Don’t Let Fear of the Unknown throw Shade on your Retirement

February 21, 2022

Fear is the mother of all emotions

Call it plain old fear or fear of the unknown, it does not matter.

Fear stops us in our tracks. Fear often shows up when it shouldn't.

Like, right before you're about to retire! 

We all have this idea that when we retire everything will be so much better, so much easier, but the reality is often different. 

Instead of stressing about work, the daily commute, and evading your "way-too-young" boss all you now have to look forward to are leisurely strolls on a sunny beach, relaxing evenings with fellow retirees, and fun-filled activities throughout the day. Am I right?

Retirement is supposed to be stress-free, right?

You would think so, but in reality maybe all you have done is swap one set of fears for another.  

Fear can become overwhelming and cripple people the same way that a physical disability can. Fear is debilitating. Unchecked it can seriously harm the quality of our existence, and cause damage to our physical and mental souls.

robin Sharma

-motivational coach

"The fears we don't face become our limits"

Transitions can be scary

Anytime we face a major transition in life we have to deal with the inevitable voice in our head that warns us of imminent dangers and pitfalls ahead. It makes sense, right? Our brains are wired to first and foremost detect change and warn us that something unusual and dangerous might lie ahead.

Retirement is a major transition for most people. You are leaving your previous life behind but what are you transitioning to?  Do you know for sure? 

Anytime we do something new we face these “warning” voices – from "be careful and don’t jump ahead too far" to "run away and hide". That little voice is our primitive brain protecting us from possible danger, but sometimes it is doing nothing more than preventing us from all the good that might be on the other side of fear and uncertainty.

Change involves discomfort. Very few people like being uncomfortable, but overcoming it is the only way forward during periods of personal transition. Retirement is no exception and for many people it brings out many fears – some acknowledged upfront and some hidden. 

Fear holds us back from new beginnings.  We might pull back from going full throttle into our new phase in life. We might endlessly wait for the "right" time. We may just become paralyzed. We may never get to enjoy the retirement we envisioned for ourselves and that in itself would be scary, right?

We all have fears, but we have a choice how to deal with them. Ignoring them does not work. They just keeps coming back. Always adopting a sunny attitude regardless of what may be going on in our lives also does not work for most people. Rather we need ways to manage our fears because they are always there. They will dissipate at times but come back with a vengeance when we least expect them.

When you retire from your work you don't also retire from life. Your personality and identity don't change overnight. Your emotions certainly don't.

What you're feeling in retirement is probably not that far off from what other people are feeling. Let's take a look and you tell me if any of these fears are yours as well.

  • Physical deterioration
  • Running out of money
  • Mental decline
  • Becoming a burden on family
  • Feeling invisible

Let's explore these further,

Fear #1 - Physical Deterioration

Every day we get a bit older. We all know that. What we all fear the most is not the inevitable physical decline, but a sudden deterioration in our physical condition that would seriously impact our lifestyle. It could be a sudden illness, or falling down and breaking a hip.

What really petrifies people is the possibility of becoming permanently dependent on other people for daily living.  We fear becoming incapable of leading the type of life that we had envisioned in retirement. 

People near or in retirement think about physical decline a lot more than young people. After all we have already seen some signs that we're no longer what we used to be.

We all know how the game is going to end but is our only choice to live in fear for the next two or three decades?

The Alternative

Have you thought about how you're aging? Is there anything you can do to improve your health? Are you willing to take control of the aging process?

Have you come up with your own health plan besides someday eating better and exercising more? Your health is an investment in the quality of your life. Ask yourself, is your lifestyle focused on nutrition, physical activity, mental stimulation, adequate sleep, and maintaining close social connections? Yes, all those things not just one or two or what comes easy to you.

Your mind, body, and spirit are all related. For starters, do you have an exercise plan emphasizing aerobic, strength and flexibility activities? All too often people do one type of exercise and forget about the others. There’s a saying in the fitness world that aerobic fitness allows you to live longer but strength and flexibility allow you to live better. You probably want both.

Maintaining physical health is not just about maintaining your body parts in good order. Physical health is also highly correlated with your emotional makeup.

The best way to manage your fears of physical decline is to be proactive about your health. Invest in your health.  

What You Can Do:

  • Adopt a healthy eating plan focused on nutrition and portion control  
  • Combine aerobic, strength and flexibility exercises
  • Sleep at least 7 hours a night and allocate time for daily recovery

Bank Owned sign in lawn

Fear #2 - Running out of money

Yuk, do we really have to talk about money again? 

