I recently had lunch with a friend who retired about a year ago. As usual, I asked a lot of questions about his transition, including how it was going, as well as what he liked and didn’t like about it. Eventually, the conversation turned to my research on boomers and their interactions as a group. I revealed that baby boomers seem to really enjoy coming together to discuss what others think, say and do about retirement. In fact, I shared with him the most popular comments from my workshop: Participants like “listening to what others have to say,” followed by asking for “more group discussion time.”

Initially, I labeled the trend as retirement brainstorming, feeling it stemmed from their group protests and sit-ins during the 1960s. My friend dispelled that notion, however, by informing me that “That’s not why we want to hear --  what others have to say. It’s because we’re all scared as hell to make wrong or bad decisions.” He put an exclamation point on his comment by saying, “I know, because that’s exactly what me and my friends talked about going through!”  

This is a compelling example on how baby boomers are changing retirement. They’re breaking a long-held silence about what retirement looks and feels like. The iceberg that is retirement is slowly being flipped over, revealing deep-rooted fears, new truths and eye-opening realities that were once below the surface, out of mainstream conversation.   

During another workshop we were discussing the difference between past and future retirements when a woman remarked, “My mother’s life in retirement is miserable. She just sits there and does nothing. I could never retire to a life like that.” Another woman exclaimed, “My dad’s the same way! I just don’t get it and can’t imagine existing like that for long.” Comments such as these may seem harsh and out of the ordinary but the fact is, when boomers' parents were preparing for retirement, the ideas of their living into their late eighties or earning less than 1 percent on a CD were as preposterous as the ideas of living past 100 and seeing the Dow reach 30,000 are today. Retirement has changed and will continue to evolve in ways that clients may not be able to predict or be willing to accept.  

The old retirees mentioned above may have been told that they should expect to live longer than their parents and that their pensions and Social Security benefits could get chewed up by inflation. At the time, they had no point of reference, no current model to help them plan for it. So they’ve become living examples that the past is not a good predictor of the future, and therefore shouldn’t be used to dispel trends or neglect areas we see as crucial to their long-term success.    

Advisors can play a crucial role in further breaking retirement silence by facilitating conversations that address areas of concern, including how clients will spend their time and remain happy, healthy and connected. One of my favorite exercises during a seminar or workshop is to ask attendees to write down their perfect day and perfect week in retirement. On the surface, it may sounds overly basic, but surprisingly not many people can complete the task. Even if they can cobble together the perfect morning, afternoon and evening, they’re usually stumped when they try to apply their list to every day of the week. Remarkably, I have found that over the years, no matter what the person’s age, occupation or financial status, the response to this exercise is invariably the same, “I’ve never thought about it like that,” or “It’s harder to describe than I expected,” or “The way I planned on spending time in retirement really doesn’t take up that much time.”

Another interesting conversation starter is, “Who are you when you’re not working?” It’s a great question to ask a group, individual or couple in your office, or even rhetorically in a newsletter. The question often evokes a look similar to the befuddled gaze I got when I asked my 9-year-old stepson, “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?” Just as he had never contemplated the evolution of breakfast and dinner, a lot of new and soon-to-be retirees get caught up in the role of one thing and forget to diversify and start something new.

Another area where retirement silence is being broken lies within the world of matrimony, particularly for women. For many wives, the image of their career-driven husband declaring, “Honey, I’m home forever!” isn’t creating thoughts of long walks on the beach or nights stargazing over a bonfire. Instead, the idea of a husband’s retirement gives rise to fear, frustration and in some cases, physical manifestations.  There is actually a diagnosis in Japan called “Retired Husband Syndrome,” where women are getting physically ill from the notion of their spouses returning home to manage them and their households in an office-like fashion.  

Now that doesn’t mean every relationship is doomed in retirement, or that men can’t suffer from the very same fears and concerns. The reality is that this is another silent trend that advisors should consider using to their advantage. Up to this point, our industry has exploited nearly every other dreaded part of retirement to garner new clients, including the fear of running out of money, disinheriting your family, or making the wrong Social Security choice. In a similar light, the fear that many couples have about managing the extra time they’ll be spending together in retirement offer advisors an opportunity to not only differentiate themselves but also rebrand the industry in a more caring way.  

It’s one reason I created The Retirement Wellness Report as well as a free guide for couples called How To Prepare Your Marriage For Retirement. The goal of both the newsletter and guide are to position advisors at the forefront of these trends and as resources in every aspect of retirement, not just the financial ones. Together, they offer topics of conversation, questions to consider, and real-life stories that make the transition from work to home life more realistic and understandable, ultimately helping clients better prepare for the things they are most concerned about, yet which people speak the least about.

Another elephant in the retirement waiting room is that many people may never be able to retire. More and more people are realizing they aren’t going to be able to save enough cash to have enough money in their golden years. Technically, that’s not all bad when you consider the situation of the mother and father mentioned above, whom even with greater financial security and resources than most have today, they retired to misery.

I have a family member I’ve been trying to re-train in this manner for years. She regularly talks about wanting to retire, but despite her best saving efforts, can’t seem to get close enough to make the move. The problem with her assessment is that she is too focused on what she doesn’t have in terms of dollars and cents, than what she does have in knowledge, credentials, overall health and personality.

With an advanced degree, a desire to teach and four children successful launched from her nest, she is well positioned to create a phased retirement where she can not only supplement her income but also establish a new identity and meaningful way to fill her time. I’ve suggested to her several times that these intangibles are more valuable in today’s retirement landscape than just a large pool of money because it gives her earning power while allowing her to stay active, involved and part of something bigger.

Breaking retirement silences paves a way for us to connect and add value in ways many clients cannot see for themselves. Having discussions on deep-rooted fears and dispelling outdated ideas with clients will foster strong relationships and help you create retirement plans that address personal goals as well as financial ones. It’s been said that silence is golden, yet when it comes to retirement, it only creates fool’s gold.  

P.S. What retirement silence are you and your clients breaking? What new and interesting questions and conversations are you hearing and taking part in? Let me know by leaving a comment or e-mailing me.  

Robert Laura is the president of SYNEGOS Financial group, co-founder of RetirementProject.org, author of Naked Retirement and creator of the Retirement Wellness Report. He can be reached at rl@robertlaura.com.