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Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love
By MARY LLOYD
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Out the Door and Over the Cliff
The first time I saw the Grand Canyon, one of the things that intrigued me was whether anyone had ever gone over the edge before they realized it was there. You can't see it until you are on top of it if you are coming out of the pine forest. On horseback and going fast, a cowboy or desperado might have found himself in free fall before he knew what was happening.
Retirement is a lot like that. For the most part, we come roaring up to it at top career speed and pitch headlong into a world much different than the one we were in three seconds ago without realizing the magnitude of the change.
It's not just about having enough money. We plan weeklong vacations with more diligence than the two, three, or even four decades we will live after we leave the workforce. This is understandable. Our communal vision of "retirement" is being able to do what we want when we want and nothing else. Planning implies structure and structure is the last thing we want when we walk out that workplace door for the last time.
The end of mindless meetings, stuck-in-traffic commuting, irritating interference from the office nemesis, and other such negatives is the primary focus. No more neckties-or pantyhose. No more monthly progress notes or grading papers. No more having to accept someone else's right to decide how you're going to spend huge chunks of your time. And, of course, no more stress. Just hour after lovely hour of doing whatever you want.
Or so the fantasy goes. It's the antithesis of planning.
The idea that you work until you are 62 or 67 (or whenever your birth year establishes you as "eligible" with the Social Security Administration) and then just stop and go off and play is our current Big Lie as a society. It's not what's happening or, more importantly, what needs to happen for everyone's good. True, some are voluntarily working longer before ever taking retirement. But nearly a quarter of the workers who say they are "retired" still work either full or part time. According to a study done by Merrill Lynch's retirement group, two thirds of Americans claim they will do some kind of work for pay in retirement.
At the same time, ageism is real and continues to be pervasive, according to Dr. Robert Butler, of the Longevity Center in New York, who's been studying it since 1968. Determining the work you want to do for pay after retirement and finding it will involve an entirely different strategy and process than we used out of high school or even in the downturns of the last few decades. But work we must. Work is about more than money and we need it in some form to thrive. As a nation, we are just now starting to realize this.
DO I HAVE TO?
More and more, those starting to think about retirement are asking if it's even what they really want. Usually, there's something that makes continuing in the current work situation unappealing. Office politics. The commute. A desire to live somewhere else. But there are also things about the life of ease suggested as "retirement" that are worrisome. Just how good can you get at "doing nothing?" And how good do you want to be?
Is the next step simply not working? Or do you want to redesign your life so it contains everything you want in the proportions you prefer personally? Are you looking for a rocking chair or a launching pad? A nap or an adventure?
In a recent article, Rosabeth Moss Kanter-Harvard management professor and corporate guru-noted that those now on the brink of retiring are not likely to make this transition quietly as a group. "Having been told from birth about their own significance [thanks in a large part to the advice of Dr. Benjamin Spock], they aren't going to feel less significant simply because they've hit a career ceiling called retirement age." She cites research done by Met Life and Civic Ventures where the majority of the Americans between 50 and 70 who were asked said they wanted to benefit their communities in some way with what they do with their time and/or for a living at this point in their lives. This is only one of the differences between our venerated image of "the golden years" and the reality of what they will be like once the baby boom steps into them.
"Retirement" is the wrong word altogether. "Retire" per good old Webster's is "to withdraw from action or danger: RETREAT; to move back: RECEDE; to withdraw from circulation or the market: RECALL." Why would anybody want to do that at the top of their game?" Why would anyone want to do that ever unless they were sick, tired, or both?
Good question. But this is a new paradigm, and the answer is still in the works. For the time being, those of us asking are going to have to figure it out for ourselves. And since, by this point in our lives, we are all incredibly unique, the answers aren't going to be the same for all of us. That will be true even when the resources and roadmaps needed to do this smoothly are in place-which they aren't yet.
These answers are probably not going to be easy to figure out for you specifically either. Why should they be? You might be looking at as much as 40 or 50 percent of your total life span in what remains. What do you want to do with all that? What is important to get done? And how do you want to go about it? How do you LIKE to do things?
These are the more important questions about retirement. The point at which you are well enough off to give up a regular job and rely on the sources of income you've secured that don't require your hours and days is not really "retirement." It's just another graduation-like high school and college. Congratulations! You have met all the requirements to be allowed to move on to the next level of life. Like all graduations, this involves a commencement. A beginning.
