"My life had to be more exciting"

Published on: 15 February 2021

When retiring is extremely disappointing

The dreaded black hole and how to rise from it


Retirement. Finally, doing what you like. That turns out to be more difficult than expected for many people. Some fall into a 'black hole'. How do you prevent that? And can you recover? Retired Joep Athmer has the answer to those questions. Experienced first hand when he hit the bottom of the hole. "Every day, I make sure that people see me, that I remain of value."


"Days without a deadline, with plenty of time, while that time - conversely - is shrinking rapidly in volume." Does the world shrinking continue? The narrowing of the horizon?" Signed: journalist Wim Boevink, who as a retiree in his column in Trouw wondered what life looks like after your retirement. Once retired, he said in an interview: "That retirement date has been fixed for years, and there's something nice about that. I think it's good not to go on too long, you shouldn't live off your success forever. You also just have to go at one point."

"Just going" turned out not to be that simple for Joep Athmer. He was a board member of a large internationally operating multinational and regularly flew to distant, exciting destinations. "In the job I had, you keep growing. You think you're untouchable, but then when you retire, everything is suddenly gone. Instantly, you go from someone with appreciation, interest, someone everyone knows, back to 'this is just Joep Athmer'. I found that hard."

Where did it go wrong?

"Six months before my retirement, I was already heading for that dreaded black hole. I managed one more important final project at work, estranged from my wife and children, and liked everything in life better than what I already had. It was a combination of the fear of what was to come and the exciting things that came my way. And I didn't talk about that feeling at home.

Suddenly, I wanted to catch up with everything, build a new life of my own. Everything had to change. I got my motorcycle license and met new people. I didn't think about going back to a life of suburban bliss. And I kept that up for quite a while. Until about three quarters of a year after my retirement. At my lowest point, I even lived on my own for six months. I was just lost for a while."

Joep Athmer

How do you look back on that time?
"I learned a lot about myself, while I had been managing and coaching people for years. I was half psychologist and half priest, and I said the right things to employees at those times. But I just didn't know what to do to get out of there.


I found out that I threw away a lot. That I would be much happier living a life with everything I had built and loved than a life of partying. With the help of two people who have never criticized me, I found my way back. And now, I find happiness in small things. That wasn't an easy route. Because pride and loss of face got in the way. I really had to rise above myself for that. "


Did you seek help?
"I followed a Pensioen in Zicht course with my wife. For us, it went beyond thinking about where we wanted to go on holiday: it was also a way to rethink relationships within the relationship. We needed that to be able to continue together, as partners and as a family.

By the way, it was good to see during the course that other men and women in managerial positions, each in their own way, struggle with the same thing: 'do I still matter?'.


Did the roles change?
"To be honest, I was married to my job more than to my wife. But then you retire and you sit at home, without that important position. Your family already knows you, so they act normally and expect you to clean out the dishwasher too. I really had to get used to that."

It takes a lot of effort for me to do nothing for a day

You've now been retired for two years, what do your days look like now?
"It takes a lot of effort for me to do nothing for a day, to read a book. Even though I rationally tell myself 'come on, Joep, you have worked hard for 41 years, so it's fine now'. I want to do something active, something useful. I also need structure. So I plan something in my agenda every day, business and private. That gives me peace of mind. And I'm getting better at scheduling more and more private things."

Do you still work?
"I don't sit still, that's for sure. I'm an informal caregiver for an elderly neighbor, I'm the chairman of a museum and member of a cycling club. I've also followed various courses, because I think you're never too old to learn. I currently have about five freelance jobs in which I advise and coach professionals and (family) businesses. I just like to get involved in everything!"

What do you get out of it?
"I make sure that people see me, that I remain of value. And that goes beyond the status I had. Of course, I loved being made a leader, traveling around the world of Peter Stuyvesant and meeting the rulers of the earth. But what I really want is to train people, to transfer experience and to be of use. I really enjoy that."

And you can do that, as Joep?
"Absolutely. I don't have two secretaries to give tasks now. I don't have 380 people I can rely on. If I start something, I will do it myself. Based on my strength and knowledge. And I love that. I'm not physically and mentally ready to be sitting around idly."

Is that lost feeling of the black hole completely gone now?

"I still struggle with the fact that I'm retired. It's difficult to find the right balance. But I did find a trick for that, because I turn everything into a project that I plan. Even when I'm going to read a book. But I think I should do that too."

"A former boss of mine also took on anything just after he'd retired. 'But', he said to me, 'there comes a point, physically and mentally, when you can no longer keep up. So arm yourself for that. Plan for that to happen.' So I'm working on that too now. I read that book a little inexorably, according to schedule at three o'clock in the afternoon."

Do you have tips for other pre-pensioners to start their retirement unscathed?

"Very important: confide in someone to talk about your feelings and concerns. Second, look for hobbies, courses and side activities during the last years of your working life. Because that's when you're in the middle of society and people still know you. That's the time to bait a line. If you wait until after retirement, people will forget about you. I see that happening with retired friends of mine. They're fed up with gardening after two years, want to fulfill a position again, but can no longer get a foot in the door."



Previously published in the Retirement series: Part 1, the preparation - 'It's okay for retirement to be difficult' | APG

Retiring does not only require an adjustment from the pensioner. The partner also has to get used to it. Research by Nobuo Kurokawa from Japan shows that the wives of retired men can suffer from a rash, abdominal pain and stress. They literally get sick from their husbands sitting at home and his meddling in domestic chores. Japanese doctors call this 'retired husband syndrome', or in full One's Husband Being at Home Stress Syndrome. You can even buy special small rooms with TVs and computers. Japanese women can temporarily 'store' their husbands here to catch their breath.