Retirement is a phase we all ponder, often with a mix of excitement, uncertainty, and trepidation.
What if, while we plan this new chapter, there are elements we’re completely overlooking?
What if the retirees of today could offer insight into the obscurities of tomorrow’s retirement for the rest of us? What better way to explore these thoughts than through an extensive survey, which looks into the experiences and perspectives of both retirees and those about to hang up their shoes? Drawing from the insights of 1,734 participants, this article by The Retirement Manifesto promises to shed light on the potential blind spots in retirement planning. Curiously, how do our anticipations differ from the realities faced by those who’ve already walked the path?
We all have blind spots.
For those who are planning on retiring in the next few years, retirement blind spots can be dangerous.
Wouldn’t it be helpful…
- …If we could get a list of our potential retirement blind spots, based on feedback from actual retirees?
- …If we could utilize the experience of actual retirees to help shine the light on shortfalls in our planning?
- …If someone would tell us what we should really be thinking about as we plan for retirement?
Today, we’re doing exactly that.
We’ve got a special post for you today, a post that has required hours of work by Eric Weigel, my partner on a special survey we conducted with the readers of this blog, among others. It’s the most comprehensive survey ever conducted by this blog, and you will be interested in the groundbreaking results.
After all, you are the subject!
- If you’ve already retired, you told us about your actual experience.
- If you’re planning on retiring, you’ve told us your expectations.
By comparing the responses of the two groups, we’ve compiled a list of potential blind spots that anyone planning for retirement should be aware of.
It’s time to put on your sunglasses.
Below, we’re shining the light on the retirement blind spots we discovered by analyzing your responses. This is one of the longest posts I’ve ever written, but the content is invaluable. If you don’t have time to read the entire post, skim through the charts and read the conclusion for the 5 most important retirement blind spots you helped to reveal.
Shining The Light On Retirement Blind Spots
On March 1, 2023 you received an e-mail from me with a link to a survey, which was titled “Retirement Attitudes & Perspectives.” In total, 1,734 people took the survey. Most were from this blog, but we also reached out on various channels focused on retirement planning, including Eric Weigel’s page (Retire With Possibilities), The Modern Elder Academy, The Retirement Coaches Association, and personal social media pages.
Eric Weigel, author of Reimaging Retirement, developed the survey and compiled the results (a special note of thanks for the hours he’s invested in this project). He has completed an impressive Final Report with all of the survey detail, which I encourage you to read. The title page is presented below, which is linked to the full report.
Click on the image to read the full report
The primary goal of the research was to compare retirement attitudes & perspectives between those on the cusp of retirement to those who have already retired. How do attitudes change pre- vs. post-retirement, and what can we learn to shed light on potential retirement blind spots for those who are approaching retirement?
To start, the following chart summarizes the demographics of respondents:
We were pleased that over 90% of the respondents fell in the “retirement sweet spot” (Ages 51+). We also had a perfect blend of pre- vs. post-retirees, with 54% classifying themselves as retired, 45% planning to retire (half of whom expect to retire within 2 years), and 1% who had no plans of retiring. 70% of the responders were male, and 86% of the respondents were married.
Below are the summarized results of the survey, which will be presented as follows:
Table Of Contents
- Combined Results (Both Pre- And Post-Retirees)
- “Retired Only” Responses
- Discovering Blind Spots – Part I
- Discovering Blind Spots – Part II
- Which Components Lead To A Good Life In Retirement?
- Conclusion – The Top 5 Retirement Blind Spots
I. Combined Results (Both Pre- and Post-Retirees)
In this section, we’ll present highlights from the entire population. In the next section, we’ll compare pre- vs. post-retiree responses, followed by a deep dive into the retirement blind spots revealed by comparing responses between the two groups. In each section, Eric and I will provide our commentary.
Ability to Manage Finances
To start, it’s important to note that our sample population was a select subset of the population at large, drawing as it did upon readers of this blog. Our sample population is a more knowledgeable group, as demonstrated by the following chart that self-rates your “ability to manage finances”.
