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Couples Can Conflict Over When To Retire


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Baby boomers are the first generation with large numbers of dual-earner couples heading into retirement. That means negotiating the golden years is all the more complicated. Now there are two careers, two hard-earned nest eggs and quite possibly two competing visions of how and when to retire.

What happens when he wants to slow down, and she says no way? According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, well over half of couples disagree on when each should retire.

Couples, what are the conversations you're having? What are the disagreements? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program: coping with disfigurement and the public reaction to it. But first, couples and retirement. Freelance writer Kathleen Hughes joins us from our bureau in New York. Her article, "He Wants To Retire ... But She Doesn't," ran earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal. Welcome to the show.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: Hi. Thank you for having me.

LUDDEN: Kathleen, you spoke with many, many couples for this. Let's kick off by hearing from one in our audience. Tom is in Anchorage, Alaska. Hi, there.

TOM: Hi. Thanks for taking my call, Jennifer. It's nice to hear you on the show.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Tell us about your retirement conversations.

TOM: Well, you know, this is a conversation that we've been having for about a year now. I'll be 62 in August. I'm getting ready to file for early retirement. We've done very, very well over the last 30 years, planning our future. And my wife is nine years younger than me. And she's got a great part-time job that she really enjoys, and I want to start traveling.

I want to travel all over the world. I want to do three and four and five-month-long overland trips in big, heavy trucks and camp on the ground with a bunch of young people and have a great time while I'm still young enough, able to pull that off.

And she doesn't want to stop working right now. And so over long, long conversations about how we're going to plan this, it hasn't really been about money. It's really been about time and how we're going to spend time together. And so we've ended up deciding not to spend so much time together, to allow me to start traveling much earlier than she had planned to do that.

She's going to stay home and handle our affairs and let me go for three and four months at a time.


LUDDEN: So not exactly how you...

TOM: I'm not (unintelligible) about that because I love my wife, and she's an incredible friend and partner, but, you know, reality is reality.

LUDDEN: Oh. So you're working it out not quite the way you envisioned, but you've got some consensus there.

TOM: Absolutely.


LUDDEN: Well, Tom, have fun.


TOM: Thanks.

LUDDEN: Maybe she'll get jealous and decide to join you soon.

TOM: (unintelligible) for, like, a month, you know.


LUDDEN: Thanks for calling. Kathleen Hughes, is that a typical situation there that you heard about?

HUGHES: It is a very typical situation. Women are, on average, four years younger than their husbands. So husbands frequently get to retirement age sooner, and women are still working, often want to continue keeping that income, want the health insurance. His example actually ties into the story I did previously about couples not agreeing on where to retire.

Frequently, one member will want to travel, and one spouse will want to travel more than the other. So couples disagree in a lot of different areas. Fidelity did a study last year and found that 52 percent don't agree on the timing of retirement, but another 33 percent don't agree on where to retire or don't know where they're going to retire.

LUDDEN: See, I've got young kids. Life is all about logistics. I thought that would go away once they're gone. But it's still about logistics, right?


HUGHES: Yeah, and it becomes a negotiation.

LUDDEN: And women, you write, are on average four years younger and may, actually because of their earlier child-rearing duties, may be actually at a more exciting point in their career. Is that right?

HUGHES: That is another scenario, that they're frequently reaching their peak at the very point when their husbands want to slow down and retire. So that creates a conflict.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, let's hear about another situation. Ken is in Flint, Michigan. Hi, Ken.

KEN: Yeah, my wife wants to retire, and I am retired already. She is actually a year older than I am. So we're both kind of looking forward to retirement.

LUDDEN: All right. So do you have any disagreements about it?

KEN: Just where to retire. I'd like to retire in Northern Michigan. She wants to go to Florida. So we just haven't quite worked that out yet. But we're both kind of looking forward to retiring. And with her being a year older than I am, strangely as it may seem, it's - well, we're both kind of really looking forward to it.

