In 2007, at age 52, I was forced to retire overnight. An MRI revealed a tumor, the size of a large eggplant, sitting on my pelvis. In 98% of these cases, my oncologist told me, the bone tumors are secondary cancers. He estimated that I had about six months to live.
But after two successful operations, it took me a few months to recover on crutches and learn to walk again. After my near death experience, I was retired for 10 years. Because I was focused on my litigation, I couldn’t do much else. I found myself bored, restless and stuck. My enthusiasm and energy waned. My mental health suffered.
No one other than I knew who was retired told me these are things I could live with. But when I shared with them how I felt, they admitted to sometimes feeling the same way.
That’s when I decided to “retire” and start a mental coaching business to help people have a more fulfilling retirement than mine.
The biggest retirement challenge
Retirement means different things to different people. I did an in-depth survey of over 15,000 retirees over the age of 60 and asked them one question: “What is your biggest retirement challenge?”
Below is a small selection of responses I received in the most cited categories:
- “I miss the job I love.”
- “I don’t think retirement is for me. I want to go back to teaching.”
- “I don’t know what to do with my time. I feel lost.”
- “Keeping my mind healthy and adding value to the world.”
- “Fear of dying in pain and discomfort.”
- “When you’re 70 with heart disease, you don’t get much more apple bites.”
- “The fear of losing my created identity over a lifetime.”
- “People don’t see you anymore.”
- “Feelings of rejection – internalized, unexpressed.”
Here’s what it tells us: The biggest challenge in retirement that, in my experience, no one talks about, is finding purpose.
Of course, money is definitely a concern. “I’m afraid of poverty and loss of dignity,” one person said. Another wrote: “Money goes out, nothing comes in.” But surprisingly, financial worries were not among the top three on the list.
People often confuse retirement savings with retirement planning. But these are two different concepts. Google the words “retirement planning” and you’ll see mostly, for pages and pages, content related to savings and retirement.
There is nothing on real retirement planning, which I believe is more about your life than money. Having stable finances to last through retirement plays an important role in quality of life, but what’s more important is your life planning.
In other words, what are you going to do once you leave the job market? You can retire from your career, but you cannot retire from life.
In the same survey, I asked how people thought they could solve their problems. A full 35% believed the answer was finding purpose in life through a new skill or interest.
In fact, a 2021 study of 12,825 adults over the age of 51 published in the The Journal of Applied Gerontology has linked strong life purpose with healthier lifestyle behaviors and slower rates of chronic disease progression.
Finding purpose can also help retirees find new opportunities for income-generating side hustle, which helps ease financial worries.
How a Japanese concept saved me from a depressing retirement
I have helped countless retirees find their purpose. They didn’t go back to work in the traditional 9-to-5 sense, but they started new businesses, consulted, volunteered and took up hobbies that brought them joy and satisfaction.
To identify which activities gave me purpose, I referenced the Japanese concept of “ikigai,” which translates to “your reason for being.”
The westernized version of this concept is based on the idea that there are four components that a person must have completed to achieve ikigai.
Each concept is represented by a question. As you actively pursue what you love to do in service to yourself, your family, and your community, ask yourself if this activity allows you to answer “yes” to any combination of these four questions:
- Do you do an activity that you enjoy?
- Are you good at this?
- Does the world need what you offer?
- Can you get paid to do this?
Japanese neuroscientist and happiness expert Ken Mogi also suggests considering whether the activity has the five pillars that allow your ikigai to thrive:
- Does the activity allow you to start small and improve over time?
- Does the activity allow you to free yourself?
- Does the activity seek harmony and sustainability?
- Does the activity allow you to enjoy the little things?
- Does the activity allow you to focus on the here and now?
At a deeper level, ikigai refers to the emotional circumstances in which individuals feel their life is valuable as they progress towards their goals.
As for me, I discovered that my goal now is to help retirees “retire” and create a new life. Depending on when you plan to retire, you could still have 30, 40, 50 or more years to live – and it’s a crazy time to drift aimlessly.
George Jerjian is the author of “Dare to discover your purpose: retire, revive, reconnect.” An Emmy Award-winning producer and author of 10 books, he earned his business degree from the University of Bradford in England and a master’s degree in journalism from New York University. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeJerjian.