Don’t Retire Too Early
Early retirement may sound attractive—but be careful. There are several things to consider before you choose to retire voluntarily, since work may be more valuable to you than you realize.
1. God Designed Us for Work
Remember, God himself “worked.” He did the work of creation before he paused to rest. He also designed us as humans to work.
Adam had a job to do in caring for Eden before sin entered the world. His work was pleasurable and productive. What sin introduced was not the fact of work but the onerous character of work.
We see numerous examples in Scripture of people working well into their older years. Consider Moses, who embarked on his life’s work at eighty. Caleb, at eighty-five, was anxious to take on a new challenge. Job must have been well into his years when he had to pick up from scratch to restart his life.
In their book How to Finish the Christian Life: Following Jesus in the Second Half, George Sweeting and his son Don speak of the “retirement rebels” who are willing to break out of the mold of their culture and continue to work.1
This doesn’t necessarily require that they continue their present jobs; it may be appropriate to continue to work but with a change of pace, or to move into a volunteer role.
Many are working with a conviction that God has called them to what they’re doing.
My personal story was rather dramatic. I started college without a clear sense of direction. I sincerely wanted to spend my life doing whatever God would “call” me to. Meanwhile, I assumed I would join my father in his business.
In registering for my junior year, I felt that I should take accounting—a course that wasn’t required for my degree or one that I particularly wanted to take. During the week I had to register for the upcoming collegiate year, I asked the Lord to let me know if he had a different direction for me, and I asked that he do this before I invested any time studying accounting.
During that week, three separate individuals—none of whom knew what I was thinking and praying about—approached me to say they thought I should go into medicine. They weren’t consciously speaking for God, but in the context of my prayer, I heard God’s call loud and clear.
Now—fifty-three years later—I’ve never regretted my life in medicine. As I was thinking about retiring, I half-heartedly said that I wish I’d asked those impromptu advisers exactly how long that call to medicine was good for. But now, it’s with significant trepidation that I forsake such a clear call. I only do it knowing that my abilities are diminishing, and I’m confident that God will call me to a new area consistent with my capabilities.
By God’s providence, you’ve likely developed an enviable expertise in your career. You’re more capable at your job than anyone around you. God has placed you in a position of leadership, and you have the respect of many. This allows you to teach and influence others. This is a gift from God that you’ve been entrusted with to steward well and use for his glory.
Furthermore, you’re likely earning your peak salary. You may need that money to build up your nest egg, but even if you’ve met your financial goals already and have enough saved, you can generously give from your current salary to help meet the needs of others. Remember Paul’s challenge to the rich that they “be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:18–19).
We all need some degree of structure in our lives to be productive. We need to know what we’re supposed to do each day, so that, like it or not, we get up and get going. Without such structure we may become inefficient and waste time.
Continuing to work, despite its downsides, provides that structure. Sure, we pay a price for it, since we really enjoy days that aren’t planned and that allow us freedom to do what we want. But such freedom can get old quickly.
5. Friends and Social Connections
Many working people find most of their social relationships at work. These are the people they share coffee breaks and lunches with. They know each other’s families, their heartaches, and their joys. These connections will be hard to maintain without the constant interaction of working together. Once retired, it will take a lot of time and effort to build new and equally close friendships.
To God, our identity is primarily that of being made in his image and redeemed by Christ.
Another consideration for many followers of Jesus is that, except for their friends at work, they may have no friends who aren’t believers. The workplace is their primary arena for living out and sharing the gospel evangelistically.
Those who work for large corporations are typically dependent on the company to do many personal things they’ll miss in retirement. They’ve always had someone else who would fix their computer, invest their retirement funds, provide their health insurance, and even manage their schedules. And the higher they are on the corporate ladder, the more numerous are the personal services they’ve enjoyed. Retirement will require them to be independent and do all these things on their own.
7. Meaning and Accomplishment
We all need a sense of meaning and accomplishment in our lives. For many, this is derived from their work. Unless it’s replaced once we’re retired, that loss of meaning may lead to depression.
I once heard someone say, “My life has no real meaning since I retired. I used to do things that had an impact on the world, and now I just do things that are supposed to make me happy and fill my time.” I could sympathize with him, but the problem wasn’t retirement itself, but rather how he was spending his time. He needed to get busy and find meaningful things to do to replace what he had at work. This will come in strategy 8.
Many of us find our sense of identity in our work. It’s the way we view ourselves, and it’s how we want others to see us.
When talking about retirement with a patient, I sometimes would innocently ask, “And what do you do?” I found the answers generally came in two ways. Those in one group would say they worked for such and such a company. Those in the other group would say they were a teacher, doctor, pastor, and so on. This latter group—those who identified themselves by their profession—can have an especially difficult time adjusting to retirement. Work has provided them a high level of responsibility and esteem. They’ve been able to contribute much to others, and they’ve hopefully done it in a way that honors God. Is that bad? Normally not. But the danger may be that they’ve begun to view themselves as better than they ought.
Basing our identity on our profession, abilities, or accomplishments is often evidence of sinful pride. To God, our identity is primarily that of being made in his image and redeemed by Christ. How much greater is that than anything we do! Giving up our work identity may be difficult, and learning to find our identity only in Christ may be quite humbling—but that’s precisely what we need. When we no longer have a profession to identify with, people might not assume how capable or smart we are. We must begin to follow more closely Jesus’s instructions in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3–11) about becoming “poor in spirit,” mourning our pride, among other things, and having a hunger and thirst for righteousness. The loss of work identity associated with retirement may be difficult, but God can use it to allow good results in our spiritual transformation.
More than half of active workers want to work longer than full retirement age. Further, 39 percent of those over sixty-five who retired later went back to work—either out of boredom or a desire to be more useful.2
A carefree retirement isn’t always as wonderful as we expect. That’s not necessarily all bad, since a new post-retirement job may be less intense, allowing people to achieve more balance in their lives, and it might be more fulfilling, focusing more on service and less on making money.
For some, dissatisfaction in retirement may have spiritual roots. They may have failed to slow down and find fulfillment in God.
Still, it raises the question: Would it have been better for them to stay at their job?
Work itself can be addicting. It gets our adrenaline and endorphins pumping. Without work, we can feel as if we’re wasting our time and become depressed. If you’re a driven, type-A person, it would be wise to find another way to satisfy those needs, or retirement will drive you and those around you crazy.
Deciding Your Next Steps
So, when should you retire?
Both early and later retirements have their pros and cons. Your current employment may be doing more for you than providing a paycheck, but the freedom to pursue your own priorities may be enticing. To have a good retirement, it’s essential that you carefully think through these issues before you plan your retirement date.
- Donald W. Sweeting and George Sweeting, How to Finish the Christian Life: Following Jesus in the Second Half (Chicago: Moody, 2012), 59.
- Horner, “The Right Work Can Keep You Young,” in The Retirement Challenge, loc. 323, Kindle.
This article is adapted from Retiring Well: Strategies for Finding Balance, Setting Priorities, and Glorifying God by John Dunlop, MD.
God has given us work to do faithfully and joyfully—with both our minds and our hands.
Retirement presents a new freedom to live your life according to your God-given priorities.
Your vocation, be it ever so humble, is a divine calling, and thus must be done for the glory of God. This alone will take the church out into the world.
Retirement should not all be free unscheduled time, nor is it time to focus on ourselves, our comfort and happiness.