On Making Retirement Satisfying…for Men. It’s not what we do… It’s what we experience.

On Making Retirement Satisfying…for Men.  It’s not what we do… It’s what we experience.


When I began talking about my own retirement a few years ago, I got one response more often than any other. “Oh, congratulations; what are you going to do?” Always, the emphasis was on the word do.

 It gradually dawned on me this question was familiar, not new. When men meet, it is common to begin by establishing names. “I’m John, and you are?”   And the second get-acquainted question—almost every time—is “What do you do?” Meaning, literally, how do you earn your income? But the unspoken subtext of the question often feels more like, How are you productive? What are you worth? What makes you useful in the world? What is your status?

It is easy for boys who learn this ritual to draw an important conclusion. Many people in our society define a man’s value by his work, his success, his income. Put more bluntly, work is not merely how a man earns money; it is his identity. He is his work. We say, I am a plumber or a teacher. And if a man cannot work for any reason, his value drops. He may start feeling guilty for not earning his keep, or not supporting his family. His very identity feels uncertain.

You may wonder if I’m overstating this link between a man’s work and his feeling of worth in life. But in my clinical psychology practice that served only men over the years, I learned this connection is common, not only in my consulting room, but also in research I reviewed. Men who no longer work (for whatever reason, including retirement) increase their risk of becoming withdrawn, lonely, irritable, overweight, intoxicated, and yes…depressed.

All of this was background for me when thinking about my own retirement. Then it occurred to me one day that I wanted to answer a different question. Not, what am I going to do, but how do I want to experience my life?

Somehow, that shift freed me from thinking about retirement using the metrics of traditional masculinity: productivity, success, and accomplishment. Rather, I could think about it with standards of my own. How do I want to live? What experiences appeal to me? How can I live my personal values, minimizing the achievement-oriented pressures so familiar to men?

This approach led to the development of a different metric – simply naming types of life experiences I want to have. My own list follows, with an important proviso: these categories are not offered as a model for every man. Instead I present them only to illustrate one way of organizing retirement in ways that emphasize experiencing more than doing.

CREATIVE EXPERIENCES. Are there creative activities I’ve imagined pursuing, but never tried because of parenting or work duties? Playing a musical instrument? Using new tools in a shop? Planting a garden? Flying a plane? Or? And then, what training will help me develop or strengthen a creative skill that appeals to me?

GIVING EXPERIENCES. What have I learned in my line of work that younger folks might find useful? How can I give back to the profession, union, organization, or employer that gave so much to me? Consultation? Writing for trade journals? Hands-on training? Recruiting? Community college teaching?

LEARNING EXPERIENCES. What have I always wanted to learn more about? And where can I learn it? Library books? Book clubs? Discussion groups? University classes or lectures for the public?

NURTURING EXPERIENCES. Who needs nurturing that I can provide? Grandchildren? Troubled boys? Children in my synagogue, mosque, church, temple, or sangha? Children who play sports and need coaching or guiding? Residents in memory care facilities? Hospice patients?

SERVING EXPERIENCES. Who can I help by joining a reputable volunteer organization? So many needs…so many people: the hungry, the disabled, the homeless, the incarcerated, the chronically ill. Many children need mentors. Some charitable organizations need help with practical things, like building maintenance or repair. Others need warm and mature adults who can be a significant presence in someone’s life.

SOCIALIZING EXPERIENCES. This one is especially important for men, because many men enter retirement with no meaningful or regular association with any group outside their own work settings or families. The options are many, but require a willingness to initiate contact: Service clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis, etc), social clubs, public interest groups, cause or advocacy groups, political committees, sports teams or activities, hobby groups, work-related retirement groups, and so many more. I have come to believe that a man’s social involvement may be the most reliable predictor of a satisfying retirement. Without adequate socializing, feelings of loneliness and uselessness become almost inevitable.

SELF-CARE EXPERIENCES. Physical health permitting, retirement provides more time for exercise. It becomes possible to take an hour or more every morning or evening to keep oneself fit. Many choices exist to meet retirement needs for maintaining strength, flexibility, stamina, and balance: fitness gyms, personal trainers, community classes, or just plain walking. Self-care also includes giving attention to the emotional, aesthetic, or spiritual dimensions of life: mindfulness meditation, self-reflection, art appreciation, or time in the natural world.

EXPLORING EXPERIENCES. And finally, yes, there is always the possibility of travel—visiting distant relatives, returning to the lands of ones ancestors, or expanding awareness of other cultures and traditions.

Now, an important disclaimer. I am keenly aware of how privileged this approach to retirement may sound. Thinking and planning along these lines presupposes that a man has planned well for retirement, that he may no longer need to work for income as much as he used to, or work at all. But is clear that many baby boomers may need to work fulltime for as long as their health permits. So full and voluntary retirement from work is not for every man. I get that.

Yet, for any man who is actively planning fulltime or part-time retirement, or even for a man who wishes to broaden his enjoyment of life while still working, this fundamental shift in perspective may have significant implications—less focus on what he must do in work or retirement, and more emphasis on how to experience life more fully.

John Robertson

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  1. Jon Olson:

    This list has been very helpful in the week I’ve been thinking about it. The experience categories are a terrific heuristic, not just for planning a retirement but also for better living before retiring. I’m glad to see the confirmation of Carl’s comment. Thank you.

  2. Carl schwersinske:

    About 14 years before my retirement I incrementally practiced
    that life style change. Thank God I have the health to enjoy it!
    Good article Thx

    • John Robertson:

      Thanks, Carl. And good for you…not only for being able to make those lifestyle change while still working, but also for having (and sustaining) the health to experience your life more fully.