my own values versus family, societal, or cultural values.  I’ve found it helpful to know my strengths (link for VIA signature strength understanding here ) and them look at how I can utilize those strengths outside of work (link here for good article on that). I needed to really understand my self-limiting beliefs; knowing my Enneagram also helped here (blog link here).  And I needed to become more aware of when I “hear” societal expectations – from the comment of getting vaccine, to the various blog posts on retirement transition how to. And then not allowing my critical inner voice to tell me I am less-than when I see others doing the “right things” in retirement. 

My goal is to be able to say, I choose to do this (or I choose not to do that), because of my values & my interests.

For someone who is ingrained to meet or exceed expectations, desires to be perceived as the “good girl”, and still requires a lot of external validation, it is very difficult to stop trying to have the “right kind of retirement”.  I don’t have grandkids. I don’t volunteer and am not a board member anywhere. I’m not de-cluttering, even with the move. I’m stopping my attempts to have a second career (or trying to stop them; it never really materialized anyway). I do not have a meaningful hobby, play any sport, have a part time job, nor travel regularly.  I do exercise more than I ever did (yoga, zumba, beach walks) and try to eat more healthy, but not to the level of green smoothies, vegan dinners, or clean diet. I spend my days learning new things of interest, connecting with others, and enjoying quiet time.  Am I failing at the right kind of a 21st Century Purposeful Retirement? Maybe. But then, I tend to be my own worst critic!

Do you hear the societal expectations around retirement or is it just me?

Picture Credit: Me. The last sunrise picture for a few months – combination of time change and longer days means fewer mornings where I’ll be up before the sun!

44 thoughts on “Societal Expectations for Retirement

  1. Yep! I agree with everything you have written about retirement. Now is the time to break out of the “good girl” expectations and do what is meaningful and satisfying. Love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Right there with you!!
    I have spent my entire life trying to be a “good girl” and follow the expectations outlined for girls like me. Recently I’ve become aware of personal expectations I never knew I had. They lurk everywhere!

    We are on a similar journey, Pat… and I so love hearing your perspective of the issues I continue to ponder. Next week we are traveling to the Florida panhandle to find a retirement home (?!!) And I asked my husband the other day, “What are your expectations of retirement?” I think it is important for us to bring them to the surface where we can then analyze to see if they really align with our personal values and beliefs, or they are entangled with what society says we should want. The former I wish to cultivate… the latter I want to discard 🙂

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    1. Molly, Good luck finding a place…the market right now is a sellers market. Meaning, not a lot of inventory for sale and prices escalating. Which is good for us selling our Ohio house, but not so much for you buying a place.

      I’ve put together a “next stage lifestyle” discussion worksheet but hubby hates talking about these things. I’ve struggled to feel comfortable giving it to him. You’re question for your husband reminded me… I need to do this!

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  3. “…as someone who tried to meet or exceed expectations for years, it’s been a challenge for me to say it’s OK to no longer do that.” And therein lies your purpose in retirement, IMHO. Retirement has allowed me to be more of who I am. After all, no matter how you squeeze an orange, you get orange juice. I think this is a lesson to all those considering retirement. If there was no “life” outside of work retirement will result in feeling at loose ends and unfulfilled. Just as we built a career, we can build a retirement life that fits individual goals and expectations and is fulfilling.

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    1. I’m coming to realize more and more that I didn’t have much of a life outside of working… for 32 years. There was not any work/life balance. It was all work. Now it’s all life. (And it’s pretty darn fun.) So maybe after 32 years of this, I’ll have balance?

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  4. You hit home on this for me, though I have to admit I (thankfully?) haven’t thought about my own retirement expectations too much. The only “pressure” I feel comes from a sibling of mine who seemingly spends each and every day involved in some kind of group activity, all virtual obviously since the start of the pandemic (i.e,. two book clubs, a film club, synagogue board, AAUW, and several more I’m sure I’m forgetting). She’s always shocked at my comparative sedentary lifestyle. I joke with my wife that I’m going to have to make up stories of my activities for the next phone conversation I have with her. 🙂 – Marty

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    1. Marty, The concept of “pressure” is interesting spin on expectations. For some, connecting with others daily is what they need. For others, quiet time at home. I lean a bit towards the first, and Hubby is totally the second. I do find it hard to accept his lack of connections (I worry about him long term – connections are so important in longevity) and hope I don’t pressure him too much to get out there and do something.

