One woman stopped working last September. The full-time job had been sapping her energy, she said, “sucking the life out of me.”

Flash forward five months. Turns out long days of leisure aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

“The lack of structure is driving me crazy,” she said. “I haven’t found a meaningful way of spending my time.”

Another woman, recently retired after three decades in academia, was similarly stymied.

“So much of our identity, structure and momentum comes from an organizational or institutional situation — and I don’t have that any more,” she said. “That’s the freedom. But it can be a terrifying freedom.”

There were sympathetic nods around the table. About 10 people in their 50s and 60s were at the informal, drop-in, combination coffee klatch-support group. It’s one of the twice-monthly Saturday Shift-In sessions organized by Shift, a Twin Cities organization that provides support, education, workshops and other resources for people going through midlife transitions.

“There’s a really strong, bright, creative energy that I think is bubbling up,” Catherine Mullinax-Jones, the group’s facilitator, said later. People who have attended the group “still have things they’re thinking about doing. I also hear a lot of people going, ‘I’ve always wanted to …’ whatever it is.”

Some in the group were recently retired, others had been laid off. But they were facing similar issues, asking similar questions. How do you channel that creative energy? How do you execute an idea for a whole new enterprise? Are opportunities wide open, or would people in their 50s and 60s have a tough time breaking in?

Stages of retirement

We’re undergoing yet another big cultural change, and for once it’s not brought on by the Internet.

Instead, it’s about the dramatic increase in life expectancy, colliding with financial insecurity among people reaching traditional retirement age.

According to some estimates, two-thirds of people who have ever lived past age 65 are alive today. And today’s 65-year-old can expect to live approximately 20 more years — that’s up at least 5 years since Social Security began in 1930s, when 65 seemed a good retirement age.

These historically unprecedented life spans are leaving people with a lot of time on their hands, more than many care to fill with golf and gardening and cruises — the sorts of leisure activities that traditionally have enticed retirees.

“Retirement can have different stages you go through,” said Kenneth S. Shultz, a psychologist at California State University, San Bernardino, who has studied the psychology of retirement. “The first year or so is the honeymoon stage; everything’s great, you get to get to sleep in, it’s like a vacation. Then reality starts to set in. ‘Am I really going to do this for 20 years?’”

In a study Shultz co-authored, people who continued working in some capacity after retirement age were less prone to health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, stroke and arthritis, compared to those who stopped working entirely. They also exhibited better mental health and less decline in their ability to do everyday activities.

Meanwhile, many people in their 50s and 60s are less financially secure than people in their parents’ generation. The percentage of workers who receive pensions from their employers has fallen by half since the early 1990s. Individuals are now responsible for saving their own retirement income — a difficult undertaking under the best of conditions. The Great Recession made everything worse: nest eggs took a hit when stocks fell, unemployment threw older workers out of jobs before they were ready to retire, houses plunged in value.

So today’s would-be retirees are people who want to work for the sake of their mental well-being, and people who want to work for the sake of their bank accounts — and, of course, the groups overlap.

The result is that even the definition of “retirement” is changing dramatically, often to include something between full-on “work” and full-on “retirement.” Going by names like “unretirement,” “encore career,” “bridge employment” or “second act,” this retirement might mean anything from phasing gradually out of a job to staying on as a consultant to entering an entirely new field to starting a business. Some people undertake big creative, athletic, service or travel projects they’ve always dreamed about doing.

More than a paycheck

The question is whether retirees will find opportunities to use their skills and interests constructively. If entering a new field requires further education, for example, older people may wonder whether the investment will lead to a job at their age.

Economic recovery is underway, but older workers still have a tough time in the job market, Schulz said. That could change as retiring baby boomers leave more openings than there are younger workers to fill them. Certain fields — the health care and energy industries, for example — are already starting to feel the brain drain, Shultz said.

“I think it’s totally a supply and demand issue,” he said.

St. Paul career coach Kate Schaefers ( has noticed more clients preparing to retire by scoping out employment opportunities before they leave their jobs. In the past, retirees have been counseled to take a year or two off before deciding how they want to spend the rest of their lives. Now, before they even put in notice, they’re studying job markets, networking, rebranding themselves, polishing their LinkedIn profiles.

That caution is not entirely financial, Schaefers said.

“Work is so much more than a paycheck — it’s who we are,” she said. “It provides our accomplishments, projects, recognition, social interactions, a sense that we have something of value to contribute. When people think about leaving, assuming they enjoyed parts of their work, that’s going to be a big loss.”