We are not looking at "old age" when we turn 60. If Hugh Hefner is right, "80 is the new 40." (And yes, he is still living like he's 40 and the king of Playboy, from the sound of it.) In her book, Don't Stop the Career Clock, Helen Harkness suggests that the point at which we are usually looking at retirement options is actually "the second midlife." "Retiring" provides the chance to exit the current work situation gracefully-usually with at least a partial financial safety net-and begin again, reconnecting with "calling" as the compass for charting a new course. She refers to this transition to more meaningful work as "the capstone career."
I believe it goes farther than that. For many of us, this phase of our lives will involve more than one "career" and more than one direction, perhaps even simultaneously. These are the best years, characterized by action, direction, and passion. And a big dose of flexibility. It is the time of our lives where what we do next can make a profound positive difference if we so choose and we have the energy, stamina, and focus to make that happen. It is also the time of our lives where we owe it to society to model balance in how we go about it. The years are the best because we do good things for others, but they are also the best because we have designed a quality lifestyle for ourselves. We do what we want, but that includes doing good.
For many, that "good" is likely to be on a paid basis. People who get paid to do things tend to have more clout and more credibility than those acting as volunteers. "Work" also provides a better framework for focus and goal setting. But it won't look like the work we are leaving.
We will not do 60-hour workweeks on a regular basis, but we may push that hard for a few days to get a specific project through a critical phase. Then we'll take a month off to hike at Mount Rainier or sail the Sea of Cortez or help a niece who lives 2000 miles away deal with newborn twins. We'll focus our experience and well-honed management and leadership talents on whatever project we've agreed to get done. But we will also explore the wonders of Egypt or take a class in making art glass. This is the time to create beautiful lives. Meaningful lives in terms of our own uniqueness. Lives that give those still trudging along in standard career mode inspiration to keep going. It is not about giving up work. It's about working at what we want, at what we think is important and therefore worth doing. It is also about shaping the work we choose so it doesn't exclude the other things we want in our lives.
Not every one will want this choice. Some people really are tired and don't want to have to worry about anything-at least for a while. Some people will retire and won't decide they need more meaning in their lives until several years or even decades after they leave the workforce. The beauty of this new dawn is that it's not a "one size must fit all" situation. It's not even a "one size fits the same person forever" situation. If you have the money to lie on the beach year round and that's what you want to do, it's your call. Nobody is going to tell you to go back to work. If you want to lie on the beach this year and get involved in making an inner city youth program financially stable next year, it's still your call.
Take heart if you have the chance to retire and are hesitating. There is so much left. So much to explore. So much to learn. So much to become part of and make happen. The stereotype suggests there is nothing out there but cruise tours and golf. But it's really a matter of personal choice. The key is figuring out what the best version of this time in your life looks like for you. What excites you? What brings you satisfaction? How do you like to learn things? What do you want to learn? It's time to roll up your sleeves. As Dr. Seuess advises, "You're off to Great Places. Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So ... get on your way!"
There is, however, a caveat. The model is still under construction. Many of the resources we need to figure it out don't exist. Yet. Many of the tasks that we could do well and to society's benefit haven't been defined. Yet. The landmarks are still in the mist. We will have to explore them individually and up close for a while before they become part of a readily available map. Even this is fitting. The folks preparing to start this adventure are the "leading edge boomers"-those who grew up in the 1960s. The folks who brought you-for better and/or worse-Vietnam War protests, civil rights marches, and free love. A group Kanter describes as naturally feeling like world changers. Only this time around, they are teetering on the brink of wisdom. "Me" is less of an issue now. "Us" is in.
Do I Have Enough Credits?
HARD FACTS DEAL BREAKERS
"Giving up work," as a British friend describes it, is a uniquely personal decision. It is also a uniquely complex one. The ramifications affect every single area of your life-from the obvious ones like finances to the less apparent ones like health and relationships.
A recent article in US News & World Report noted that in terms of cold cash, working longer is a financial hat trick. You have more years in which to save for retirement. You have fewer years where you will have to live off your savings. And you will be able to draw a larger payment from Social Security once you enroll. As a bonus, you can also keep your healthcare coverage longer. But at some point, it's time to stop.
