“It’s okay if retiring is difficult”

Published on: 1 February 2021

We generally don’t think about how we are going to spend our time after we retire, until we’re there. Although some people have been dreaming about a trip around the world, or enjoying just puttering around the house in anticipation of this milestone, most people prefer not to look ahead. Do most people underestimate the consequences of retiring? Experts say they do. “That impact is huge. Make sure you are well-prepared. It doesn’t just happen.”



Your life really does change when you retire. And that is wonderful and a little stressful at the same time. How do you prepare for that?


New life phases go hand in hand with good preparation. Before you started elementary school, you got to spend a few mornings getting used to it, and before you get married, you try out living together to see how it works out. But when it comes to retiring, we often just want to see if we can figure out what we can expect financially. How we will spend our free time is something we’ll decide when the time comes. And that’s a bit late, says Marjoleine Vosselman, psychologist and author of the book Pensioen in zicht (Retirement in sight). “When you retire, you finally get time to do all those things you didn’t get around to during your working life. But sometimes that can be disappointing. How do you deal with all that time, family members’ expectations and possible old age defects? When you stop working, you lose a significant part of what has been giving your life meaning. You will need to make conscious choices and sometimes you also have to accept that not everything is within your reach.”

Always “time”

The transition from an existence in which paid work was the determining factor to a phase of life full of freedom can be interpreted in many ways. Anneroos Gerritsen, senior trainer and advisor at Odyssee discusses this with retirees. On the beach, being active outside or inside. Do we really need preparation or even a course for that? “A retirement course is obviously not the same as learning a new language,” Gerritsen answers. “It’s about becoming aware of what you actually already know. It’s about taking time to think about your next step. What used to be free time becomes new time, or just ‘time’. What do you do with it?” The trainer recommends taking the training a year, or at least a few months, before retirement.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

“In the course, we discuss five life domains. The first is health of body and mind. What do you already do in this area, think of exercise, and what could you do more or less of? What does your body need, what can it still do? The second domain is social relationships. Soon, the contact with coworkers will fall away. Are there other relationships that you can breathe new life into? Do you want to have more social contacts, or do you have no need for them? And what will it be like living with your partner after you stop working? What kind of space do you allow each other and what do you want to do together?” The material situation is the third domain Gerritsen deals with. “You've arranged your pension by now, and your state pension is coming up. But what about your financial planning, inheritance and gifts and your housing situation? During the course, a financial expert will come as a guest lecturer to cover these topics.” Labor and performance are also discussed. “Course participants still want to do something. But what? And what do you do first? Do you tackle overdue maintenance on your house, take a course or do volunteer work?” The final domain is values and inspiration. “That’s a theme that the course encourages participants to get into together in depth. What is it that  still gets you out of bed in the morning? We also have a lot of tips on all these domains in a digital manual.”

What is it that still gets you out of bed in the morning?

Sweat out your work

Psychologist Vosselman is also in favor of a course. She certainly doesn’t see education as a luxury time commitment. “Anyone who thinks that underestimates the impact of the transition to retirement,” she says. In her book, she focuses on meaning and uses personal stories to describe the two extremes of retirement preparation: doing nothing or preparing too much. “Expectations about retiring don’t add up. People are unprepared or even have too much of a planned approach. And yet you want to get off the treadmill of working life. Sweat out your work. Realize that retiring is not just fun. It’s allowed to be difficult. It is this feeling that gives you the space to let go of your working life. Give yourself the chance to change. Prepare yourself without shutting down everything. Gerritsen agrees. “It’s not about ticking items off a list you’ve made in advance. It’s about getting to know yourself again. Couples see retirement as a pink cloud. Now they’re going to enjoy it. Then I ask why they are only doing that now. It turns out it’s the freedom they’re looking forward to. Something singles dread. They are afraid of missing out on structure and coworkers.”


