How we feel about retirement affects our money decisions. Findings from a global survey uncover the emotional, financial and social impact of this next life chapter.

Retirement. The word is loaded, isn’t it? It assumes that at a specific point in time a human being will withdraw from a life at work and create a new identity. But what does that identity look like? (Who will I be without my job?) And how will this important life transition affect the individual who is retiring—and his or her family—from an emotional, financial and social perspective? 

These are difficult questions, which is why many conversations focus on the technical aspects of retirement (Social Security, investment income, and so on). It feels more comfortable because it’s about numbers, not feelings. But any discussion of financial security in retirement essentially boils down to two questions: How am I doing? Will I have enough?

Talking about retirement touches on deep feelings about identity, purpose and security. The subject has inspired a research journey that we’ll be taking together over the next year. We’ve asked 1,500 men and women around the globe, with wealth levels ranging from US$250,000 to US$100 million, to tell us how they think and feel about retirement. Some are still working full-time, while others have been retired for years. Our conversation will focus on qualitative concepts related to retirement (such as security and happiness), which will undoubtedly have quantitative implications (asset allocation, spending patterns, etc.). As a behavioral scientist, I can tell you that how we feel intimately affects the actions we take with our money.1 Understanding this basic human reality can help us be more intentional about the retirement choices we make. 

Here are three key takeaways from our research:

1. Feelings about “retirement” are mixed.

Retirement—the anticipation and the reality of it—isn’t necessarily as exciting as popular narratives would suggest. Instead, retirement can elicit equally strong feelings of nervousness and excitement. We should (and do) anticipate mixed feelings in retirement.

 

Levels of excitement vs. nervousness about retirement

Source: J.P. Morgan Private Bank Research, 2020. Total N= 1,500. Percentages reflect responses across all age groups (21-51+).
The figure shows levels of excitement and nervousness for retirees and non-retirees. Participants were asked to rank their levels of excitement and nervousness about retirement on a scale from 1-10. Responses were considered low-moderate if they answered between 1-7 and were considered high if they answered between 8-10. The figure shows that the majority of respondents across retirees and non-retirees felt low-moderate excitement and nervousness about retirement.

2. Retirement is not just about relaxing and streaming videos.

Our study clearly shows that work, exercise, running errands and spending time with family are part of the typical retiree’s day. In fact, very little extra time in retirement is spent on relaxing or looking at screens. 

Time spent during a typical day on various activities

Source: J.P. Morgan Private Bank Research, 2020. Total N= 1,500. Percentages reflect responses across all age groups (21-51+).
The figure shows the typical allocation of time per category per day for retirees vs. non-retirees. The figure shows that there is an increase in time allocation in retirement vs. before retirement for all categories other than work.

The way retirees spend their time matters: It seems to drive increased feelings of contentment and fulfillment. So the next time we’re making a choice about how to spend our time—whether we’re in retirement or not—we should think about whether it’s likely to add meaning to our lives.

 

3. Money is important, but it’s not everything.

The vast majority of our research participants said they had enough money to spend time any way they’d like, but only about half of those who were not yet retired did so. However, retirees were much more likely to spend time as they like. Why? The data suggest that wealth becomes less of a focus for one’s identity in retirement. So when we’re making choices related to how we spend our time (is our focus on money or is it more purpose-driven?), we might ask ourselves: What is going to give us the biggest emotional, not just financial, payoff in life?

 

Final thoughts

As our research has reaffirmed, we have complicated feelings about retirement. And no wonder. The subject can inspire us to reexamine our sense of self and rethink our notions of life purpose and security. The key takeaways of our research—we have mixed feelings about retirement; retirees are more active than relaxed, and less focused on wealth—shed light on this major life transition.  These insights can inform our financial decisions at any age. When we understand how our feelings about retirement affect our money decisions, it can empower us to examine whether we might make better choices to get where we want to go.

Your J.P. Morgan team is looking forward to working with you to help you identify your life goals, in and out of retirement. 

Remember that I said we were going on a journey together? In our next retirement article, we’ll discuss one of the most charged aspects of retirement: moving from accumulating wealth to spending it down—or decumulating it. We will reframe these fears and financial behaviors to create opportunity: When we understand how feelings affect our money decisions, it can empower us to examine whether we might make better choices to get where we want to go.

Interested in reading more about this topic and gaining more insight into our global research? Download the PDF for the full version of the article.

 

1Barberis, Nicholas and Thaler, Richard, (2003), A survey of behavioral finance, ch. 18, p. 1053-1128 in Constantinides, G.M., Harris, M. and Stulz, R. M. eds., Handbook of the Economics of Finance, vol. 1, Part 2, Elsevier, https://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:eee:finchp:2-18