LUDDEN: Well, good. Well, you sound a bit like the exception to the stats here. Have a good retirement, then. Good luck.

KEN: Oh, thank you very much.

LUDDEN: Kathleen Hughes, you actually found in your interviewing that this is a sensitive issue to talk about.

HUGHES: It is a sensitive issue, because it involves a lot of different sensitive subjects, often all at once. It involves money. Do you have the money to retire? How successful have you been in your career? And probably the most sensitive subject is gender differences.

I was surprised because a lot of people declined to be interviewed when the husband was older and had retired first. That - you know, often what happens is the wife may then expect the husband to help more with the housecleaning and the cooking, have dinner waiting when she gets home. But the issue of who's the breadwinner also comes up.

If the husband retires first, he may feel funny about that. I talked to boomers who, you know, are fairly progressive boomers, but they - some men are hesitating to retire first, feeling that OK, now they're not going to be the breadwinner.

LUDDEN: Interesting. So all the old gender roles come into play.

HUGHES: Yeah. I think a lot of boomers think of themselves as having gotten past that old, you know, Ozzie and Harriet view of gender roles, but it's starting to come up. And a lot of these issues are new because a lot of boomers just started turning 65 last year. So they don't want the same retirement as their parents, but the path, you know, hasn't yet been clearly defined.

LUDDEN: Let's bring another person into the conversation, someone who deals with this all the time. Dorian Mintzer is joining us from member station WBUR in Boston. She's a psychologist and a retirement coach, and the author of "The Couple's Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-have Conversations for Transitioning to the Second Half of Life." Dorian Mintzer, welcome.

DR. DORIAN MINTZER: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

LUDDEN: So Kathleen was just telling us what a sensitive topic this is. Is this something you encounter?

MINTZER: It definitely is a topic that people tend to avoid. The book that I actually co-authored with Roberta Taylor, what we did is both of us are retirement coaches and therapists, and we had a number of focus groups, as well as from our clinical experience. And it was very common to hear people say we just haven't talked about it yet.

I think there are a number of reasons. I think people's lives are very busy. Sometimes people just sort of know it's going to be a difficult area because there's sort of assumptions of differences and different expectations, and they kind of don't want to open up Pandora's box.

And I think sometimes people don't want to think ahead to the future. We really are living longer, and the whole concept of retirement's changing. It's really more of a transition now. It's not so much a destination. It's more kind of a journey and thinking about how do you want to live the next part of your life, because the likelihood is people are going to live longer.

So I think that it's become more sensitive because, you know, people reach this point in life, often with different values, interests, priorities and wish lists of what they want to do.

LUDDEN: Well, and retirement is changing. So many more boomers are working longer or have so-called retirement jobs.

MINTZER: Right. I think many people don't want to stop working, and many people realize they can't stop working because they don't want to outlive their money. And then there are other people who - because of mergers and downsizing - find themselves sort of retired and don't want to be retired. They don't want...

LUDDEN: All right, I think we have a caller speaking right to this point. Ron is in Mill Valley, California. Hi, Ron. Ron, are you there? We've lost Ron. Let's get another caller on the line, David in Bettendorf, Iowa. Hi, there.

DAVID: Hi, I just wanted to say that I retired a year and a half ago, and it was a difficult conversation that my wife and I had together. And I was finally able to convince her, along with a friend of mine, that I would retire from my career that I'd had for 37-and-a-half years and work part-time. And it's actually worked out so it's more money, so that's a nice thing. And that convinced her then that retirement was a good thing. She's nine years younger than me, too. So...

LUDDEN: Now, she didn't want you to give up the money, or she didn't want you hanging around the house?

DAVID: The money was the major concern, and so then money now is not a concern. So that's really nice. And then I found that by taking on a second career, that it's been great for me. I do actually - this show is great. I'm going to keep listening because I do retirement counseling to federal workers. And I find that it's a very emotional decision on retirement and the finances. It's just one of those things where the couples are very emotional about it.

