The biggest challenge retirees face in retirement is not being able to replace the social connections that sustained them at work.  They don’t always miss the work, but they sure do miss their friends.  That’s just one of the many insightful conclusions researchers at Harvard have come up with in an 85-year study into happiness. And it’s for this very reason that thousands of people across the world who took early retirement during the pandemic have now returned to work.  Of course, for many, the cost-of-living crisis and implosion of the global economy played a part, but ‘unretirement’ for others came from a craving for connection.

Our Work Family

Over the years, we build deep and meaningful relationships with the people we work with.  It’s hard not to, as we often spend more time with them than with our own families.  Of course, we don’t always get on; we sometimes bicker, gossip, and disagree, but the commonality of what we do, who we serve, and the experiences we have binds us.  The strength of these relationships is incredibly important for workplace happiness, productivity, and retention rates.  These ties are something all good employers seek to nurture.

Not a Long Goodbye

Unfortunately, companies aren’t quite so good at saying goodbye – and why would they be when there’s little return on that investment for them.  One day you’re a part of the team; the next, you’re not.  You have some leaving drinks, are praised in speeches, and adorned with gifts.  Your colleagues tell you just how much they’ll miss you, and you them, and then it’s over.  Relationships that have sustained you for years are lost overnight.

The Distance Between Us

Of course, I generalise here, and I know many of you reading this will be saying that’s not true, promising yourself that this very situation is not going to happen to you.  But to some degree, it will.  You may not lose touch with all your friends, and you may still socialise with colleagues, but inevitably the distance between you will grow; it has to.

Male Soloists

In some ways, it’s worse for men, especially men of our generation.  Historically, according to American psychiatrist Robert Garfield, women are “the reacher-outers, and men are the soloists.”  Men provide and protect but don’t connect.  And to add to men’s friendship-making woes, traditional notions of masculinity – the projection of power and confidence – makes it harder for them to show emotion, and vulnerability even, something we all need to do if we’re to maintain friendships and build new ones.

Be Prepared

We’ve established that retirement can put a huge strain on relationships and even take some to breaking point, but it’s not all doom and gloom.  Like any big life change, we can ease the transition by being prepared for it.  I’m working with employers in the UK and the US to educate them about the reality of retirement for their employees, and one of the main topics of these conversations is friendships.  Employers can be more mindful of the retirement transition, that’s for sure, but there’s a great deal you can and should do personally, too:

  • Be gentle with yourself. Accept this will be painful, no matter your circumstances and how much you tell yourself you are ready for retirement.
  • Remember that seeing people less doesn’t mean you love them less or the relationship is less valuable.
  • Talk openly to your friends at work before you leave. Share your worries and fears.  This will not only give them an insight into your emotions, but it will also permit them to help.
  • See this as an opportunity to not only make new friends but to understand more about the person you really are and the kinds of people you need to sustain you. You may find that you don’t have as much in common with your work colleagues as you thought you did or depend on them as much as you imagined you would.

I love this quote from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book, ‘Gift from the Sea’…

“When one is a stranger to oneself, then one is estranged from others too. When one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others.”

Back to school

I was going to end on that quote, but I want to leave you with this – remember the friends you had at school – how tight you were back then?  How many of them are you in touch with now?  And how many still have a huge presence in your life?  I bet not many.  You may have mourned the loss of some of those relationships, but you probably don’t think much about them now.  The same thing happens in retirement.  It’s painful, yes, but out of that pain comes the joy of finding out more about yourself and the people you want to fill your world for the rest of your days.  To see how I could help your teams prepare for retirement, please get in touch.

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