Question: How would you rate yourself in terms of your ability to manage your finances?
For all graphs, an “A” is the highest score, and an “E” is the lowest.
FRITZ: I like the fact that our sample was drawn from a more select group of the population. It allows you to compare yourself to a group that is more representative of your peers. That said, Eric and I have discussed the possibility of conducting this survey with a more representative group of the entire population, which would yield some interesting results when compared to this population of retirement blog readers. If we are able to execute that approach, we’ll provide the results in a post dedicated to those results, stay tuned.
ERIC: I agree with you, Fritz. Our survey respondents seem to be well prepared for life in retirement. Even respondents still working and planning their retirement seem to have taken responsibility for their own well-being. While the transition from full-time work to retirement is for most people a very significant life event with its own set of challenges, our respondents seem to be ready for the challenge and well-positioned to iron out any issues that might creep up.
Strong Scores On Lifestyle & Mindset Attributes
Perhaps this is another potential impact of our sample bias, as we had a high percentage of the survey participants scoring well on the lifestyle and mindset attributes that contribute to a good retirement.
In addition to the desire to learn new things (chart shown below), our respondents also rated high in many of the areas that contribute to a good retirement, summarized below for brevity (read the Final Report for details). Responses are sorted in descending order based on % of “A” responses:
- Emotional Intelligence (A – 48%, B – 44%)
- Life Satisfaction (A – 41%, B – 46%)
- Desire to work on meaningful goals (A – 41%, B – 40%)
- Healthy Lifestyle (A – 37%, B – 43%)
- Quality of Relationships (A – 31%, B – 44%)
- Suitability of Home & Environment (A – 31%, B – 44%)
- Discipline in Allocating Time (A – 27%, B – 47%)
- Positive Habits (A – 25%, B – 49%)
- Having A Plan For Retirement (A – 20%, B – 47%)
- Transferability of Vocational Skills (A – 20%, B – 35%)
FRITZ: There are various personality traits that foster a good retirement, and I’m pleased to see the high scores from the participants. All of us have to learn how to live our new lives in retirement, and embracing a desire to learn serves people well as they make the transition. The strong scores on the other attributes are good indicators that our respondents are (and will be) leading good lives in retirement. Each of the attributes included in the bullet list above are worth serious consideration as you finalize your plans for retirement.
ERIC: I was pleasantly surprised to see high scores across all question categories. I think that when it comes to leading a happy and fulfilling life in retirement we already know what we have to do. Of course, we all define success in our own unique ways, but the trick always seems to involve taking some sort of action that moves us closer to our goals. In a sense what makes for a successful life in retirement is not a great mystery, but fulfilling our own vision requires a commitment to using our time, energy, and money in a way that creates true happiness and fulfillment.
II. “Retired-Only” Responses
This section of the survey was designed to determine the retirement attitudes determined to be important by folks who have already retired. In essence, it’s establishing the baseline used later in the study to compare what pre-retirees think will be important vs. what post-retirees think is important in retirement. The larger the gap between the two populations, the higher the odds that the issue is a retirement blind spot.
How Well Did You Prepare For Retirement?
Many of the questions in this section focused on preparation for retirement, with a focus on both the financial and non-financial aspects of planning. In general, survey respondents did a good job in preparing. We’ll touch on the financial preparation first, then provide a summary of the non-financial responses.
FRITZ: Over 61% of the respondents did a good job of preparing financially for retirement (Disagree + Strongly Disagree). Again, these numbers are likely better than the population as a whole, representing the pool from which the respondents were chosen. In my experience, the financial aspect is the one area that most people focus on, realizing its importance in their retirement timing decision. I was more interested in the non-financial aspects of planning, which we’ll touch on next.
ERIC: I am not surprised that survey respondents scored well in terms of planning for their finances in retirement. After all, the vast majority of people associate retirement planning with money. Anybody that subscribes to a retirement blog is probably very self-motivated and understands that finances provide the fuel to fund your lifestyle in retirement. Like you, Fritz, I was much more interested in finding out about how people see the non-financial aspects of planning for retirement in the next section. Even though most of my clients first approach me with questions about money, it is my experience that the non-financial side is often initially ignored or at least set aside only later to become the more important aspect of retirement planning.