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  5. I always enjoy reading your thoughts pat and also the replies from your readers, as they add another layer to your words. This was no exception. I have nothing major to add except to say I have slow days and i have busy days, but I’m the one who decides what sort of day/week I’m having and I have now got used to that. It works for me 🙂 I’m definitely not following any ‘expected’ path during my retirement, I march to my own drum these days 🙂 #lifethisweek

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  6. Retirement is difficult isn’t it? The first phase of my life that I really feel grown up enough and with the necessary time to enjoy and yet almost 7 years into it and I’m still not entirely certain what it is I’m meant to be doing. Sometimes I feel selfish if I think about stopping the volunteering, slothful when I do nothing, exhausted when I push myself too hard, a grasshopper when i try too much. Ultimately though, I can honestly say I’m happy and that for me is what really counts.

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  7. Hi Pat, I so understand how you feel. When I started out on my retirement life, now over 3 years ago, I too felt a lot of pressure based on those societal expectations for retirement — easy peasy, full of walks on the beach and fulfilling board positions. Not so much the specific tasks, per se; in fact, I thought they were a handy and tested checklist of items I could add to my own list of things to consider. But the easiness of it all. But, unfortunately, they also never seem to talk about the process of how they arrived at finding (or not finding) their “click”. I found the task of filling the space for new hobbies, reinforcing my friendships and family relationships, continuing education and development, exercise, etc., to be pretty simple because I knew where my interests were. But I was terribly frustrated because I wasn’t finding solutions to finding a replacement for the fulfillment of my work, as others (on those websites) seemed to do. In fact, I felt clueless about it and like a failure. I figured I must have done something very wrong to feel so off at a time that is supposed to be so liberating and fulfilling, and, well, shouldn’t be this difficult. It was. I just wanted it all to feel right again, but I wasn’t quite finding anything that would be right. But I would try to maintain perspective too, but it was hard. After about a year of full-throttle, I came around to cut myself a break and to accept that my work towards fulfillment will take longer than others. So what, I’ll just breathe and keep at it. And, equally importantly, I reminded myself that my life now wasn’t going to be all one thing — the precise reason I chose to retire. Finding a sense of utility and purpose is an important part of my life, and it’s been the hardest piece for me, but I’ve found some other things that are equally important now too. That’s a long way of saying I hear ya. And that’s why I’m a big proponent of talking more about the process of retirement. I appreciate your blog for doing just that! I read retirement articles to stimulate my own thinking and most of all, it helps me to know others are working at it too. But I do indeed empathize with your sentiments here.

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    1. Judi – I hope that my writing allows others to see the muddled process that this life-stage can be. I’m coming up on 7 years retired and still at times feel like I’m failing at it. Sometimes just writing my posts and hearing how others are feeling similar and working though it helps me move forward. I like how you mentioned the range of things that fill life now – hobbies, friendships/ relationships, personal development, exercise. It’s interesting that when I was working, all those things were actually NOT part of my life! It might not be change-the-world fulfillment, but it’s quite a happy life.

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      1. So true Pat! It may not be earth-shattering stuff, but it’s important to me abs keeps me happy. I also understand your feelings about never having the time while working for anything but work. I was the same and worked on average 11 hours a day. Adding in commuting time there wasn’t much room for more. So now it’s my mission to keep a mix of things that I too never had time for when working. Getting too caught up in replacing work was becoming obsessive for me! Thanks for this forum!

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  8. Hi Pat, I’m probably good for about 75% of the things on your “expected” list, but I do them or have done them because I found joy, for a period of time. Not everything sticks. There was a time when retirement life was ‘volunteer intensive’ for me, but for the past four years, I have not offered my time to anyone. I am in a constant state of de-cluttering, but that is my nature, and I pay attention to health and fitness because I want to be as mobile as possible for as long as possible (no guarantees, but I’ll put up a good fight). Malcolm, on the other hand, holds onto everything, has never volunteered to do anything, and could care less about physical fitness and healthy eating. We are both very happy with our individual definitions for retirement.

    I read lots of blogs with “Retirement” in the title, but not one of them is a “how too manual” for your retirement life, or for mine. I like seeing how other retirees live and what lights them up. Sometimes their energy is contagious and I am influenced to try something new, but I try to avoid the comparison trap. Learning multiple languages, running a marathon, and producing a gourmet meal every night is not for me, but I still enjoy reading about those accomplishments by others. Finding what is right for you is part of the ‘transition.’ Cut yourself some slack. Absolutely no one is judging how you do you.

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    1. Suzanne, the “you do you” is a theme I’m hearing! I’m not sure why I hear a tone of judgement, but I am definitely trying to stop the comparison. I like how you phrase if , too – enjoy reading about the accomplishments of others. I’d love to understand how you as a de-clutter live with a hubby who holds onto everything…that’s an area I’m trying (struggling?) to accept.

