Making the Decision About WHEN to Retire

By:  Michael Townshend

Published:  August 2021


Many of our readers in the Federal workforce, have shared with us their concerns about retiring, even though they may have confidence in their financial preparations.  So, what is it that they fear about the prospect of retirement?  For many, it is the simple question, “What in the world will I DO with myself and my newly found free time?”

After so many work years where we have dreamed of exotic spots to relocate ourselves and partner and sip fruit drinks to our hearts’ content; yet, as the reality approaches to “put in our papers” many of those dreams seem farfetched.  It is hard to imagine how we might really enjoy those “fun in the sun” days for more than a short while.  And then, we know that we will miss so much of the challenges and stimulation that we have come to expect in life, provided in large part by the work that we have performed.


And also, beneath the surface for many of us, is the nagging question: Who will I be in retirement?  I know who I am now. I have a clear identity. But when I am no longer part of the agency, pursuing its mission and feeling that we have been making a difference for the American people, what can I replace that with?


I have counseled many pre-retirees in a variety of agencies over the past 30 years and these questions of challenge and identity have been raised many times.  These are difficult questions because for many of us, our visions of ourselves are formed and reinforced by the work that we do.  And many of us have a hard time seeing the painting of the garage as anything more than a short-term challenge.


Here are some of the ideas that I have shared with my clients in order to get a handle on planning and goal setting.


  1. Identify what you value. What matters to you when all is said and done?  Are you concerned about global climate changes or, perhaps, getting or staying closer to your family, or even the needs of your community church?  Identifying a few critical values suggests activities that we may pursue to find a way forward that will be satisfying and self-affirming.  These identifications help us to create a weekly and daily set of objectives that are meaningful to us.
  2. Seek ideas for retirement activities from close friends and family. Often, these are the people who know us the best and may see what we do not.
  3. Stay active both physically and intellectually. An exercise routine, even as simple as a walk every other day or so, keeps our body focused.  Likewise, taking courses at the local community college, or even teaching a couple of night classes, will present opportunities to continue learning and giving back to others.


Finally, please know that most people who have faced the retirement future have struggled with the question, still, of WHEN should I fix the date?  My best advice is to prepare by planning what we will do, particularly in the earliest years.  Also, look closely at your fears.  These are everyone’s fears of change and of losing your identity.  I hope that you have someone in your life with whom you are able to discuss these feelings in an open way.  Retirement affects not only you, but your family and friends.  Find the most enjoyable life that yet lies ahead.


Michael Townshend is a professional philosopher, social psychologist and a certified mediator and Retirement Coach. He has over 30 years of experience as a coach, senior trainer, and facilitator to both major corporations as well as government agencies. Now retired, he writes for NITP and makes guest appearances on NITP’s ForYourBenefit radio program.