Non-Financial Aspects of Retirement Planning
The survey included a broad selection of non-financial aspects of retirement planning that we have found to be important. We’ve both written extensively about the importance of planning for these non-financial aspects and encourage you to use the list below as a checklist if you’re considering retirement in the coming years.
For the sake of this summary, I’ve rearranged the list from the survey and present the items below in descending order, based on the % of respondents who identified gaps in their planning for each particular issue:
- Replacing Lost Work Connections: 36% identified this as a gap in their planning, the highest response in this section. If you’re still working, take note of this one.
- Letting Go of Your Work Identity: 35% of retirees felt this was an area they could have done a better job of preparing for.
- Identifying Meaning & Purpose: 33% of retirees wished they had better prepared for finding meaning & purpose as they retired. This is a key area that soon-to-be retirees should focus on, as it ultimately is the critical driver to finding true joy in retirement (based on numerous research studies).
- Adopting A Healthy Lifestyle: 28% felt this was an area they could have done a better job preparing for.
- Utilizing Skills in Alternative Work: 28% felt they should have done more planning on how to utilize their skills for new situations, perhaps representing a struggle for those who seek to use their work skills in a transition to part-time work or volunteering.
- Structuring Your Time: 26% identified this as a gap, though an additional 30% neither agreed nor disagreed with the issue (the highest in this section). Combined, well over half seem to recognize the loss of structure in retirement is something to consider.
- Staying Mentally Challenged: 25% identified this as a gap, a smaller number than I would have expected given the reality that most of our mental challenges have been met by our work, and finding a way to challenge yourself is important in retirement.
- Emotional Upheaval: 22% identified this as a challenge, a lower than expected response based on the numerous comments both of us receive from recent retirees citing surprise at the amount of emotional adjustment required in retirement. It appears that our respondents are a well-adjusted group.
- Conversation With Significant Other: 22% cite this as a gap, reflecting the fact that our respondents appear to have done a good job of discussing retirement plans with their partners. Of note, 90% of respondents were either married or in a significant relationship.
FRITZ: I was pleasantly surprised by the well-adjusted nature of the respondents. Respondents did a better than average job of recognizing the importance of planning for the non-financial aspects of retirement. As my research has shown, the amount of time spent planning for retirement is directly correlated with how successful the retirement transition is. Given our survey pool was pulled from readers of retirement-focused content, the responses seem to support the research.
ERIC: Our respondents seem to have had a good grasp of how to prepare for retirement. Of course when dealing with an unknown such as life in retirement you have to be realistic as to how much you can really prepare for what’s to come. You have to accept that we all eventually “learn by doing” and that some of our assumptions as to what we think life in retirement will likely not bear out. I always emphasize to my clients that the most important thing to prepare for is keeping an open and flexible mind. Better to be happy than right. We all come with prior beliefs that life has a way of eventually testing. Planning ahead is great and necessary, but we ultimately all learn by doing and there is no shame in adjusting our journey. Planning is the first part but the act of doing often teaches us valuable lessons.
III. Discovering Retirement Blind Spots – Part One
The highlight of the survey, the next two sections were intended to identify blind spots for those who are planning for retirement. By comparing what retirees are REALLY concerned about vs. the things pre-retirees think WILL BE important, this survey provides valuable insight for the pre-retiree, and I encourage all pre-retirees to learn from those who have retired before you.
The findings in this section were interesting, and I encourage any pre-retiree to study them in detail. For the sake of brevity, the results are summarized in the next two sections. I encourage you to read this section in its entirety in the Final Report.
Unexpected Health/Family Crisis was the biggest gap in this first section, with a 14% gap between retirees (57% concerned) and pre-retirees (43%). Following in a close second was Economic & Political turmoil at 13%, with Deteriorating Health the third major difference at 7%.
