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Retirement Remix – Chapter 3: Retirement Can Be Bad for Your Health

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We’ve all heard anecdotal stories about hard-charging businesspeople who retired, only to drop dead of a heart attack a year or two later. On the other hand, some people retire and live happily for many years.

Chip Munn

So, what gives?

Plenty of research has been done on this topic. I don’t want to burden you with a bunch of technical jargon, but I do want to impress upon you the fact that Old School Retirement—especially early retirement—can actually shorten your life. This is based not on conjecture, but on research results involving thousands of people. In other words, it’s real.

Here are just a few of those research studies.

As part of the ongoing US Health and Retirement Study, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health looked at rates of heart attack and stroke among men and women who had taken traditional retirement. In their 2012 report entitled “Transition to retirement and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective analysis of the US health and retirement study,” researchers J.R. Moon and others studied 5,422 individuals over a period of ten years. They found that those who had retired were 40 percent more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those who were still working. The increased risk was the highest during the first year after retirement and leveled off after that. The person’s gender or socioeconomic status didn’t make any difference to their likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease.

Another study, this one by the Shell Oil Company in 2005, asked whether past employees of the petrochemical industry who took early retirement at age fifty-five or sixty, lived longer than those who kept working up to age sixty-five. You might assume that getting out of the rat race earlier would prolong your life, but researcher S.P. Tsai and colleagues concluded that retiring early at fifty-five or sixty was not associated with better survival than retiring at sixty-five. Mortality was similar between those who retired at sixty and those who retired at sixty-five, and it was higher in employees who retired at fifty-five, when compared to those who continued working. In this study, taking early retirement was detrimental to health and led to earlier death.

A 2008 study of more than 16,000 retirees in Greece found the same results. This Greek segment of the “European Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition” study revealed that retirees had a 51 percent increase in all-cause mortality over people who kept working. Among retirees, a five-year increase in age at retirement was associated with a 10 percent decrease in mortality—in other words, the longer you worked, the longer you lived!

Here’s just one more study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health in 2016. In their article, “Association of retirement age with mortality: a population-based longitudinal study among older adults in the USA,” researchers Chenkai Wu and others sought to examine the association between retirement age and mortality among healthy and unhealthy retirees. They tracked 2,956 participants who had been working before completely retiring. “Healthy” retirees—of which there were 1,934—were defined as individuals who self-reported that their health was not an important reason to retire. The 1,022 “unhealthy” retirees cited poor health as a driver of retirement.

Over the eighteen-year study period, 234 healthy and 262 unhealthy retirees died. Among healthy retirees, retiring one year later was associated with an 11 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality, regardless of lifestyle or health issues.

Even the unhealthy retirees had a lower all-cause mortality risk when retiring later. In this study, neither gender, race nor location affected the risk of dying early—the only thing that did, was taking early retirement! The researchers concluded that early retirement may be a risk factor for mortality, while on the other hand, prolonged working life may provide survival benefits among US adults. “It may not apply to everybody, but we think work brings people a lot of economic and social benefits that could impact the length of their lives,” said Chenkai Wu, the lead author of the study.

Does this mean that you must keep working past the time you want to retire? Is there something about working for a paycheck that somehow keeps you living longer?

Not necessarily. Research suggests two very clear factors associated with retirement contribute to early death.

1. The sudden adoption of a sedentary lifestyle

As Maria Fitzpatrick of Cornell University and Timothy Moore of the University of Melbourne in Australia wrote for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Social Security eligibility begins at age sixty-two, and approximately one third of Americans immediately claim benefits upon reaching that age. By analyzing statistics, they found that mortality increases by approximately 20 percent among those who stop working when Social Security becomes available. But why is that the case?

They point to other research that found male “retirees become sedentary, often watching more television.” As if to prove the point, among women after retirement there appeared to be no increase in sedentariness, which may be a reason why there was a much lower increase in mortality rate among women who retired at age sixty-two. Men, on the other hand, often stop working and then become “damp leaves,” stuck to their La-Z-Boy recliners, while women tend to remain more active.

Some studies have found an increase in male tobacco and alcohol use after retirement, and male retirees also appear to have a reduced social life, which other studies have found to have a negative impact on health.

Of course—and this is a major theme of this book—it is possible to look at retirement as being positive for your health, but only if you became more physically active or developed better eating habits. It’s true!

The problem is not retirement itself, but what you do in retirement.