Sometimes, this moment is defined by external forces. Per AARP, 40 percent of us will retire unexpectedly, either because of health problems or company changes. You might be caught in a downsizing or a "realignment of business." You might be in the perfect position to sell the business you've built at a handsome price if you act immediately. You might be forced to retire because you've reached a mandatory age, as airline pilots are. External forces make the initial decision easier-often it's not even yours. But the work to get it right once you go over the cliff is the same.
But what if this is your decision? No one is pushing you with a RIF or a buy-out or a management shake-up. You're just starting to feel "It's time for something else." How do you decide if you are ready and if you really want to?
The first issue, is, of course, the economics. Do you have enough money? There are enough books, seminars, and consultants to work through this question 12 times over. So we will not dwell on it here. But it is the initial deal breaker. You have to have enough to live on. If you are mortgaged to the hilt, have credit card debt that will take years to pay off even at your current income level, and no plan for a "retirement" career in place, you need to keep doing what you're doing. Or else find other, more satisfying work you can continue to do on a fulltime basis.
If you do have enough money, the question becomes do you WANT to retire?
The first branch on this part of the decision tree is do you like what you are doing? Does it still excite you? Is it an area that you could work in until the very last day of your life and feel good that it was how you spent all your time? If the answer is no and you know you can retire if you want to, maybe it's time to graduate to something that's more fun, more interesting, and leaves you more on fire at the end of the day.
If the answer is yes, then on to the next question. Is the outfit you are currently working for the place to do this work? Is it supportive? Do they appreciate what you can do and give you the chance to do it well? Do you feel like you are working to your full potential in the assignments you're given? If the answer is no, then it may still be time to retire, but to reinvent yourself in the same field in a way that gives you more room to grow.
The next question considers the context you're working in. Are the company you're working for and the work you are doing for it stable? Is this job going to be around indefinitely? For example, the options markets are moving toward electronic trading. If you make your living in open outcry activities in a trading pit, don't bank on having the same job for another 15 years.
If you love what you do and who you do it for and the situation is not going to change anytime soon, you don't need retirement, you need to play the lottery. The vast majority of us are not that lucky.
There are other initial deal breakers. For example, legal considerations. You could be under a contract that requires you to finish out or face a stiff penalty. There could be family issues. Do you need the health insurance not to change right now because of a family member's situation? My lacrosse-playing son required knee surgery when I was making my decision. As long as I stayed with the company, he was fully covered for the procedure. Delaying my departure until he could have the knee repaired made perfect sense.
"TOUCHY FEELY" FACTORS
Factual considerations tend to focus on why NOT to retire. Can't afford it. Can't get the company scholarship for my daughter if I do, etc. The next set of questions deals with why you DO want to retire. They are lifestyle questions. The work pace and stress level in our employment culture can be obscene or downright lethal. If the only thing you are doing is your job because that's all you have the time and energy for, it's time to leave if it's feasible for you to retire. (Unless, of course, you love your work so much that it's all you want to do.)
Does what you are doing now give you room to do all the other things that are important to you? Are the hours reasonable enough to let you maintain your physical health, family ties, and personal social contacts? Do you travel about as much as you'd like for the job and for fun? If not, this is the time of life where you can create your own version of a job/life mix.
Where are you getting your emotional support? Where are you getting your sense of community and belonging? Where are you getting your creative satisfaction? What level of activity do you need to feel satisfied? How much "new" do you need in your life?
This is where things can melt down quickly. Most of us have functioned in the realm of facts and quantifiable aspects in what we do for a living. The idea of being able to describe what you like, want, and need seems counterintuitive. If I like it, I don't need to even think about it-it's just there. Not exactly.
In the movie The Runaway Bride Richard Gere accuses Julia Roberts of knowing so little about herself that she can't even tell him how she likes her eggs cooked for breakfast. In a later scene, she tastes eggs, cooked all different ways, and actually decides. She'd been liking her eggs the way whoever she was with liked them for her entire adult life. We all do that-perhaps not with breakfast, but with a whole lot of more essential stuff. I played golf-or tried hard to learn-for 10 years. I abhor activities with lots of rules. What was I thinking? I have lived and floated around on cruise ships 96 days of my life. It took me until the 93rd of those days to accept that I get seasick on cruises and the version I get lasts about a month, whether I remain on a ship or not.
Excerpted from SUPERCHARGED RETIREMENT by MARY LLOYD Copyright © 2009 by Mary Lloyd. Excerpted by permission.
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