It’s interesting to see Outliving Savings is a concern for only 32% of retirees, well below the 57% that are concerned with a health or family crisis. Also, savings is the first category where the concern of pre-retirees (42%) outnumber the retirees. This is consistent with other research that demonstrates financial worries tend to peak in the final working years and tend to decline as one settles into their new retirement lifestyle.
Pre-retirees are also more concerned about the Rising Cost of Health Care, with 43% of pre-retirees vs. 31% for retirees. As you’re planning for retirement, the unknown expense of health care is (appropriately) a major concern. However, once people retire they tend to figure out a manageable solution and the concern appears to subside.
Finally, Boredom, while a concern with a smaller percentage of both groups, also demonstrates a gap between pre-retirees (23% concerned) vs. retirees (17%). In time, most folks figure out what to do with their time, whereas those not yet retired are concerned if they’ll be able to find productive things to do with all of the hours previously consumed by work.
The only areas with consistency between pre- vs. post-retirees were in the areas of Loss of Purpose and Isolation & Loneliness, with approximately 20% of both subsets expressing concern.
FRITZ: I can relate to the findings in the chart above, as it perfectly reflects my transition into retirement. As I was running the numbers and trying to determine when I could retire, I was most concerned about the financial issues (running out of money and the cost of healthcare). I planned a conservative (high) figure for health insurance “just in case,” and have found my actual expenses in the private insurance marketplace have been lower than my pre-retirement projection. It’s best to plan conservatively in the pre-retirement years, as your retirement will be less stressful if you have some cushion in the numbers.
ERIC: I am still in the planning stages of my own retirement. I work as an advisor and retirement coach helping people find the right strategy for them – financial and non-financial – to thrive in retirement. The business evolved from my own experience planning my next phase in life. For me, work will probably always play a role in my life albeit in a diminished capacity. “Why work”, you may ask? To be perfectly honest, I am still (irrationally) concerned about money issues and my identity has not yet fully evolved. I can empathize with our respondents still planning their retirement who worry disproportionately about money issues.
IV. Discovering Retirement Blind Spots – Part Two
The full report includes three other graphs focused on the gap between retirees and pre-retirees, each of which includes some important discoveries. For brevity, the main findings for each topic are summarized below:
Things That People Miss About Their Career
A surprisingly large 62% of retirees miss the Social Interaction from work, whereas only 29% of pre-retirees expect that to be an issue. With a 33% gap, this was one of the largest retirement blind spots discovered by the survey.
The other two big blind spots related to what you’ll miss from your career include missing Mental Stimulation (38% retirees vs. 21% pre-retirees) and a Sense of Identity (31% vs. 22%)
FRITZ: I’ve written extensively on the many non-financial benefits we receive from work, and yet it’s something that most pre-retirees continue to underestimate. The most successful retirees discover ways to replace the non-financial benefits they once received from work, such as social interaction, mental stimulation, and a sense of identity highlighted by this study.
ERIC: I see this all the time among my clients who are still working. At this stage in their lives, they primarily associate their jobs with a paycheck and bonus. Their eyes are focused on the prize money at the finish line. They fail to see the psychological income that does not show up on their paystubs in the form of intellectual stimulation, purpose and meaning, and the most ignored component of all, social interaction. I can’t put a number on how much of your work paycheck comes from psychological income, but in my experience it’s a significant amount that until you retire you are probably seriously under-estimating. Most people assume that the primary challenge of retirement planning is financial when, for most people, the real challenge is replacing the psychological benefits from their work days with new activities that provide meaning and purpose as well as social interaction.
Challenges of The Retirement Transition
The highest response rate for transition challenges was finding the right Balance of Structure, with 39% of retirees citing that as a challenge. Fortunately, it appears that many pre-retirees also recognize this will be a challenge, with 45% citing it as a concern.
