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Pensions: more than just a numbers game

A positive approach to retirement involves setting goals and finding ways to meet them

The retirement conversation tends to be dominated by digits. How much have you got in your pension pot? What kind of pension will that buy? When will I qualify for the State pension? How much will that be worth?

These questions are all very important, but retirement is about a lot more than just finance. People still have lives to lead, and those lives will be very different and take quite a bit of adjusting to.

This is why Retirement Planning Council course leader and former Pensions Ombudsman Paul Kenny describes retirement as a transition. "For some it may mean changing the kind and amount of work that they do; or it might mean going into full-time retirement, or engaging in learning and other pursuits," he says.

“For many, it can mean taking on new projects, taking up or resuming hobbies that they didn’t have enough time for, new learning, travel and other leisure activities. What retirement doesn’t mean is giving up on life but developing a clear vision of what you’d want your life to look like and learning to keep a positive attitude towards your future. Be positive, stay positive.”

There are also mental-health issues to take into consideration. “For some people, their work is their main reason for getting up in the morning, and the loss of that sense of purpose may be a difficult experience, impacting on their mental health,” says Kenny.

“The loss or disruption of a comfortable routine may be a problem. Some see retirement as a threat. Not only that, but for some the business of withdrawing from the workplace may be traumatic, where a person has a very strong need to continue to feel useful, wanted, helpful and valued. They find it hard to let go, to close the chapter of their lives that was their full-time working career and move on to a new beginning.”

Broken connections can also have a negative impact. “Retirement means probably losing touch with many colleagues who have become friends, and missing contact with the people you serve during your working day – business contacts, customers, suppliers and even the people you meet regularly every day if you commute to work on public transport. These are gaps that need to be filled.  Friends and family will fill them gradually, but it won’t happen automatically.”

That’s where transition management comes in.

The good news is that people in general are good at managing transitions. Most of us have done it all our lives. We’ve changed schools, got married, had children, moved homes, changed jobs, come through recessions and now a global pandemic. “We need to remind ourselves that we have had, and continue to have, the experience of managing many changes,” Kenny adds.

“Retirement is not about sitting around, doing nothing all day,” he advises.  “It is an opportunity to reinvent yourself, to step back and consider what contribution the retired person can make to society in the future.  There may be many options to reflect on.  One of these is work – full-time, part-time, or occasional.  Could you do with some extra money? This is the time for a skills audit. What sort of experience and expertise have you accumulated during your working lifetime? What areas of activity are you particularly interested in?”

And it may not be for the money.  Many retired people chose to do voluntary work for charities or for the many not-for-profit organisations which are on the lookout for new board members.

Retraining and reskilling are other options. Kenny advises people to avail of the learning opportunities available from Education and Training Boards and third-level institutions, language schools and a myriad of online learning resources. “Many people use retirement as a springboard to a new career,” he says.

Pre-retirement courses

These are just some of the areas which the Retirement Planning Council advises people who participate in its pre-retirement courses. “We encourage people to reflect on why they are retiring and what retirement means to them; what they will miss and what they won’t. We ask them to think about the opportunities that will present themselves to use profitably the extra ‘time for self’ that retirement brings; the things they look forward to; to discover what makes them happy, and then to consider what aspects of the future that they see for themselves will need planning, setting goals and equipping themselves to reach those goals.”

Participants are asked to consider the things that are likely to change in the future, including identity change, and to give some thought to setting priorities, the things that are likely to be most important in their lives, before setting their goals for retirement. Kenny advises people to be realistic in setting those goals and to realise that things will change in the future, and that plans we make now may need to be adapted to changes in circumstances beyond our control.

He concludes by quoting Mark Twain: "Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the things you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails."

“People should remember that it’s not just a numbers game, don’t just retire from something – have something to retire to,” he adds.

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times