LUDDEN: Huh. Well, David, thank you so much for calling.

DAVID: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: Kathleen Hughes, you encountered this emotion. You even had friends who you said didn't want to talk to you about this.

HUGHES: I had friends who had talked to me privately, complaining about their husband suddenly being at home. But when I called to interview them, they - you know, a good friend didn't return my call, didn't return my call. And when I finally called back, she said he doesn't want to talk about it.

LUDDEN: And what was the issue with the husband being at home?

HUGHES: She - I think she loves him, but she really did not like having him in the house all the time. She had been home with the kids for 20 years, and all of a sudden she had lost her privacy, and her routine was interrupted. And a lot of women feel that way.

There was a Japanese doctor a while back that came up with the diagnosis called retired husband syndrome, and it was - you know, he was seeing women who had all kinds of physical ailments, and he finally concluded that their husbands had just retired, and they were having difficulty with that, and it was manifesting itself in these physical symptoms.

LUDDEN: Dorian Mintzer, do you see this?

MINTZER: Well, I do, and I think it ties into what I was saying earlier, that I think what's so important is for each person, as well as the couple, to really have an idea of what they're retiring to. I think people that are used to having their self-esteem and their identity come from work, and if they haven't allowed themselves to think about what they want to do, what's going to give purpose and meaning to their life, how they're going to connect with people, I think people get kind of closed in, and they can get too dependent on the spouse. And they can kind of cycle down into a depression, which is not helpful.

I think that women just notoriously - I mean, I know it's a stereotype, but in general, women connect more with other women. You can connect with women, like, in the supermarket. Men tend not to do that as much. And for men, so much of the social connection often has been through work. And I think it's important for men in particular to think about what they're going to do so that they don't end up sort of expecting that their wife is supposed to do everything with them.

LUDDEN: All right. We're talking about when couples disagree on retirement. Let us know your stories: 800-989-8255. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Retirement is supposed to be relaxing, but figuring out when to retire can be anything but. Even if a couple came through the recession with a big enough nest egg to stop working, their spouse might have other ideas.

In fact, according to one survey, the vast majority of couples disagree on when to retire. So, couples, tell us: What are the conversations you're having? What are your disagreements? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Kathleen Hughes, she wrote the recent Wall Street Journal article "He Wants To Retire ... But She Doesn't"; and Dorian Mintzer, a psychologist, social worker and retirement coach. She co-wrote the book "The Couple's Retirement Puzzle: Ten Must-Have Conversations For Transitioning to the Second Half of Life."

Now let's get a caller on the line. Nathan(ph) in Fenton, Michigan. Welcome.

NATHAN: Hi, how are you doing?


NATHAN: Well, my story is a little bit different than some of your other guys. I was sitting on my patio talking to my very close friend about retirement and all the problems that - with changes in retirement plans, income, savings, 401(k). We were just complaining, and my wife was there listening, and then she spoke up and said: You know, I've got the answer for you.

And I looked at her with disbelief, and she said: You're just going to keep working until you die.


NATHAN: I think she was very serious. That's what scares me the most.

LUDDEN: And how - can we ask how old you are there, Nathan?

NATHAN: I'm 59.

LUDDEN: Well, you've got a ways to go.


NATHAN: Yeah, until I die, apparently.

LUDDEN: So is that the extent of your retirement conversation, or have you come back at it?

NATHAN: I've repeated the story a few times to her, and she's not changed her view at all.

LUDDEN: Now, is she working?

NATHAN: Yes, she's got a part-time job, but it maintains her gas and weekends.

LUDDEN: Do you have any idea when you think you'd like to stop working if you could?

NATHAN: Maybe another five years at the most, but you know, the knees give out, the energy gives out. I've been working over 40 years at one job.

LUDDEN: Wow, all right, well, you know what? We've got a retirement coach here. Let's turn your situation to Dorian Mintzer. What would you advise Nathan, Dorian?