Nobody likes to talk about money, but in this day and age of being responsible for your own retirement the topic of money is always front and center. As much as we would like to just assume that everything will be fine we all know that when it comes to money issues we can’t simply ignore our fears and stash them away.

Money has many emotional connotations for people, but at the end of the day money is what allows us to pay for our lifestyle. Some people enjoy a Spartan lifestyle requiring minimum financial resources. Other people have become accustomed to a more expensive lifestyle requiring a fair amount of savings and additional sources of income. Where do you fit in? Could you be happy in retirement without massive financial resources? 

The fear of running out of money cuts across the board whether you are wealthy or not, but is magnified in today’s world as people live longer. In fact, your retirement could last three decades or longer.

In the US for example, life expectancy has increased by four years in the last century while the average actual retirement age has remained constant at 62 years of age. As people retire they should expect to fund a longer period of time in retirement than maybe they had anticipated. Running out of money is a real fear.

The Alternative

The fear of running out of money is real and needs to be addressed by today’s retirees through realistic financial planning and a sustainable income generation investment strategy.

Without the security of a steady paycheck there is a heightened need to stay on top of your finances. Maintaining control over your discretionary spending is a must, but equally important is structuring your investable assets to deliver an income stream that grows with inflation and does not unduly expose you to wild stock market gyrations.

If you haven’t done a financial plan don’t procrastinate. Small leaks can sink even the best looking ship. If you need help hire a financial advisor to spec out what type of financial health you’re in and design an income strategy to fund a sustainable lifestyle. It doesn’t have to be complicated or scary.

The best way to confront your fears is to know where you stand. If you do this early enough you will have more options at your disposal. At the very least make sure that your sources of income – social security, pensions, and other income – are in balance with your ongoing expenses. 

What You Can Do:

  • Monitor your expenses and identify small "leaks" that are eating away at your savings
  • Develop a plan to generate sustainable income from your investments
  • Make sure that your money grows faster than inflation

Fear #3 - Mental Decline

A huge fear among today’s retirees is the possibility of losing one’s ability to make good decisions.

While people understand that with  aging comes some cognitive decline, the real (unspoken) fear is about contracting early stage dementia or Alzheimer’s.

I know of people whose relatives have suffered from this fate and they will do anything in their power to lower their chances of getting this dreaded disease.

Mental decline is, however, not just about terrible diseases like Alzheimer’s. It may be about simple forgetfulness or staying mentally sharp to keep living independently.

A declining mental outlook is hugely embarrassing to most people. They hide it. They stop doing things that once gave them huge satisfaction.  The fear of not being able to figure out things that once upon a time seemed straightforward can lead to social isolation that in itself is hugely damaging. 

The Alternative

Medical research has highlighted the fact that as we age our thinking becomes less abstract but more concrete and complex. But as we all know older people tend to do less well when stressed and under time pressure. This is because aging affects how quickly and efficiently we process new information.

The best antidote to declining mental capabilities is to exercise your brain. How?

One way is by participating in new learning opportunities that challenge your brain. For example this could involve learning a new language or technical skill. It could involve playing board games such as chess. 

Physical exercise is also a great preventative approach as is simply staying engaged in the world by keeping up with current technology and social trends.

Activity and movement are highly correlated with brain health.  Keep on moving!

What You Can Do:

  • Stimulate your brain by learning something new
  • Keep up with new technologies designed for healthy aging 
  • Minimize the consumption of alcohol 

Woman Checking Her Temperature

Fear #4 - Becoming a burden on family

People do not like to discuss this fear especially with immediate family members. It’s often too deep and painful. It's better to ignore the obvious until the very end.

This fear is based on role reversal. Parents are used to taking care of their children regardless of how old they are. It’s very hard to break out of this pattern, but the time will come when either because of physical or cognitive decline the roles of parent-child reverse.

Letting go (by the parents) is an admission of decline. For some people the decline is sudden and precipitous and for others it is slow but steady. Either way asking for help may be difficult especially if support is not a one off event.

Support may be financial, emotional or simply related to everyday living tasks. For example, when the day comes when a person can no longer drive they will become totally dependent on the goodwill of family or strangers for getting about.

People hate inconveniencing strangers almost as much as they hate imposing on family members. It does not feel natural to them. It contradicts their sense of individuality. It implies a give and take but they feel unable to give much in return.

