It feels good to be back. Vacations are great to recharge the batteries, but I was getting antsy to hit the keys again. Not that I miss the cubicle. I’m not a sadist after all… Inspired by some wisdom gathered from my in-laws while out west, I wanted to share some thoughts about boredom in retirement. For aspiring early retirees especially, this is not a topic to ignore!
My handy little list of blog topics had run out well before I left. I’m happy to report that I spent a few minutes on the flight home last week, brainstorming a bunch of new subjects. That should keep the wheels on for at least a few more months.
Boredom in Retirement: the devil we want to avoid
We spent our vacation visiting my in-laws, who have by all accounts, retired in style. They left behind the cold and blustery Midwest for the warm desert sun roughly a decade ago, just a few years before hitting 60.
To be clear, they’re nowhere near “bored.” Not anywhere close. They keep a healthy social circle. Activities abound where they live, in a community designed for the 55+ set: Golf, bridge, fitness center, gaming, some travel, and part-time work keeps the agenda full enough.
That said, my father-in-law has had a good run coaching part-time for the local school system, but he’s about at his rope’s end. Dealing with a chronically underfunded school system has its limits.
The trouble is, if he gives up the part-time gig, boredom is sure to strike. What’s a retiree to do???
Traditional Retirement: A Booby-trap of Boredom
You bust your hump over the course of multiple decades. You spend two-thirds of your able adult life churning through jobs, paychecks, and bills. You see your kids off to school, college, and weddings. At some point you’re ready to have a slice of that f**king cake and be DONE.
Then, you get to the finish line. Crickets. For many, this is the reality. You find that your identity has inextricably become tied to the job you held for all those years. Your friends? They’re all back at the office. Or, they’ve scattered to the four retirement winds (Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and I dunno, Texas?)
Boredom in early retirement? It really doesn’t matter how old you are, or how many years you’ve spent working that day job. The devil doesn’t care.
Life Stages of Boredom
The Author’s Experience
Here’s my hypothesis: Boredom comes easy as a child, when you have very few obligations. If you’re lucky enough, your parents will leave you alone long enough so that you can learn on your own how to cope with boredom, by using your imagination.
Growing up, I had tons of alone time to feed my imagination. I wasn’t plugged into every conceivable activity, because frankly, there weren’t as many of them back in the 70s and 80s. Kids were allowed to be kids.
TV was a daily distraction, but only for about an hour or two. There was nothing “on-demand” back then, so you suffered through whatever those three main channels had to offer, repeats and all.
So, if I wasn’t watching some inane cartoon repeat, I was exploring in the backyard, riding bikes with neighborhood friends, or building some Lego creation that I’d later demolish in a fight with my Kenner Tie Fighter.
Teen boredom kind of sucks
I got into computers: coding simple games, and playing a sh*t ton of pirated ones, and always looking to upgrade. Boy did THAT help my dating game. I guess in some ways, you could chalk up my creative interests to a successful enough future, devoid of “distractions.”
The bottom hit about mid-way through college when I decided to stay in my dorm room through the summer as part of a summer work crew (painting, bunk repair, etc.) That ranks up there among the top 10 worst decisions I ever made. But I learned a lot from it.
I had no foresight as to how lonely it would get, when all my friends and the general student resident population cleared out of the building for the summer. Holy sh*t. That first week hit like a ton of bricks.
And then I gained a new friend (or two, or three???): Mr. Mouse wanted to share my Wonder Bread. He announced his arrival by chewing through the cellophane in the middle of the night. Rock bottom – hit.
Stages of decreasing boredom as an Adult
I learned the hard way. Boredom is compounded by the absence of people and social connections. Granted, after college, boredom still sucks eggs when you’re a bachelor. But ideally, you have a roommate or two to pass the time with. PlayStation at home, or pints of Guinness at Al’s Bar in St. Louis Park did the trick. Roommates are indispensable after a solid dumping by girlfriend X, Y, or Z.