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      1. Pat, I whine a lot is the honest answer. The garage, office, and his closet are off-limits to me (by choice) but they have doors! I have learned to accept that his areas will be messy until he decides to make them presentable. It still bothers me, but it is what it is. Seriously though, I do think personal space is important and should be respected, it is when his bad habits (insert judgment) spill over into shared spaces that I go off the rails.

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      2. Suzanne, LOL. Our new house is much smaller than we’ve ever had. I know that his “office” (bedroom #2 – the larger one) will be his space…and will be messy (a disaster in fact). And yes, it has a door to close!

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  9. Great post! I did fall into the post-career board positions after my retirement. On a lovely sunny day as I commuted to downtown Toronto, fought for a parking spot, and went into a stuffy board room with a binder full of board materials, I realized that this had been my life before retirement. I asked myself why I was using my retirement to do what I had done at work for better pay plus benefits! I decided to resign from all boards and committees and resolved not to engage in any retirement activities that would require attendance at meetings. It was one of my best retirement decisions!

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  10. At about six months into my retirement I felt like I “should be doing more”. I admit I had a list of things I thought I would do in retirement which I was not doing and felt guilty for. The pandemic in a way has been good. I have not been able to volunteer or try new book clubs and it has helped me to step back and look at what I really want to do. I am now in my 4th year of retirement and finally feel good about the things I am doing or not doing. It takes time but retirement is about making choices that are best for us. You are on the right track.

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    1. Ah, those dreaded “shoulds”! My husband has started to point out when I use that word. Another friend often tells me to “stop should-ing on yourself”. It’s taken me awhile to understand what I really want to do, and I’m still working through some of that. Working – nope. Volunteering – probably not. Grand hobby – also probably not. Travel – hmmm? But I am filling the days with things I enjoy, and I think when things open up again, I’ll focus on what I really want to do and not what I think I should do.

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  11. Ok, Let me just start with you are not failing anything especially retirement. You are doing a great job of doing the things that are of interest to you and trying new things. I must admit I didn’t know these preconceived notions of what one is suppose to do after retirement (including early retirement as I also retired early) and yet I seem to be doing a few. However, I do them because they bring me joy not because I thought I was suppose to. Actually one of the things that brings me the most joy, at least after I learned to accept that it’s ok, is to have absolutely nothing to do or anyone that needs me. We did our jobs, we gave a lot to society, we paid our dues, and now is the time that we get to do whatever it is that brings us joy. You deserve it. I deserve it. I once had someone tell me that it was shameful that I would retire, especially early, because I wouldn’t be doing my part for society and it really hurt my feelings. But after much thought, I realized “screw them”, I have already given a lot and I deserve to enjoy this time of my life. So I do what I want. Eating healthy isn’t going to happen. I figure I haven’t done that during any part of my life, why start now. As a matter of fact, I find this the time to eat out, a lot, and eat well. Now you know I like being thin (well, less plump) so I will diet, my way, but if I chose to start my days with mimosas and end them with vodka gimlets, I will and do.
    As far as second careers or volunteering or boards, I really find that I just don’t have the same energy or desire as I had. Old age? I don’t really think so, I just don’t think my heart is in it. And that’s ok, too. I don’t want to be on these things if I can’t give it my all. If something really strikes my fancy and passion then I’ll do something. If not, then I won’t. Even donating. Over the years I have given a nice amount of money to a few charities that were special to me. And stopping the donations was one of the hard things for me. But I finally came to my own understanding that my income has retired and now so has my donations. I give once in a while but I have let go of the guilt of not giving larger amounts.
    It took me a little while but I believe this is the time that we decide what we do. We decide what we eat. We decide what makes us happy and we now get the chance to do it.
    You are an awesome woman and you should do exactly what feels right to you. Don’t over think this one, Pat!

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    1. Candyse, who me – over-think things? Hah. I’ve actually come to terms with not doing most of the expected. I dissolved my LLC this past month, dropped out of the ICF (life coach federation), and am accepting that our house will never look uncluttered (not with my hubby!). I also think I going to try and be a “patron of the arts” – meaning I’ll be satisfied with writing checks to one of the smaller theaters in Florida. And I am really, really looking forward to being able to eat out again… its not about the food, its the whole experience – take-away is not the same! And for the record… you are NOT plump. Thanks for the pep talk. 🙂

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  12. The expectation I hear the most is related to travel. Always questions about that. I love to travel but I also like to be home. I love my days and have become even less goal oriented in my hobbies. If I feel like doing nothing some days, that’s what I do. There’s always tomorrow!! And if someone thinks I should live differently, that’s their problem. I certainly don’t care how other retirees spend their days. Retirement isn’t supposed to be stressful, right?

