Social media has altered our perceptions of success, relationships, politics, culture and even retirement. But know this: no matter what type of designer retirement you think you have put together for yourself, bereavement, illness, ennui and financial challenges happen to everyone. No amount of wealth, success, power or planning can make you impervious to them.
Leave it to a couple rambunctious, overtired children to accentuate that bit of wisdom to me.
Like many parents, I typically read to my children before bedtime. Sometimes we take turns making up our own stories. Trouble arises, however, when they’re not ready to fall asleep and continually ask what happens next in my story.
The boy slayed the dragon and saved his village. And then? There were no more dragons left to slay, so he got a job bagging groceries at the local market. And then? Um, he worked his way up to manager. And then? He saved enough money to open his own supermarket franchise across the kingdom. And then? A new supermarket competitor arrived offering a cheaper, more convenient shopping experience and took all his customers, putting him out of business. And then? To pay bills, he resorted to signing autographs at comic conventions and starring in commercials for whole life insurance and annuities. And then? GO. TO. SLEEP.
Perhaps, if you have children, you know the feeling…
But what a pertinent question. And then? What happens as heroes and heroines “live happily ever after”? What possibilities lie beyond just the memorable parts of life? What about the quotidian and minutiae that fills most of our time and experiences?
In the era of social media, everything is treated like a fable or fairytale. Life has become one long P.R. campaign. People tend to project the image of a life far better than the one we authentically experience.
For retirement or financial independence (pick your term), a lot of attention is focused on the tip of the iceberg – the ideal lifestyle – rather than the unsentimental parts that actually make up most of one’s life.
Think about those stylized photos of older adults frolicking on the beach and strolling down cobblestone streets. Or those intricately staged selfies posted by early retirees above Machu Picchu or aboard a sailboat cutting across the Caribbean.
It’s hard not to revel in these stories (hey, I wish I were writing this under a cabana in the Maldives too!) and ignore the inconvenient parts of life, dismissing them as something that won’t happen to us.
In a sense, it’s a combination of confirmation bias and optimism bias (optimistic confirmation bias?). When thinking about retirement, there is a tendency to focus only on the positive instances while being over-optimistic about the occurrence of those positive instances in our own lives.
But no one can escape the “and thens”: health issues, unexpected hardships, financial misfortunes, changing interests and goals, death.
As we work toward creating a more ideal life, it’s easy to fall for myths about retirement. It is important to indulge your dreams and goals, but through a realistic lens. In other words, consider the whole story.
That way, you avoid neglecting life right now for a future that isn’t achievable or that you find out you don’t actually want. Plus, when you humbly recognize every moment in retirement is not all sunshine and lollipops, you will better appreciate the times when it is.
Under the influence of social media, I think these are three big retirement myths to watch out for:
Myth #1: The quality of your retirement depends on how much money you have
Social media has certainly expunged many taboos. I think it’s generally a good thing people are more comfortable openly sharing personal things like their savings and net worth, as long as people understand that that isn’t what’s most important.
Contrary to some finance experts, there is no magic savings target or level of wealth that dictates the type of retirement you experience. Once you hit that mark, then what? Money is useless without purpose.
Wealth is a means to an end, not the end itself. Or, as comedian Chris Rock said, “Wealth is not about having a lot of money; it’s about having a lot of options.” What options are important to you then determines how much wealth you need.
In the book, Top Five Regrets of the Dying, hospice nurse Bonnie Ware writes that her patients cared more about relationships and happiness than money, fame or success. The most cited regret was: “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” That was followed by “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
You will regret missed opportunities to be yourself and spending time with those you love much more than having saved $750,000 instead of $1 million.
Wealth is an essential part retirement, but if that is all you concentrate on, then you’re liable to end up feeling rather poor.
Myth #2: The purpose of retirement is to be happy
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” Those are the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and they’re applicable to every stage in life. Hell, they’re worth a share on social media.
As noted in a 2014 article published by the American Psychological Association, research has found some people experience “anxiety, depression and debilitating feelings of loss” after retiring.
In addition to the financial aspects of retirement, it’s important to also plan for the social and psychological shifts, such as coping with the loss of your career identity, forming new relationships and finding things to do to pass the time.
The average length of retirement is approximately 20 years, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. That is 7,300 days, or 175,200 hours, or 10,512,000 minutes.
That is a lot of time to pass, but also a lot of time to grow, learn, meet new people, try new things and even discover a new purpose. With that undoubtedly comes challenges and feelings of discomfort, followed by accomplishments and feelings of satisfaction.
Some struggle is a necessity for many people. Consider older adults who you would think are mentally and physically tired of work. A FlexJobs’ survey of over 2,000 professionals at or near retirement found that nearly one fifth (17%) plan to keeping working solely because they want to, not because they need the money. People 55 to 64 years old made up 26% of new entrepreneurs in 2017, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
Myth #3: Everything goes according to plan
Social media is where people generally share stories of their success and positive experiences told in nice, neat narratives. It can appear as if everything transpires without a hitch.
But the third of surviving wives who reported less financial security in the first year after losing their husbands didn’t expect it. The half of parents who found themselves financially supporting adult children as their retirement prospects dim didn’t expect it either.
When life doesn’t go according to plan.
A retirement plan is great document, until it isn’t. It is difficult to plan steep market drops, housing market crashes, disability, divorce, major home repairs, new goals and interests, a child in financial trouble and death.
Instead of putting faith in a plan, it is better to build the flexibility to roll with life’s unplanned punches. As Dwight Eisenhower famously stated: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”
Financially, that can mean setting aside funds for likely unplanned events, such as home repairs, while buying insurance for the things we just can’t anticipate. Psychologically, build a strong support network and develop a growth mindset to help accept and adapt to changes in life. For example, the loss of a spouse, or physical ailments that leave you unable to do some of the things you once enjoyed — or planned to enjoy.
The uncertainties in life stress the urgency to enjoy it. We can never know when it is the right time.
There is no reason to fear you may not live up to some unrealistic ideal. Appreciate the moments you have now and be grateful for the graces that arrive in the future. And then, the endings will take care of themselves.