By Joseph Coughlin
“Do you think this color is nicer than that one?” I look around and realize that the young woman standing next to me in the home improvement store check out line is looking at me and pointing to a paint chip in her hand.
I reply, “I like the deeper pink.”
Chuckling under her mask, she nods, and replies, “This is the third room I’ve painted this year, I am running out of rooms to paint.”
Guessing that the woman is in her 30s, I ask, “New home?”
Her reply was swift, “No, Covid.”
Over a year ago I described the Covid-19 quarantine as a retirement fire drill. It has been far more than a fire drill, it turns out to be a full multigenerational simulation of many of the assumptions people of all ages have about their retirement future. Assumptions and images from vacation and retirement brochures often littering our brains — leading us to believe that retirement is about leisure alone and not everyday life.
Covid is testing us all. Many Millennials, Gen X’ers, and younger Boomers are surprised by what they are learning from living at home for an extended period – and much like retirement – many of life’s activities are more difficult or impossible. Here are seven of those surprises.
1. Home improvement projects take less time than you think
How often have we heard, or even uttered to ourselves, “I can’t wait for retirement. There are so many things around the house to fix up and projects that I have been putting off.”
During Covid home improvement store sales have certainly increased. However, unless you have a working farm, you are likely to be like my checkout line companion, and run out of projects sooner than you planned. Just how many rooms can you paint in a retirement that is likely to be 20, 25-plus years?
2. Leisure activities and hobbies do not keep you as busy as you thought
A common assumption about retirement is that it is the big payoff — a life stage of earned leisure in return for a lifetime of work.
Unfortunately, even before Covid-19, many people have found that spending one-third of your adult life on the golf course, on the tennis court, or seated in front of an artist’s easel did not completely, nor happily, fill time in retirement.
3. Your home is smaller than you thought
Many Millennials and Gen X’ers learned their home was smaller than they thought – especially for those who have children and must compete with their significant other for a quiet corner and WiFi. Couples of all ages, however, learned something else — that the constant presence of the love of their life can sometimes become a bit much. Long before Covid, younger Boomers and retirees, particularly women, have found it more than a little disconcerting that “he is always there.” Covid work from home demonstrated that quality time together may have its limits.
4. Being able to go where, when, and how you want is even more important than when you were a teen
Covid-19 imposed limits on our mobility. Either because we were told to stay home or there was nowhere to go. While transportation is the second largest expense in retirement, few people plan for their mobility in retirement. Until it is limited, we don’t fully appreciate how important seamless unfettered movement is to everyday life – even in retirement.
5. Technology is about more than cool & convenience
On-demand living was once just for the cool kids. You know, the Millennials. However, even the Millennials found that life-by-app became less about convenience – it was a vital way to remain connected to everyone and everything. Likewise, Gen X’ers and younger Boomers found that home delivery, telemedicine, and other applications that were once niceties became necessities in their lives during Covid. Now all generations realize that tech-enabled living will be a requirement for quality retirement living.
6. Friends, family, even your in-laws, are your real ‘social security’
The pain of social isolation became evident to everyone during Covid. Regardless of age, the loss of quality human contact has affected young and old. In fact, an ongoing study of public attitudes and behaviors by my colleagues at the MIT AgeLab has shown that younger people report greater concern about social isolation than older cohorts. Living during Covid sparked heightened awareness across the generations that preparing for retirement requires an assessment of your social capital as much as your financial capital. Living where friends, family, and even an annoying cousin or two, are in easy reach must be a priority in retirement – even for those who think that fun and sun alone are key ingredients to retirement living.
7. Work is about far more than money
Perhaps the greatest surprise for people of all ages is that work is about more than income. Working online ‘worked’ for many, but it did not entirely satisfy the social element of the workplace. Retirees are often surprised to discover just how much of their life they spend with their work colleagues compared to their families. It is not until they retire that they realize that during a normal week most of the time spent with family is when we sleep. Moreover, other than our first cup of coffee, work provides a compelling reason to get up in the morning, adding structure and purpose to the day in a way that few alternatives can provide.
Covid-19 has been a brutal teacher – sadly, more brutal to some than others. However, it is forcing a real-time, year-plus teachable moment about retirement living. While Covid quarantine is certainly not entirely like retirement, there are more than a few similarities. The friction and complexities it has added to daily life are enough for many to question brochure-based thinking of what retirement might be. Retirement is likely to be for a long time and require far more preparedness than plans to spend time with grandchildren, a to-do list of home improvement projects, or dream vacation destinations.