The Alternative

Asking for help is not easy for many people. There is pride involved, but there is also the knowledge that people today lead very busy and stressful lives of their own.

Asking for help may be seen as an admission of decline. Nobody feels good about declining physical or mental health so asking for help becomes a much bigger issue than it should. 

Turn the tables before it's too late. If a friend or family member is struggling take notice and offer your help. Oftentimes the issue is about awareness – noticing the little things that a person may be struggling with and being proactive and sensitive about offering help. Model how you would want to be treated because at some point that will be you.

Maintaining close family and social connections is important. Close connections are often the first to notice clues that something may not be all ok and that help may be required. Tiny issues compound into big issues. Better to prepare ahead of tie than to have to deal with a crisis.

What You Can Do:

  • Manage expectations - talk about it your needs openly with your family
  • Cultivate healthy relationships in your community
  • Minimize the burden by hiring  help - in-home care, maintenance, transportation, etc

Susan Jeffers


"Security is not having things, it’s handling things"

Fear #5 - Feeling invisible

We all want to feel that our lives matter.  When we're working and raising a family we feel needed. We feel that we matter, but when we retire we loose some of that sense of purpose. There is a void.

We live in a society that prizes youth above all else. Retirees often feel youthful and vibrant inside despite a couple of wrinkles here and there, but society often implicitly sends messages that contradicts these inner feelings. The implication - your best days are over and you need to move over to make room for the new.

Corporations also exhibit ageism further exacerbating this disconnect between how people feel inside and how society views them.

The dirty secret of unemployment statistics hides the fact that past a certain age (typically 50 in the US) younger employees and employers start looking at older workers in a different way and in the event of a job loss it is incredibly hard to regain similar employment.

The Alternative

It is easy to start feeling invisible. “Age is just a number” is a frequently heard saying and it is very true but you are often asked to prove it.

There are always possibilities for re-invention. You may need to switch your framework a bit, but the wisdom accumulated through years of hard work and life experiences creates context and perspectives that only time can provide.

Use that wisdom to address today's concerns not those of your generation. Be of value. You might, for example, teach, mentor or volunteer. Even better do all three at the same time.

The transition to a new you that feels relevant and valued in today’s society may take time and deep introspection.  It requires an open and flexible mind. It requires adopting a new identity devoid of resentment and ego. Figure out how you can be of value in today's world.

What You Can Do:

  • Get a makeover (that applies to men as well) to look your best 
  • Focus on the present by making trips down memory lane less frequent
  • Make it your mission to be of value - plenty of people could use your help

Susan Jeffers in her book “Feel the Fear … and Do It Anyway” talks about five “truths” to keep in mind about fear. Here they are,

  • The fear will never go away as long as I continue to grow
  • The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it
  • The only way to feel better about myself is to get out … and do it
  • Not only am I going to experience fear whenever I’m on unfamiliar ground but so is everyone else
  • Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness

I love these "truths" so much that I have them pinned right by my desk at work. They remind me that we all have fears but we must manage them in order to move forward.

Here's another quote that I also keep nearby,

les brown

-motivational speaker

"Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears"

The Key to Beating your Fears

  • Learning how to deal with fear is a life skill that needs to be cultivated. We have a choice how to deal with fear - ignoring it just postpones the day of reckoning. Small fears can compound into big fears draining  all your energy.
  •  Life transitions such as retirement involve heightened levels of fear – fear of the unknown, our own mortality, financial security, the loss of identity, what our purpose in life is, what we are good at, etc.  Transitioning into retirement can be scary. 
  • Fear holds us back from new beginnings.  It makes us less adventurous.  It makes us wait for the "right" time to do things.  It robs us valuable time and energy from the retirement we envisioned for ourselves.
  • The fear of something bad happening pales in comparison to the upside of living a life of fulfillment and purpose – too much of a focus on what can go wrong can keeps us from enjoying our retirement years.
  • The key to dealing with your fears is to confront them head on. You will always feel fear but how you deal with it will greatly affect the quality of your retirement. 
  •  Dealing with your fears will make you feel better and more in control. Way too many of our fears take up a disproportionate amount of space in our head if left unattended. Taking action is the key!

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About the author

Eric Weigel

My goal is sharing my experience as an investment manager, certified retirement coach, and fellow Baby Boomer to enable people to design the life they want and that matters to them in their next phase in life. We all want to live longer, but we also want to lead a life of meaning, joy, and fulfillment.