Planning your leisure in retirement

Many workers who are approaching retirement look forward to a time of extended leisure and not working. Retirement is sometimes described as “being on vacation all the time”. But the reality is often different. While you’re working, weekends and vacation are typically times to relax, unwind, travel, and take care of those tasks that you don’t have time for during the workweek.

In contrast, for the majority of retirees, retirement is a time to explore new interests and activities, and create a new identity that is based on how they spend their time instead of what occupation they hold. As more people enter retirement in the U.S. over the coming decades, this has significant implications not only for retirees but also for society as a whole.

Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management and Age Wave, a population aging research firm, recently released a report titled “Leisure in Retirement: Beyond the Bucket List,” based on a survey of 3,712 people age 25 to 90.

The results show that most retirees (92%) say they have more freedom and flexibility in retirement – freedom to do what they want, when they want. Retirees can use this freedom to set their own schedules, run a business, exercise more, spend time with their spouse or grandchildren, travel, read, volunteer, acquire new skills, or simply unplug and relax. A majority of retirees (79%) report they have as much free time as they desire, and 92% say they enjoy the lack of a structured environment in retirement.

Retirees also report they are having more fun in life than people of younger ages. Those age 45-54 indicated they had the least fun on average, while people age 65-74 were having the most fun, and those age 75 and over were a close second. Reported feelings of happiness, relaxation, and contentment were also highest among people in these two age groups.

People’s preferences appear to shift with age. While younger people are often focused on accumulating tangible wealth, 95% of retirees said they prefer enjoyable experiences to buying material possessions. These experiences weren’t necessarily extravagant: 86% of survey respondents agreed that it is relatively easy to find inexpensive leisure activities. These include a range of activities such as volunteering in their communities, reading, playing with grandchildren, walking or swimming, or just watching TV.

As one respondent said, “When I was younger, I was focused on having a nice house and a great car. Now that I’m older, I realize it’s about the experiences in life—not the things—that matter most.”

Activities that promoted staying healthy or improving health, such as exercise, were the most popular leisure activities. From 1995 to 2009, biking rates among people ages 60–79 grew by 320%. Marketers say biking is starting to replace golfing as a leisure time outdoor activity among seniors, and several new companies have been started to design bike tour trips for people age 50+.

Besides everyday leisure, retirees also were interested in recreational activities on special occasions, in which they created new memories and had new experiences and adventures, especially with spouses, children, or other people important in their lives.

The travel and leisure industries are definitely taking note of these trends. Overseas Adventure Travel was the first U.S. travel company formed to design adventure trips for travelers age 50+ and saw business increase 67% in a decade. Sales of Airstream RVs rose 35% in 2014, with the majority of buyers age 50-69. Seniors are most likely to have taken a volunteer vacation in the previous year, and the Peace Corps now has a program intended for volunteers age 50 and over.

The report identifies four stages of leisure that are typical in the years just before and during retirement. For workers who are within five years of retirement, many feel worn out and stressed by work and family demands, and are looking forward to having time to engage in the activities they love. Leisure time for these people is mainly about escape and restoring their energy.

For new retirees, who are retired two years or less, the main challenge is changing from a life revolved around work to one centered around leisure and recreational interests. As one respondent said, “Before retirement, I defined myself by my work. Now, I define myself by what I do with my leisure—I’m now a grandmother, a French student, a cook, and a volunteer. I seek out new ways to define myself, to become who I want to be.”

These people feel a sense of liberation and relief as they have the freedom to do what they want, but many also still feel a pull toward working and being productive with their leisure time. This is consistent with a general work ethic among many Americans. The survey found that 56% of Americans age 25 or over say they feel guilty if they don’t use their vacation time productively, and a majority of Americans work while on vacation. In fact, 68% of new retirees work part-time, and 22% regularly volunteer.

As retirees get further into retirement, from three to 15 years, interests shift more toward enjoyment of leisure. Contentment and happiness increase and feelings of anxiety subside. Retirees focus their attention on daily leisure activities like exercising, shopping, reading, taking classes, and socializing. They also want to have new experiences through volunteer tourism, adventure travel, RVing,and international trips. Nine percent work, though often in different fields than their original careers.

At 15 years and beyond, retirees are most concerned with maintaining their health and well-being. They are also staying closer to home and spending time relaxing or socializing with friends and relatives. Many still are interested in traveling, including family trips with grandchildren. Health issues come to the forefront: 72% have chronic health conditions that limit leisure activities.

Although financial advisors and life coaches emphasize the importance of planning for retirement, the majority of respondents report having done little or no planning: 84% said they had done “hardly any” planning for their leisure activities, and 67% had not budgeted for travel in retirement. Almost half had not even estimated the costs of their leisure activities.

The majority of retirees (58%) said they didn’t know how much money they would need to fund their retirement, and 45% said concerns about outliving their money could restrict their retirement activities. The report suggests that retirees and pre-retirees ask themselves some basic questions about what they would like to do in retirement and whom they want to do it with, and then begin creating a plan and budget.

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