Retirement: Expectations vs. Reality 

Setting and managing expectations is one of the simplest, yet trickiest, processes on the planet, particularly if we are managing our own! People who manage others’ expectations can probably claim to be able to execute anything, provided the expectations set are realistic. After all, most of the time it’s just time and money…and those are two commodities that can be isolated and managed.   

Managing Expectations Around Retirement

Almost all of the literature I referenced showed otherwise for managing expectations around retirement. Consider some of the following: 

  • Forbes, 10/5/22 – “One of the key takeaways from a new study published by the Stanford Center on Longevity, titled ‘Disconnected: Reality vs. Perception in Retirement Planning’ …shows that most of today’s pre-retirees and retirees lack sufficient savings to fully retire at age 65 and that generally, they’re not financially prepared for retirement.”   Furthermore, the “top four concerns reported by half or more of the survey respondents all focused on the uncertainties they face when planning for retirement, including the unknowns about things like inflation, health care expenses, a possible reduction in Social Security or other government benefits, and the high cost of long term care.
  • Additionally, an article from the Office of Social Security entitled, “Behavioral and Psychological Aspects of the Retirement Decision” points out “that while financial and health concerns are a major part of the retirement decision, there are other issues….” Some of these issues include a person’s judgment and decision-making abilities, how an individual frames happiness and views the possibility of future events, and our ever-present emotional swings. These ambiguous elements combine to make planning for them a significant challenge. 
  • Monthly Labor Review, May 2020 – “Job demands, stress, and especially the cognitive requirements in future employment were also major factors in retirement decisions”…along with “the ability to have flexible working hours.” Try managing expectations while stressors are in motion! 

As you can see, many factors can affect our realities. Meanwhile, the advertisements influencing our expectations are generally far more optimistic than the reality. Pictures of leisure time, no stress, great health, travel, and financial security lend themselves to painting that optimistic picture. 

Guidelines to Managing Our Expectations

So, what’s the answer? No answer. Ok, let’s instead look at some guidelines to managing our expectations. 

Let’s start by looking at what Scripture has to say about our future and our plans: 

  • Proverbs 16:9: “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” 
  • Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” 
  • James 4:13-14: “Now listen, you who say, ’Today or tomorrow we will go to this or the city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” 

As you can see from these verses, God is sovereign and created us for a purpose (see Blog post from last week), and yet He allows us choices and gives us hearts and minds to plan and work toward a future in this life and beyond. For this life, God doesn’t promise us health and wealth, but instead promises we will be given what we need. For our next life, we have the opportunity to earn riches in heaven based on our obedience to Him in this life. 

Plan for the Unexpected

Based on your own experiences managing expectations and what you’ve seen in the research, don’t discount the large number of factors that are at play in determining the reality of your retirement, especially including the unexpected. For example, if you’re like me, you’ve probably heard stories told of people who work really hard, save their money for retirement, and then a year after retiring either pass away or suffer a debilitating health situation that prevents them from enjoying what they’ve saved. The message here is to plan with your eyes wide open and know that your planning should include a number of factors outside your control. Contingency and scenario planning are worthwhile time investments. 

Consult with Your Network

Additionally, put your networking skills to work and talk to as many people as you can about what they’ve experienced so far in their own planning process. Inevitably the “wisdom of the team” from your broader network will continue to add elements for you to consider in your own planning process. Particularly the nuances of your own situation that you can compare and contrast with others will help you better tailor scenarios. God built us to be in community, and I believe that community is there to assist and support each of us on our life’s journey, including looking forward and planning for what’s next. 

Last, as we’re told in 1 Thessalonians 5: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing.” Keep listening for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and be grateful for whatever unfolds. Blessings! 

Dave Sparkman currently serves as the volunteer Crossroads Career board chair and local ministry leader. He is also the founder and managing director of Spark Your Culture, a corporate culture consulting firm. Prior to that he worked at UnitedHealth Group, a Fortune #5 public company, serving in the role of Chief Culture Officer. His unemployment experience came from the implosion of Arthur Andersen, where he served as the West Region Managing Partner, People.

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