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    1. I had to chuckle about the travel bit…hardly anyone is traveling right now. I’ve still not really figured out if my urge to travel (when we can again) is truly a personal desire or still a “something you should do”. There is a lot about travel I do not like but there are places and things I still would like to see/experience. Of course, not all travel goes as planned…my trip to Iceland to see the Northern Lights was 5 days of rain… no sky visible! That’s actually making me wonder about future trip plans… how much of the unpleasant aspects of travel am I willing to deal with if the key things I go to experience don’t happen. As you said – Retirement isn’t supposed to be stressful!

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  13. I heard some of the expectations you mentioned and I tried some of the activities (baking bread, volunteering, decluttering and selling / donating stuff). I’m in the first months of early retirement since January, I’m 61.
    Now I’m looking forward to do something, where I have to start from scratch again, I will go to university and study computer science.
    I strive to „Let the people talk and live my life“ – it‘s sometimes not easy to shut up the expectations raised by others and my inner voices trying to make me a good girl again

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    1. I’ve been trying to be the good girl my entire life! I asked one of my high-school friends if she could recall what I “wanted to be when I grew up”, because I could recall what she wanted. And she said, “you wanted to be a good girl”.

      Studying something that interests you is awesome! I’ve enjoyed taking some on-line classes during the pandemic and hope to stick with it. Nothing as in-depth as computer science…but as many have been pointing out “you do you”!

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  14. Reading your concerns I felt like I had written them myself yet now 2 years into my retirement I can easily look back and say …. Thank god I just took a big breath and said to myself…. just take one day at a time; which I did, My husband and I have traveled and were in Europe when the pandemic hit needles to say we cut our 2 month trip short and flew home on March 13,2020. The stay at home period was hard yet we found plenty to occupy our time. I have found that “not having control” of life really is liberating!!!

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    1. Looking back on this last year, I do think I’ve been able to give up on a few of the expectations. No-one was traveling. I came to terms with not ever really working again. I really focused on what I wanted to do. I still hear the expectations, but I hope that I don’t feel like I need to meet them!

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      1. I am so glad you linked up. Anytime you can if you wish. I resonated so much with what you wrote. In fact, soon I am having a post go live about Volunteering and what is was/is for me and my husband. It will be live from 18 March 2021 so pop back to read when you get a chance.

        Thanks so much for linking up for Life This Week #231. Glad to have you add your post as part of the community here. Next week. the optional prompt is Good. Hope to see you there. Denyse.

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      2. I did read your post on volunteering and it was very interesting. I’ve never given my time as a volunteer; my philanthropic approach has been write a check. Maybe something will spark with me in the future where I will give time and talent.

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  15. Wow. I retired “young” too but never felt any retirement expectations nor do I have any other than doing things I enjoy. Certainly I was asked by co-workers as I was getting to my final days what I was planning to do but I think that was more of “living vicariously” rather than expectation setting. I never felt any pressure to “use those project management skills” when all I want to do in retirement is “be the pair of hands”. Neither has my husband who didn’t work a day past retirement either for pay or as a volunteer. Maybe our lack of life goals helps us focus on “what do I want to do today” versus “what do I want to accomplish”. Best wishes as you seek what makes you happy.

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    1. An interesting difference – what do I want to do versus what do I want to accomplish! I lean towards accomplishments… even if it’s checking of things on my to-do list. My husband is definitely more what do I want to do. I’m not sure I can change… but I am learning to appreciate my own accomplishments, however small/different they might be to others.

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  16. Hi Pat – I worried about this a lot when I was trying to figure out whether I was unemployed, under-employed, job hunting, retired, or just plain burnt out. What I’ve come to see is that retirement is different for every single one of us – and the pandemic added another layer on top of it all. I love living on my own timetable and dabbling in this and that, I’ve felt a little intimidated by those who are jam packing their retirement with activity or exercise or new diplomas. I just want to cruise at my own pace and now (after a couple of years) I just let what others are doing wash over me – I notice the subtle jabs and the comparisons, but (as Loretta wisely said above) I’m just doing “me” and loving my life – I wake up with a smile every day and you just can’t beat that. Early retirement rocks! x

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  17. Oh my you nailed every expectation I have been hearing and reading about retirement! I, like you, are doing some of them (like daily walks and yoga, healthy eating) but certainly not all of them! Just because we are retired doesn’t mean we have to fit into all the expectations. We have to be ourselves pre and post retirement. Sounds like that is what you are doing and this blog post reassures me that it is ok for me to do the same. Thanks for your insight!

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    1. I’m glad that you took that message away! Because, as someone who tried to meet or exceed expectations for years, it’s been a challenge for me to say it’s OK to no longer do that. As many have said – you do you!

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