Retirement regret (and how one hospital CEO beat it)

New retirees who feel any loss of structure, identity or intellectual stimulation are hardly alone⁠ — about 15 percent of retirees have a difficult time adjusting to their new lifestyles, The Wall Street Journal reports. 

The statistic comes from Georg Henning, PhD, a researcher at the German Centre of Gerontology in Berlin. People may find the adjustment from working life to retirement especially challenging if they retire for health reasons, face financial difficulties or leave the workforce involuntarily. 

Samuel H. Turner Sr., former president and CEO of Shawnee Mission Medical Center in Merriam, Kan., didn't have a seamless adjustment from sometimes working 14 to 16 hours a day to the abundance of free time that his first retirement in 2011 brought him. 

"I was just lost," Mr. Turner told The Journal. "Even though you think you're prepared for [retirement], you're not. You're just sitting there thinking, 'What am I going to do today?'"

University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine asked Mr. Turner a few years into his retirement to serve as its associate dean for diversity and inclusion. Mr. Turner accepted the position, effectively unretiring and striking an agreement with his wife to work two years, stopping when they would both be 70. 

When Mr. Turner retired for the second time in 2017, he had a better idea of how he wanted to spend his time. He exercises for two hours six days a week, volunteers at a food pantry, sings on his church's praise team and serves on its finance committee. He is on the board of a local bank and sits on nominating committees for the local judiciary and for candidates of the five U.S. service academies. He has time to read books for the first time in 30 years. He has enjoyed more time and travel with his wife. 

"When I retired this time, I was set up," Mr. Turner told The Journal. "I have a busy schedule and structure. I see now that there are good things about retirement. There are contributions that I can make."

Mr. Turner's experience is aligned with findings from a 2020 paper published in Aging & Mental Health, which found that retirees who were the most involved in activities and connected with friends and family were likely to "succeed" in retirement, and those who took these steps before retirement transitioned into their postwork lives more smoothly.

Unretirements like Mr. Turner's are striking up a good amount of interest in 2022, too. Economists are curious as to whether baby boomers who accelerated their retirement during the pandemic will return to the workforce, and if so, at what rate. 

Pre-pandemic, "unretirement" was not uncommon in the United States, due to financial hardship or personal choice. It's still too soon to say whether the pandemic has challenged this dynamic.

Early retirements are one type of disruption to the healthcare labor force throughout the pandemic. Census microdata from the Current Population Survey provided by the University of Minnesota shows 14,500 nurses had recently retired as of March 2021, an increase of 140 percent over that figure in March 2019, according to a Pew report. The figure represents people who worked in the profession the past year but said they were now retired and not looking for work.

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