If you’re not yet in retirement but have it in your sights, what do you think you’ll miss about working?

Okay, okay. The immediate one-word answer that may come to mind is “nothing.”

But ask that question to a few people who are retired already, and chances are that’s not what they will say, if they’re being thoughtful about it.

The lead-up to retirement often is seen as a preparation for getting away—away from the daily commute, away from the inane memos from management, away from the interference of know-little political appointees who come and go, away from having to justify your career in the face of an anti-government mood.

That’s a main reason that so many federal employees know the exact dates they will be first eligible to retire, often starting fairly early in their careers.

But you’re also getting away from a steady paycheck—which your federal annuity will never match, no matter how long you worked—and also away from the other benefits of working.

That was underscored by a study by Merrill Lynch in partnership with Age Wave. In a survey of current retirees, 34 percent said that what they miss most about working are the social connections, more than the 29 percent who pointed to the reduction in income. Another 19 percent said they most missed having purpose and work goals and another 12 percent cited the mental stimulation of working.

Other studies examining the growing trend toward longer working careers similarly have said that while continuing to earn a salary is a factor, people also are motivated by the desire to feel they are making a contribution, to stay in society’s mainstream and to continue to use the skills and knowledge they have built up.

While none of those specifically focused on federal employees, it’s likely that several of those factors apply especially strongly among them. The terms public service, civil service and foreign service all have in common the word “service”—and federal employees, by and large, take it to heart. Losing a sense of purpose is a major loss. If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so common for federal retirees to keep up with the old workplace, that’s why.

The study also cited research into the importance of social connections, finding that people who do not feel lonely are healthier and live longer; that having more and diverse friendships is associated with lower risk of heart disease; that low social interaction is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being an alcoholic, or never exercising, and twice as bad for your health as obesity; and that having stronger social ties is linked to better cognitive health in later life and lower likelihood of developing dementia.

Obviously, work is just one place to have social connections. Friends, family and activities also are sources. But the report warns that it’s not easy to fully replace what you lose when you retire. When asked to list factors that made retirement less enjoyable than they had hoped, 34 percent cited “difficulty finding people to do things with.”

Retirement planning is not just a question of figuring out the point at which you can give up the paycheck. You also will want to plan for how you will replace the sense of purpose and the social connections you’ll be giving up.

 

And that’s not nothing.