MINTZER: Well, I think it's going to be important for the two of you to begin talking more about what this concept of retirement means to each of you. What we often recommend to people is if you start talking and come from this I position of what's important to you, why do you not want to work longer, or what are the things you might want to do, and to find out what your wife's fears are of what would happen if you stopped working.

I think sometimes what I hear from people is that the fear is that the husband's going to just not do anything and just sort of waste time and get depressed and begin really having more expectations on them. I think that there really are ways to talk, and I think there are some basics of agreeing to disagree, not blaming the other but really taking time to listen and appreciate what you hear, even if you don't agree with it, but to understand why it's so important to her that you, you know, keep working and for her to understand why, you know, if you've been 40 years at a job that your heart's not in, that you don't want to do that.

And kind of the creative compromises, sometimes if you hear each other, and you open up a space of kind of what would be - what's the we, what's the relationship. And it may be thinking about what would be something that you could do that would use your skills and use your interests maybe to still earn some money, maybe even volunteer work, but that would give a sense of purpose and meaning so that, you know, you're still connected with the world, if in fact you discover that that maybe is a worry of yours and a worry of hers.

So I think the talking together and just trying to understand what each other wants and expects for this next part of life and how this kind of concept of retirement does or doesn't fit into it, because it is changing. But you're not alone. A lot of people have very different viewpoints.

And you know, some people do say they want to work, you know, until their very last breath but not necessarily in the same way that they've been working. And you know, I think the compromise, maybe, if you think about it, is maybe in a certain number of years, maybe sooner than later from your perspective, you want to think about are there alternatives of how I can work.

You know, do I want to, you know, phase out? Do I want to build in other interests? Do I want to balance my life in a different way? But I really think that the communication between the two of you is very important to do.

LUDDEN: Well, Nathan, we wish you well.

NATHAN: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Let's get another phone call here. Andy in Moab, Utah.

ANDY: Hello there. Well, we didn't exactly retire. We've always been pretty much in business for ourselves. And since I don't have to bring in money every day, we've switched over, we're doing musical productions now, which is kind of where I started out before I had a child to raise.

But our dispute's not bitter at all, but I want to do more track and field competitions. She doesn't want to do more than three or four a year. I'd like to get up to at least 10. And she wants to go to Costa Rica and places like that, and I want to get down and do some more (unintelligible) and do some more major climbing. So it's a little bit different situation than most people.

LUDDEN: So you've got some figuring out to do there.

ANDY: Well, I mean, we'll do our normal three competitions, and I guess we'll get up to Costa Rica one of these days. It's - we're by no means slowing down or stopping. We're just trying to decide which full-bore direction we want to go after the difference of the last 40 years of the business that we were in.

LUDDEN: All right, well, good luck, Andy.

ANDY: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Kathleen Hughes, I'm wondering how much - Andy had some good options there and some fun stuff planned, but I'm wondering how much do finances come into play and if - for the couples that you interviewed for your reporting on this.

HUGHES: Well, that's, you know, one more area of disagreement. They may have very different views about whether their savings are enough and how they want to live. Thirty-three percent in this Fidelity study reported that they didn't agree on lifestyle expectations. There's one couple in the story, and she would like to retire immediately, and he feels they can't afford to.

But she's saying, well, let's just sell the house, we'll live out of backpacks. But she knows that he would never do that. And then she wants to go to a more expensive area, actually, but build a small house, and he wants to go to a cheaper area. So they can also have very different views about whether they can afford to retire.

And, you know, obviously that's always part of the equation.

LUDDEN: And perhaps more so in these recent years, when so many (unintelligible) shrink.

HUGHES: Yeah, one more thing making the negotiations that much more complicated.

LUDDEN: There's an email from Kyra(ph) in Oakland, California. She writes: I think it's so very un-American that we have anxiety about when and how to retire. Work defines us, which is sad. My husband and I are 43, and if we could retire and play with our toddler son and read more, we would. Why not?