2. The emotional stress of retirement

Outwardly, retirement can look like a fun event. If you’re a big-shot executive, your company may even throw you a fancy retirement party, with lots of guests and an open bar. In 2017, a retirement party for the former president of Ireland’s Cork Institute of Technology, Dr. Brendan Murphy, made the news as being particularly lavish. The event cost €13,000, or about $14,200, and featured decorations including a custom ice sculpture. Opinion page editors were appalled at the use of taxpayer funds for such a purpose, but I’m sure everyone had a blast. No matter what type of celebration you have, the result is the same—your working life as you know it is over.

According to American corporate tradition, you work until you’re sixty-five, and then the company (where, in theory, you’ve worked for most of your career) gives you a nice sendoff with a gold watch and stock options. Then you happily slap a bumper sticker on your car that says, “Retired: No Clock, No Job, No Cares, No Memory,” or something silly like that, and then you hit the links or have afternoons off to pick up the grandkids. This is your “golden age,” right?

In reality, leaving the place where you’ve worked for years can be traumatic. This is because for many people, their nine-to-five job is the primary focus of their identity. They organize their lives around work and spend more time with their coworkers than with their own families. Success in the workplace is important, and not for a trivial reason: It’s the paycheck that puts food on the table and clothes on your back. The hard-fought gains of precious points of market share, the rollout of a successful new product, and a rising stock price all translate into higher profits, promotions, and bigger paychecks. Many executives liken their work to going into battle every day, and their opponents are fighting hard too. To the victors go the spoils, while the defeated face bankruptcy or a hostile buyout.

With an abrupt retirement from a place they’ve often worked hard to build, many executives feel suddenly cast adrift. No more battles to fight, no more office camaraderie, no more steakhouse lunches with prospective clients. They go home and…. Do what? Pester their spouse? Watch TV? Or embark on a life of conspicuous consumption, where they do nothing but spend the money they’ve devoted a lifetime to earning?

And the very worst feeling of all, the one that makes you think your entire career has been an empty exercise, is this: the gut-wrenching realization that someone will take your place at the company, and life will go on as if you had never existed. The profits will continue, the quarterly reports will be issued, the new products rolled out… all without your help or contribution. Oh, a few “old timers” at the company will fondly remember some contribution you made or a key project you spearheaded, but the young kids coming up through the ranks will neither know of, nor care about, your illustrious tenure.

Old School Retirement will be a long, lonely time in your life.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way.

We live in a free society, and you have the same opportunity as anyone else to design your retirement remix to suit yourself. There is no law that says you need to retire not only from your job but from life itself. You have the power to create the life you want, in every decade and through every stage. All you need is an open mind, the desire to make your dreams come true, and the financial and life skills to sustain yourself the in the manner to which you aspire.

Jack Ma’s Non-Retirement

For sheer spectacle, nothing could beat the retirement bash for Jack Ma, the outgoing chairman of the huge Chinese e-retailer Alibaba, who, with a fortune of $38.5 billion, is the richest man in China. On September 10, 2019, sixty thousand guests—mostly Alibaba employees—packed the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center, where they watched an Olympics-style parade and show, complete with stirring songs, intricately choreographed dances, colorful costumes, and blazing fireworks.

At the time, Jack Ma was only fifty-five years old—a super-early retirement! But he’s not really retiring; he’s simply evolving his various careers. A former English teacher, he has announced that he wants to go back to teaching. And instead of handing the money he earned from Alibaba to investors or banks, he wants to spend it on improving and changing the education system in China. “I’m not going to stop doing things,” he told a crowd at a women’s entrepreneurship event in late August 2019. “Alibaba is but one of my dreams. I’m still young.”

He’s also not totally divesting himself from Alibaba. As The New York Times reported, he’s a lifetime member of the Alibaba Partnership, a group of a few dozen employees with tremendous influence over the company’s board and leadership, as well as other company perks. It also has leverage over key licenses that Alibaba requires in order to do business within China, where the government requires Chinese nationals to control licenses that many companies need to keep doing business there.

Like Bill Gates, another super-wealthy entrepreneur who “retired” early, Jack Ma has signaled his intention to pursue philanthropy. In 2014, he started the Jack Ma Foundation, and has cited the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as an inspiration for his charitable endeavors. The aim of Ma’s foundation’s is to promote human development in harmony with both society and the environment, with a core mission to work toward a world of bluer skies, cleaner water, healthier communities, and more open thinking.

You may not have the wealth of Jack Ma—in fact, only about eighteen other people in the world actually do—but you can develop tandem interests that overlap with your “day job.” Those interests can keep you in the game even as you downsize or terminate your commitment to your primary nine-to-five.

The above article originally appeared as a chapter in The Retirement Remix and is reprinted with permission from the author Chip Munn. No parts of this article may be reproduced without correct attribution to the author of this book.

You can find the full book here.