Wrestling with questions

One of Gerritsen’s course participants was Joep Athmer, a former board member at dredging and maritime construction company Van Oord. For his work he regularly traveled to distant destinations. At age 62, with a great career behind him, he was thinking about the time after he retired. He had all kinds of practical questions: “Should I stay home and putter? Should I go cycling? Or look after the grandchildren full time?” But he also had deeper questions like, “Will I still matter when I no longer have the charisma of my job? What am I worth at home? What will it be like to be at home with my wife all the time?”

So, Athmer and his wife took the retirement course at Odyssee. “If we wanted to continue having a good life together, that course was welcome. And it proved to be so.”  Athmer was glad to see that he was not the only one with questions. Plenty of other men and women in leadership positions were wrestling with the question of whether they would still matter in that phase of life.

“The answer to that question is: yes. This course got me thinking and that went beyond thinking about where we want to travel. I gained insight into who I am and what my wife and I both want.” Meanwhile, Athmer, now that he is retired, has five side jobs and he sits on the board of several foundations. But he also tours the Faroe Islands on his motorcycle. And he has a bunch of other beautiful trips on his bucket list.

Sense of futility
The biggest impact that retirement has is psychological. People who have just retired lack the context of working life. The tragicomedy About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson illustrates this perfectly, Vosselman believes. “The movie shows how the retired Warren Schmidt is overwhelmed by a sense of futility.” According to Vosselman, we often hang our identity and value on our work. “Those who work have challenges in many areas, are expected somewhere and have a (full) agenda. Work gets priority, work is urgent. When you stop working, you have to make sure you’re still expected somewhere.” The psychologist strongly emphasizes that the bar need not be set too high. “Even something relatively small, like signing up for a drawing course is good. Just get out of the performance atmosphere of work.”

Should I stay home and putter?

Saying goodbye helps
And she means that literally. After all, research shows that saying goodbye is beneficial and can really make a difference. “Transition requires a ritual. It helps you close the door to the old and open it to the new,” says Vosselman. And in her view, employers and coworkers play a big role in this since the person retiring usually modestly exclaims that a farewell party is unnecessary. “During corona, saying goodbye is harder, so be creative. It’s very important to close your working life and hear how meaningful you were. It is precisely after a good farewell that you can move forward.”

If you choose to just let retirement happen, it carries risks. “You may be looking forward to the peace and quiet,” says Vosselman, “but empty, meaningless days can also cause a lot of anxiety. Or maybe your days will be filled automatically by babysitting the grandchildren. But is that what you really want? And what will it be like at home when one partner is working and the other one isn’t? Take time to explore that.”


Employer responsibility
Retirement courses, by the way, are not a fad. The idea originated sixty years ago at Hoogovens, the current Tata Steel, in IJmuiden. Gerritsen: “At that time it was a real family business where employees started as fifteen-year-olds and stayed until they retired. Until, for the first time in history, people had to be laid off in the 1960s.” That went against the tradition that Hoogovens had. And the company did not want to just throw people out on the street. A social plan was drawn up and the precursors of Odyssee facilitated the transition to not working. Gerritsen: “That offer was supposed to be a one-off. But everyone liked it so much that the initiative has remained. And we’re seeing that more and more employers are taking responsibility and offering a Pension in Focus course. Companies like Philips and Heineken, as well as the government, are making sure that their employees can have a positive experience both when they start working and when they stop working.”

“Swiss life feeling” is unfair
Will we end up in a black hole if we don’t make preparations? Vosselman says we won’t. She thinks the dreaded black hole is a vision of doom that fits in with the spirit of the times, where we should all be happy. “That Swiss life feeling can instill unnecessary fear. It’s not a fair picture. You get older, appear more vulnerable. Then not everything is possible anymore.” The psychologist predicts a black hole only if you’re afraid to go through that transition process. “Suppose you’ve always been a doer, but around retirement your body gives out. That is very difficult. Then you have to reinvent yourself.”

Next time: Retirement in sight - Does the black hole exist?

Retiree Joep Athmer ended up in the dreaded pension hole despite a retirement course. “With a job like I had, you just keep growing. At some point you think you’re Jesus and can walk on water. But that’s dangerous. You think you’re untouchable, but when you retire, suddenly everything is gone.”