Transitions Through Life

Surviving every stage of life.

When the Future Becomes Reality: Why Planning Ahead Doesn't Always Work

The reasons why planning is challenging.

The conventional wisdom is that planning ahead for education, marriage, family, career, retirement pays off. Even though none of us can read tealeaves, we believe that planning, though unsettling, is a necessary guide to our future. So why is it so difficult?

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University professor of psychology, explained that "Planning requires that we peer into our futures, and anxiety is one of the reactions we may have when we do" since it is impossible to imagine every aspect of the future. This might explain why some retirees migrate to warmer climates but return to their original homes. They had not considered all the scenarios. They might not have considered the high cost of living in the new community, missing long-time friends and family, or changes in their health and financial resources.

I decided to explore this issue with some younger baby boomers. They were stumped when I asked them to describe how they envisioned their future. Invested in their current, complicated lives, balancing work and family demands took precedence over planning for the future. In addition, they turned away from planning because they envisioned problems rather than possibilities. Their number one issue related to whether or not they would outlive their money. And number two, they were scared about the possibility of becoming involved in care giving since they had observed many family and friends already in that role.

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Despite the tie between anxiety and planning, Gilbert found that about "12 percent of our daily thoughts are about the future...each of us is a part-time resident of tomorrow." He pointed out that we are poor forecasters of our futures. Case in point: Joan tried to convince her husband to sell their house and move to a small condo. He refused. She always said, if Joe dies before I do, I am out of here. Joe died and three years have passed. Not only is she not moving but she is considering a reverse mortgage just to be able to remain in their home. What she thought about the future is not how she felt when the future became a reality.

I am part of a group that started out as women planning their retirement. Over the years, the issues have changed. They are now considering where to spend their remaining years. Should they move to retirement communities, or move to where their adult children live. They are afraid of the future, but consumed with thinking about it.

On the other hand, many relish thinking about the future. Doris is the omelet cook at a restaurant and complains that her arm gets tired and aches at night. She is looking forward to retirement; the physical strain connected with her job, is taking a toll on her. In fact, she has started planning ahead by enrolling in a training program at the local children's hospital so that she can start volunteering as soon as she stops working.

My first interview with Jim took place several months before he was to retire from a government agency. I asked what excited him as he considered retirement. He answered that he had been thinking a great deal about it and saw it as a time to "reinvent myself; have time to lecture and write; mentor students in PR; learn how to cook/speak Spanish/dance the tango; spend several weeks in a foreign city; read fiction; learn more about how to relax and be patient." When I asked what scared him about retirement, his list included: "Finding comprehensive medical insurance to cover me from 60-65; establishing a new routine and identity outside of work; staying healthy and maintaining a regular exercise schedule." Jim had thought ahead about ways to keep in touch with his work colleagues and hoped to work two days a week as a consultant at his old agency, for at least the first year of his retirement. In my follow-up interview several months after he retired, he expressed some ambivalence. Life was not perfect, however; he was committed to make it rewarding. He felt his careful planning had paid off.

To summarize, many are able to plan ahead and even enjoy the process. But for those who don't and can't, it could be because:

• Their energy is in the present and not the future;
• They deny that retirement is a major set of transitions; and
• They feel unable to engage in forecasting the future with any degree of accuracy.
So, where are you in this process?

Nancy K. Schlossberg
Author, Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose
Copyright 2011

Nancy Schlossberg, Ed.D., is a Professor Emerita at University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of nine books.

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