Boredom decreases a bit when you’re dating and later get married. As a couple, you’ve got more options. Activities are easier to plan and sometimes just hanging out with a movie and take-out Thai is all you need. Still, you might find yourselves watching too much golf on television while napping with the cat on a Saturday afternoon.
Then you have kids
Boom. All of a sudden, you don’t have time for anything. Boredom is simply not even part of the equation anymore. If you do get bored, it’s bound to happen at work. And when that happens, you find a good blog or three to fill the void.
Eventually kids become more self-sufficient. School keeps them occupied, and friends start to take up more of their free time. You can see where this is going. Graduation, off to college (or a job, or the service) and a life of their own. And poof! you’ve become an Empty Nester. But hey, at least you have your boring job to keep you occupied, right??
So when boredom in retirement “strikes”, early or otherwise, it probably comes as a bit of a shock to the system. Who has time to thoughtfully plan for filling such a void? Consider that we spend almost all of our lives in a structured routine.
From the time we’re very young, it’s K-12. Then it’s maybe college or armed forces. Then… it’s WORK.
The Science of Boredom in Retirement
(You know what I love about blogging? I actually learn something while I write this sh*t. If I feel like I’m talking out of my backside, I can stop and Google it.) I’m betting that retirement takes us full circle, back to early childhood; to a time before all that structured activity. And because of that, it becomes real easy to fall into the “Boredom Booby Trap.”
And then, I’m curious if the coddled kid struggles more with boredom later in retirement, vs. the kid who was left to his or her own devices. The answer is probably obvious. I found countless articles pointing to how quickly retirees get disillusioned because they miss their daily social interactions at the office and are flat-out BORED. Some surely struggle more than others to replace old routines.
The key is this: You’ve got to find a new structure (i.e., “routine”) to replace the old one. Whether you’re an early retiree or a traditional retiree. Kids need structure. Adults need structure. In the absence of it, we get bored. We act out. We get depressed.
Notice how I didn’t say you need to find new work or a new job? I’m not arguing that retirees need to work the assembly line to find gratification. But you do need structure to replace the conveyor belt you’re currently on, or you’ll fall flat on your face, and sooner than you think.
Boredom in Retirement: Can it be Avoided?
It’s no surprise that many struggle with boredom after they’ve hung it up. We have good ol’ Jiro, still slinging sushi well into his 90s, because, well, sh*t. What’s he gonna do otherwise? On the flip-side, we have a bevy of early retirees traveling the globe and sucking the marrow out of the good life.
I’m willing to bet that a retired existence that keeps you immersed in a passion (e.g., landscaping, writing, or oil painting) is the basis for a solid structure. Personally, I can’t wait to have the newfound time to read more, to exercise more, and to write more. Volunteer work can easily fit into this new structure as well.
Any of you fine readers aspiring to retire in your mid-50s? Take a page from my friend Fritz, who shares that after 60 days of retirement, LIFE IS GOOD. His secret? Have a vision. Plain and simple, friends. Fritz and his wife spent the three years leading up to retirement envisioning their life in retirement. In his words:
- Intentionally accelerate your development of external interests.
- Think about what you want your retirement life to be, and begin building “bridges” (to) things that will last after retirement, while in your final working years.
As for me? I likely won’t be slinging sushi (or burgers). And I won’t be living out of airplane terminals to hop from one exotic locale to the next. But I will be living within a structured routine that I find incredibly more rewarding and enriching than the one I’m tied to now. Eat your heart out, Captain Caveman.
Post-script 8/8/19: I had coffee with a former colleague yesterday who got a retirement package a few months earlier at another company. After two months of loving “nothing”, he realized how much he missed his career, and he’s since jumped back into the corporate arena for a final five-year stint. Man. Goes to show that if you don’t plan thoroughly for your post-career years, you’re going to be in for a shock when boredom creeps in…