We could also find ways to volunteer, exercise, garden and all the other things that are lacking from our lives while we run the rat race required for house, school, et cetera. Phew, the work-until-you-die thing cannot be what our species is meant for.

I'm sure that's a very common sentiment, but Dorian, I mean, even if people do have the finances there, does that solve all the problems?

MINTZER: No, money is one part of it but really just one part. The whole concept of how do you want to live the rest of your life is money, but it's more than money. The way we came up with 10 kind of must-have conversations is, you know, we use the concept of puzzle because there are all these different pieces of the puzzle for all of us. And they're different for each couple.

So there are issues about the finances. And finances and health, I think, are two that really impact some of the other pieces of the puzzle. But there's issues of the timing of the retirement. There's issues of finances, there's issues of expectations of each other. There are issues of kind of how identity and roles change, relationships and obligations with family.

You know, we have such changing demographics in the world. We have people who have been in long-term relationships, new marriages, second marriages, third marriages, your kids, my kids, our kids, no kids, you know, all of these, and sometimes parents still alive, so the relationship with family, relationship with community and friends, the issues of health.

As we get older there's more and more studies about ways to keep ourselves as, you know, healthy and vital and, you know, brain exercise, body exercise, good nutrition, and that attitude actually is more important than genetics once you reach age 65.

But health issues, you know, are there, and you know, one or another partner may end up needing to take care of their partner. Or as an example that was in Kathleen's article, a couple that happens to be in a couple - a couple's group that Roberta and run, the two of them used to hike a lot, and she developed a more chronic illness so she can't hike as much, and he still wants to.

And it's more similar to the example of - I think the earlier caller, who talked about going off and doing traveling, and in that case his wife was working, but there may need to be some changes of the dreams and expectations if health changes, and also the purpose and meaning.

So there are all these parts of it that are all there and important and part of it in addition to money. But money - there's no question that money impacts some of the options and choices that you have for lifestyle, travel and things that you want to do.

LUDDEN: I hear you saying plan on one hand, but then be ready to shift gears on the other if something like health intervenes.

MINTZER: You know, there always are curveballs in life. And I think part of what, I think, is helpful is if each person really works creating what we often call an individual vision, kind of what are the, you know, what are the things that they would like ideally to achieve in this next part of life?

And if each person does that, and then they talk with each other and share. And, again, the agreeing to disagree, and maybe there will be timelines on it and need for flexibility, but to really appreciate what each would like to accomplish and to create, hopefully, a shared vision which will incorporate a little of what they each want, but not necessarily all at the same time.

So it might be, you know, you need to keep working for, you know, a few more years because the health insurance is through your work. And I'm going to, you know, do something that's going to give some importance to me and bring in some money, too, and then let's revisit it.

LUDDEN: Let's take another call here. Lou(ph) is in Southfield, Michigan. Welcome.

LOU: Hi. How are you doing?


LOU: My wife and I are getting ready to retire within the next year or two. Money is not the issue. I think it's - it's interesting to me. I know I will drive my wife crazy. I do not have something that I feel passionate about to do when I retire, and that's my problem. I'm having a hard time finding something that I feel is going to keep me, you know, happy and interested and, like I said, passionate.

LUDDEN: All right. Kathleen Hughes, did you encounter this in your reporting?

HUGHES: Yes. I think that's one of the advantages of a group like Dori's, where she said she really focuses on getting people to work at defining what it is they want to retire to as opposed to from. But if you've been on a treadmill for a long time, it requires, you know, some time and some work to really define what it is you, you know, might be truly interested in and want to do instead. And that's a big leap for most people.

And communication, you know, is clearly the answer, but it's remarkably difficult for a lot of people. So many of the couples that I talked to said they had such a hard time, you know, communicating about what they might want to do. And part of it is, you know, they have a hard time defining it.

