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Covid has changed retirement — and canceled the celebrations that usually mark it

People often fear they will retire into anonymity. The accolades offered through celebrations can help provide purpose and meaning to ending one’s career.
Illustration of a retired couple lounging on a beach with a Covid spore-shaped sun and spore and vaccine-shaped clouds linger in the sky.
That almost no attention has been paid to the cancellation of retirement celebrations during Covid only underscores the anxiety that with retirement comes irrelevance.Ben Konkol for NBC News

My husband decided to retire in January. He had not been to his office in nearly two years. With us both working from home, we have spent more time together than ever before in our 40 years of marriage. Happily, this has served us well and, in some respects, created a soft landing for some of the changes that come with being retired. He can now imagine a life very different in scope from the one he left as an attorney. But entering retirement still looks painfully different during Covid-19.

Although we may chafe at the hours spent at our jobs, the loss of a schedule and a routine can be overwhelming and is often cited as the most challenging change during early retirement.

Disrupted life events due to the pandemic have dominated news coverage and social media since early 2020. From canceled weddings to postponed or scaled back funerals to the daily toll on children whose schools are closed, the fallout from these interruptions to major life passages will be felt for years. A less visible demographic in these discussions are adults in their 60s and 70s, who have reached the typical age for retirement during the pandemic but who missed the usual traditions to mark this transition. Both the expected in-person celebrations and the day-to-day reality post-retirement are limited by the pandemic to the detriment of everyone involved. And media coverage of the Great Resignation often lumps together all those exiting the job force, masking the jump in job departures stemming from retirement as the pandemic has encouraged more people to call it a day rather than continue to plug away.

This reality weighed heavily on me as I contemplated how uncelebratory my husband’s retirement would be. I believe he is well prepared to make a good transition into retirement, and I am excited to witness how he will script his next chapter. But I lament that the conclusion of his rich and varied career was a private affair lacking the pomp and circumstance he deserved. As he closed his laptop for the final time in the solitude of his home office, I opened a bottle of Champagne and offered a toast to honor him. It was eerie to have such a momentous occasion feel so ordinary. It was far from what he deserves, but it was the best pandemic retirement celebration I could offer.

As a psychologist with an expertise in adult development, I am concerned that failing to appreciate the challenges of entering retirement during the pandemic will exacerbate the mental health needs of this population. Retiring into anonymity is often people’s greatest fear. They often no longer feel useful and worry they are not perceived as valuable members of society. The accolades and acknowledgements offered through celebrations can give context to the purpose and meaning of one’s career. The fact that there has been little to no attention to the loss of retirement celebrations for so many people in contrast to other life passages only underscores the anxiety that with retirement comes irrelevance.

Like most major life transitions, retirement brings with it conflicting feelings. It represents a beginning and an ending, and it is often the first tangible acknowledgment that one is entering the “last chapter” of life. Over the years in my practice, I have helped patients plan for a fulfilling retirement, one which enables them to have a sense of purpose while pursuing their interests. Certainly, having economic security and good health increases the likelihood of a positive outcome. But beyond these factors, it is essential to take stock of the lives we’ve lived and purposefully plan how we want to approach the time we have left.

The pandemic has complicated this already complex decision about when to retire. Early on, out of a fear for personal safety among those unable to work from home, the calculus changed for what some were willing to risk for work. As one patient said, “I loved my job until it presented a threat to my health. My boss, who is 20 years younger than me, couldn’t accept my fear of coming into the office. So as soon as I qualified for Medicare, I gave my notice.” Despite not feeling ready to retire, she reluctantly determined it was the prudent thing to do. But retiring earlier than anticipated left her scrambling to fill her time and struggling with how to reinvent herself.

Indeed, although we may chafe at the hours spent at our jobs, the loss of a schedule and a routine can be overwhelming and is often cited as the most challenging change during early retirement, even without Covid-19. Some of those who were able to work remotely delayed their retirement because they found that their stress had been reduced by eliminating commuting time and that work provided a welcome way to fill long days during lockdowns. One patient who decided not to retire as a result remarked, “Honestly I don’t know how I could’ve filled the hours. I’ve always worked 14-hour days.” But this experience also clued my patient in to how lopsided his life was — and how much unscheduled time was awaiting him. He hopes that his decision to delay his retirement means he can begin to make changes that will help him adjust more easily when he does stop working.

For those who have gone on to retire during Covid, the limitations imposed by the pandemic for typical leisure activities such as travel and social gatherings created unanticipated stress. Grand-babies were born but could not be visited; there were no plays, concerts or sports events to attend; life on Zoom has felt incomplete. The increased need for an online presence only contributes to frustration for those who worry life is passing them by as they try to stay current with changes in technology. As one patient said, “Going to the Apple store for help is so different from trying to get help online. I need to sit next to a real person to learn.” Life during the pandemic, with its lockdowns and closures, didn’t resemble the life people imagined they would have when they retired. It has frequently felt like loss compounded upon loss with few outlets for recovery.

The cascading effect of changes in our social fabric due to the pandemic pushed others to delay retirement for different reasons but still left them unsatisfied. One executive in my practice told me, “I had planned to announce my retirement in the summer of 2021, but by then I had two of my three adult children back living at home with us. There was no point in downsizing, since the city was boarded up and we needed space with the kids home. ‘Failure to launch’ now includes me, too. I feel stuck and can’t move on to the next phase of my life. I continue to work for lack of anything better to do as I wait for my kids to move on with their lives.”

Americans, as a society, value work, and our identities are often tied to our occupations. Often the first question we ask when meeting someone new is, “What do you do?” Similarly, when people announce their decision to retire, we ask, “What are you going to do?” It can be quite threatening to shed our comfortable titles, like teacher or banker, for retiree. Not to mention that it carries the additional stigma of just sounding old. And because of Covid-19, there has been less opportunity to see retirement as a time of expansion rather than retreat. This has had a negative impact on the mental health of some of my older patients. They have expressed fear that after two years of barely driving or traveling or entertaining, their skills would become rusty and never get back to their previous level of competence.

There are, of course, those for whom the transition to retirement during Covid-19 was positive. For some, leaving stressful jobs allowed them to focus on self-care for the first time and see improvement in their physical health. For others, they quickly found a renewed sense of purpose as they pitched in to volunteer or to care for grandchildren so their adult children could carry on with their work lives. Being able to pivot and engage in new activities is the hallmark of resilience, a fundamental component of mental health.

But even those who happily transitioned into retirement during Covid-19 bore the loss of receiving public acknowledgement from big in-person send-offs. Between people leaving jobs and new hires who have always worked remotely, there may be fewer people who even know the person retiring. Some universities have invited graduates back to campus for commencement ceremonies and some couples have rebooked their weddings, but trying to recreate an acknowledgement for the end of someone’s career falls flat with the passage of time.

Embracing change is not easy, but it is no less important when we are 70 than when we are 7. As my husband and I drank our Champagne, I thought about our graduation ceremonies and birthday parties over the years and lamented the absence of our loved ones in this important moment. But what is retirement, if not the challenge of a new beginning?