For the first few months after Jon Helmuth retired three years ago, he slept late, acquired a tan and showered at odd times. Actually, some days he didn’t bother to shower at all.
After that pleasantly aimless interval, Mr. Helmuth, a divorced father of four who is now 45, began organizing his five-bedroom house in the woods of Vandalia, Mich., a village near the Indiana border. But once he alphabetized the spice rack and finished making an easy chair out of castoff designer jeans, “I started running out of things to do,” he said.
Those who recall their own freshman year of retirement will, perhaps, nod knowingly and sympathetically. Been there, done that.
But the situation is different when you retire very early — too early even to get your first membership solicitation from AARP. While early retirement and a life of leisure may sound like the stuff of daydreams, the reality can be jarring for people who are used to being busy — and important. There can be boredom, a sense of isolation and a lot of awkward social questions.
Mr. Helmuth, for instance, was only 42 when he sold his stake in Genesis Products, an Elkhart, Ind.-based manufacturer of wood and laminate doors, furniture and other components that he helped found in 2002. “I used to be kind of a big deal, and now I’m not,” Mr. Helmuth said, adding that he left with around $5 million.
“I don’t need to work again as long as I’m not incredibly stupid,” he said.
Then again, the people who might either want to help him spend his money or resent his good fortune tend to be busy — with jobs. “I feel like all my buddies are at school and I’m at home with mono,” he said. “And there are no retirement homes for 45-year-olds.”
Early retirees are an anomaly, said Sara E. Rix, a former senior strategic adviser for AARP who is now a consultant to nonprofits. “The trend is in the other direction,” she added.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the work force participation rate for people in the 65-to-69 age range increased to 32.1 percent in 2015, from 18.4 percent in 1985.
Those who choose to clock out a good 10, 20 or 25 years ahead of schedule rarely have financial worries — otherwise, presumably, they would still be on the payroll. They have lived within their means and saved enough to carry them through, or, like Mr. Helmuth, they have cashed out of a business. Maybe they have come into an inheritance or have a spouse who is still bringing home a paycheck.
But they do have other concerns: What’s the best response to strangers at parties who ask, “So what do you do?” How do they handle peers’ curiosity (can you really afford to do this at your age?) and envy (so you really CAN afford to do this!)? What kind of message are they sending their children?
For Donna Buxton, who had a very demanding job in computer operations in the health care industry until her retirement at 46, the big issue was guilt. Never mind that her husband, Michael, who at the time was the president of a forging company, was doing well enough on his own to support the family — the couple has one daughter — and was encouraging her to walk away.
“I had a very strong work ethic, and I felt I should be contributing to the household in a financial way,” said Ms. Buxton, now 55, who lives in Villa Park, Calif. “But my husband kept repeating to me that he didn’t want me to work for the sake of working — he wanted me to work only if I were passionate about it.”
Her passion had been dampened by the round-the-clock nature of her job.
“The stress level was so high, and it was taking such a huge toll on the family, that we decided it wasn’t worth it anymore,” Ms. Buxton said.
Since retiring, she has become involved in civic affairs and joined a golf group and a health club. She has had some job offers, “but,” she said, “I was so burned out I turned them down.”
Stress reduction was also what Al Villeta was after when he retired last year, at 52, from his job as a UPS driver and porter in Forest Hills, Queens.
“I loved it,” he said, “but it was physically demanding, and toward the end it was getting harder and harder to work with the public. Walking away was the happiest day of my life.”
The most he ever made in a year, Mr. Villeta said, was $80,000; on average it was $60,000 to $65,000. But his family lived frugally, and he and his wife (who is still working as a department head at a long-term health care facility) had invested in real estate, which provides a steady and predictable income stream.
“Sometimes I feel awkward saying ‘I’m retired’ because people will say, ‘You look so young to be retired,’” said Mr. Villeta, who has two adult children. “Or they’re thinking, ‘How much could a UPS driver make that he could have enough to retire?’”
With his contemporaries still in the work force, Mr. Villeta now pals around with men 30 years his senior. “I’ve petitioned my wife to give up her job, but she feels very connected to the people she works with,” he said. “Sometimes I feel lonely during the day, so I got a dog, which was very helpful. He keeps me company and gets me out of the house a little bit.”
For some young retirees, family issues drive the decision to exit the work force. When Mr. Helmuth’s marriage broke up in 2012, “I felt I needed some resetting,” he recalled.
“I wasn’t feeling great about my work-life balance,” he added. “My business partner wanted to double down and do a lot of additional expansion, and I was like, ‘Hey, go for it.’ We separated on good terms.”
Matters can be particularly fraught for those young retirees who worked in a highly successful family business that was sold in advance of the founder’s death.
“I have 35- and 40-year-old clients who are inheriting great sums of money, and they’re not going to be sending out their résumés again,” said Ricardo J. Armijo, a senior vice president and portfolio manager in the Birmingham, Mich., office of UBS. “A lot of them take up biking or playing golf and tennis because their contemporaries are working during the day.”
This type of schedule, Mr. Armijo said, can lead them to “questions like, ‘How do I set a good example for my children?’ and ‘Am I being a productive?’ because they come from families of go-getters.”
According to Mr. Armijo, these young retirees tend to take extra care with their investments.
“They don’t make decisions on the spot, as perhaps they did before,” when they still were working and had income from their jobs, he said.
If they had a bad streak in the market, they could recoup. “But now their attitude is, ‘This money is it,’” Mr. Armijo continued. “They don’t want to be known to future generations as the ancestor who lost the family fortune.”
There is an adjustment period to this new reality. “But after a few years,” Mr. Armijo said, “they get used to their new situation in life, and the following years are very fulfilling.”
That’s a common theme. “I never wanted to go back to work,” said Sue Tafler, 69, of Lexington, Mass., who was 51 when she retired from Prentice-Hall as a textbook editor and began volunteering at her synagogue instead. But not everyone is so emphatic, she acknowledged: “I have friends who’ve retired and take part-time jobs — they can’t let go.”
Retiring happily is one thing, of course, and announcing it loudly and proudly is quite another. “It took four or five years before I could say I was retired,” Ms. Buxton said. “I would just say, ‘I’m not working right now.’”
Mr. Helmuth also sees a certain stigma in the word. “People hear ‘retirement’ and think you play a lot of golf and have a lot of dumb hobbies,” he said.
On the contrary, he has begun producing movies, including the 2015 documentary “The Flying Dutchmen,” an account of his cross-country motorcycle trip with a friend who has a degenerative eye disease.
“Retirement started out as a vacation,” Mr. Helmuth said, “and now it’s become a huge life journey.”