When Anne-Marie Pawelski retired at age 55, the first few weeks were joyous – “an incredible feeling of freedom,” she recalls. But that freedom started to feel like a burden. “I didn’t know what to do with all that free time.” Her friends were still working, her kids were busy launching their careers and she didn’t yet have grandkids.
It took Pawelski about a year to find her groove. Today, 19 years later, Pawelski is a highly active and social retiree. She volunteers, driving seniors to errands and appointments. “It gives you a real boost to give back,” she says. She’s also part of several social groups, from the ladies who bowl and lunch on Mondays, to her 55-plus volleyball crew on Fridays.
When Pawelski was at her banking job, she felt stressed by the roll-out of new systems and was spending most of her day sitting. Early retirement gave her physical health a major boost.
While the evidence has been mixed until recently, it seems that early retirees like Pawelski might be healthier than those who keep working – but only if they make the most of their time in retirement.
Mixed medical reports
A study published in 2017 in Health Economics followed 24,000 Dutch civil servants for 10 years, comparing those who took an early-retirement package with those who didn’t. The researchers found that those who retired between 55 and 60 were 2.6 percentage points less likely to die within five years, compared to those who continued working. Another study, published in January 2018, looked at survey data for 19 European countries and found that people reported being more active in their retirement.
But jumping ship early is not a guaranteed path to health. Another recent U.S. study reported just the opposite – that retiring early actually increases people’s mortality risk. And a study of around 20,000 blue-collar workers found that men who stopped working in their fifties were more likely to die early, but that the same wasn’t true for women.
Retiring can be a blow to the health of those who have active jobs, but it’s more likely a boost for those who sat at desks.
Whether retiring early is good or bad for your health depends on your career, and what you do in retirement. Retiring can be a blow to the health of those who have active jobs, but it’s more likely a boost for those who sat at desks. If you tend toward exercising, socializing and eating well, free time is a good thing, but if you are likely to drink and watch more TV, then retirement could be unhealthy.
Meridith Griffin, a professor in McMaster University’s Department of Health, Aging & Society, adds that the identity shift that comes with retirement can have a huge impact. “If someone doesn’t know who they are outside of their job role, retirement can be seen as a loss. It can lead to withdrawal,” she says. And research is increasingly showing that social engagement is key, not only for mental health, but also physical health.
The work of retirement
The way to a healthy retirement at any age, says Griffin, is to not be complacent and expect that a rewarding retirement will just happen. “It takes effort,” says Griffin. She suggests asking big questions about what a “meaningful” retirement looks like. She also recommends retirees build socialization into their daily routine. If you have a weightlifting or yoga buddy, “go for a coffee afterwards,” she says. If you’re an avid reader, join a book club.
The small talk around the water cooler may be clichéd, but social engagement is important for stress relief. If you do plan on retiring early, don’t wait around for your friends to join you – start cultivating new friendships and routines. And understand that a truly healthy retirement is about the little things you do every day for your mental and physical wellness. They can add up to many healthy years ahead.