LUDDEN: All right. Let me just say that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Dorian, do you have some advice there for Lou?

MINTZER: I think sometimes - I mean, some - I agree with Kathleen that it sometimes takes some time, but what I often find helpful is think about what kind of things you liked doing when you were younger. You know, what were some things that maybe you had to put on the back burner because you were so busy working and, you know, making a living and maybe, you know, raising kids and, you know, all of the things that go with, you know, kind of the second part of life where we're growing and achieving and succeeding and, you know, all of those things.

And think about if there were any hobbies or interests that you had. Or another way, if actually there aren't any, although, I think most people end up saying, you know, back when I was 6 years old, you know, I sort of liked thinking about learning, you know, about marine biology or, you know, learning about, you know, lizards and turtles and things like that.

Or I really liked music, but I didn't have time. Or I thought maybe I'd like art, or I, you know, I kind of want to maybe even just expand a little and think about seeing things in a different way and maybe, you know, going to adult education programs or lifelong learning programs and learning about photography...

LUDDEN: All right.

MINTZER: ...or learning about writing, things like that.

LUDDEN: Lou, is that sparking any ideas? Oh, we've lost Lou. All right.

MINTZER: Oh, sorry about that.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, thanks so much there. We've got an email here from Terry(ph) in Oakland, California, who offers some advice. She's been married 40-plus years. She says she has a list for her husband called retirement requirement. It includes the following. You have to have some friends of your own, not our couple friends. You have to have an interest other than golf or sports, or learn something new that challenges your mind and makes you a more interesting person. You have to bring something interesting to the table every night. No eating dinner in front of the television. We should each have some time in the house alone to ourselves each week. And she adds that she does not do windows or lunch.


LUDDEN: She thought a lot about this.

MINTZER: She sure has.

LUDDEN: Kathleen Hughes, did your reporting lead you to think about your own retirement any differently?

HUGHES: Well, it's funny you should ask that. I got about halfway through the story, and I was walking down the street with my husband, it occurred to me that I had not talked to him about this. I am 56 and he's 59, and we both - you know, we're about to be empty-nesters. And he - and I think we're kind of typical in that we keep sort of not really focusing on it, although he is a cardiac surgeon who is doing work on the robot. So instead of standing up all day, he's now sitting down all day.


LUDDEN: He needs to retire and (unintelligible).

HUGHES: And he was pointing out that robotic cardiac surgery is less physically taxing. So he would like to work as long as he can. And, you know, he has a long time to go. He's enjoying it a lot. I'm - I was a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal for a long time and wanted to be a foreign correspondent. So I'm thinking, oh, you know, as an empty nester, I could suddenly travel. And he doesn't want to travel.

So what we're really going to have is the where issue. You know, I would like to travel and write, and he has said he would just like to be in - you know, to keep working for a long time, and then eventually be in New York and be able to walk to the library. So we have very different views.

LUDDEN: Hmm. Dorian Mintzer, just a few seconds left, any last words of wisdom?

MINTZER: I think communicate and think about what's important to you. Make a space to listen and really try to understand what's important to your partner. If you get stuck in positions, that's not going to get you anywhere. What I think becomes important is to try to communicate so that you can shift from sort of the win-lose, to more of a win-win, where some - sometimes it's my way, sometimes yours.

I do believe that the book that I co-wrote, many people have said that, actually, reading it and working on it with their partner has been very helpful for them because there are exercises and questions. And, you know, many of you who called in, you know, you may find that helpful, talking with friends, you know, just starting conversations, asking questions of each other.

LUDDEN: All right. We will try to do that now. Dorian Mintzer, psychologist and retirement coach, co-author of "The Couple's Retirement Puzzle," thank you so much.

MINTZER: Thank you very much for having me here.

LUDDEN: And Kathleen Hughes, freelance writer, her article, "He Wants To Retire But She Doesn't" - thank you so much.

HUGHES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.