In other areas, pre-retirees are also more concerned with the challenges than appear to be warranted by the actual experience of retirees. In particular, pre-retirees responded with a higher % of concern than retirees for each of the following categories:
- Anxiety Over Future (30% pre- vs. 23% post-retirement)
- Meaning/Purpose (33% pre- vs. 23% post-retirement)
- Outdated Identity (27% pre- vs. 20% post-retirement)
- Mental Stimulation (30% pre- vs. 18% post-retirement)
- Finding Happiness (23% pre- vs. 18% post-retirement)
The Retirement Transition Isn’t As Smooth As Expected
A concerning 52% of pre-retirees “mostly agree” that the retirement transition will be smooth, whereas only 32% of retirees feel the same. This 20% gap is a warning to all pre-retirees and is further strengthened by the 26% of retirees who responded “mostly or strongly disagree” (vs. only 5% of pre-retirees). The reality is that transitioning into retirement is more challenging than most folks expect. A good takeaway for pre-retirees is to expect some turbulence during the transition. Ignore this retirement blind spot at your own risk.
FRITZ: It’s interesting to study the above results. While retirees tend to have better scores than pre-retirees on specific challenges, a much higher percentage of retirees report some difficulty in the transition compared to the expectation of pre-retirees. In fact, only 51% of retirees Agree/Strongly Agree that the transition was smooth, compared to 70% of pre-retirees who expect it will go smoothly.
ERIC: I think that most people in the planning phase only think of the positives of life in retirement. They seriously underestimate how big of a transition retirement can be. In fact, other industry surveys show this disconnect between expectations and reality. The greatest source of disconnect usually happens after the “honeymoon” period wears out. That typically happens within the first two years of retirement. I call this the “messy middle”. Many people associate retirement with a new beginning without ever acknowledging the ending of our prior stage in life or recognizing that all transitions in life usually involve a period of introspection and uncertainty before finding the necessary clarity and direction to move forward. Only a few of us skip out on the “messy middle”. I think it’s best when we plan for some turbulence ahead so that when we are shaken out of our comfort zone we’re neither surprised nor paralyzed from making the required adjustments. I like to remind my clients that a plan is just a guide meant to be revised as new data comes in. Keep iterating forward!
V. Which Components Lead To A Good Life in Retirement?
The final section of the survey was, in hindsight, a bit of “Motherhood and Apple Pie.” What does it take to lead a good life? Ask anyone, and you’ll likely see similar responses to what was revealed in the survey. In the survey, you’ll see we asked both pre- and post-retirees to rank these components. Results were similar between both groups, so for this summary, we’ll simply rank the components identified by those already retired, in descending order:
Components Rated As Very Important
- Healthy Living (77%)
- Time Management (68%)
- Financial Plan (53%)
- Relationships (52%)
- Purpose/Meaning (41%)
- Self-Identity (27%)
We thank the 1,734 of you who participated in this joint study and hope all of you have found the results to be useful. We trust the findings on retirement blind spots will be helpful for those who are planning their retirements in the coming years. To reiterate the key blind spots, below is the conclusion of the key points from the Full Study write-up:
Major Retirement Blind Spots
- You’ll miss more than just the paycheck when you retire. You’ll miss the mental
stimulation and social interaction associated with work. Start now cultivating new social
connections and finding new sources of mental stimulation to replace the psychological
benefits of work.
- It will take you longer to shed your work identity than you expect. This will be primarily a
challenge in your early days in retirement. Don’t hang on to an outdated image of who
you were in the past. Retirement gives you the freedom to re-invent yourself.
- The transition from full-time work to life in retirement won’t go as smoothly as you
expect. You’ll struggle initially to come up with a new sense of purpose and meaning. Be
patient, but not complacent. Only you can figure out what’s important to you!
- Finding the right balance of structure in your schedule will be a greater challenge than
you currently likely anticipate. Making time for activities that bring joy and fulfillment is
important. A schedule is not a bad thing if it reflects your values and aspirations.
- Once you retire, you’ll worry less about money issues and more about your health and
that of your loved ones. As you plan your retirement think beyond just money issues. Take
a holistic approach that incorporates all the important areas of your life. Emphasize
In closing, it’s reassuring to see that the life satisfaction scores were highest among people who have been retired for more than two years. The future is bright.
Learn from those who are ahead of you on the retirement journey.
Your retirement will be better as a result.