Work, Purpose and Retirement
I work with an extremely diverse group of clients. Not only do I have the benefit of working with individuals, businesses and groups, my individual clients range from 17 to 70 years old and include women, men and a surprising diversity of economic and racial backgrounds. As a student of human beings and their behavior this gives me a lot of joy, as I get to learn about the things that influence their thoughts and decisions about work, as well as the things that determine exactly what will lead to a good work-fit for each person.
Recently I’ve been working with Thomas, a 67-year old man who spent the majority of his life in management for a large restaurant chain and has most recently been involved in commercial real estate. As he closes in on his targeted retirement age he’s spending lots of time thinking about how he wants his retirement to look. Specifically, he’s wondering what he’d like to do and how much time he wants to spend doing it in any given day.
Thomas isn’t alone in pushing back on his retirement from full time work. In a recent study by human resources consulting firm Willis Towers Watson, about 25% of American workers said they expect to retire at age 70 or later. The reasons for doing this are varied, but it’s long been known that people who retire later in life actually live longer, more productive lives. I remember conversations with my grandfather where he lamented the deaths of close friends within a year of their retirement. Outside of the possible health and lifestyle factors that are connected to a quick post-retirement death, having a sense of purpose and value play a significant role in the quality and length of a post-retirement life.
So, like many things in our society, people are starting to challenge and redefine what a retirement chapter in life can look like. Thomas is no exception. Although he’s certain that he doesn’t want to work the number of hours he has up to this point and he’d like to have less pressure to meet deadlines or quotas in his work, because he’s used to the pattern of his 45-year work life he isn’t clear about the alternatives. So, our work together isn’t simply focused on the types of jobs and work environments that will fit him, it’s also about the day-to-day and season-to-season living schedule he’d like to have.
One day, as we were trying to nail down a few specifics about what he wants that schedule to be, we happened to run into my friend Lamar. Lamar is 83 and we initially met through a mutual friendship then, subsequently, saw each other at my daughter’s soccer games where he served as a referee for the local youth soccer association. At 83 you might imagine Lamar spending most of his time fishing, golfing, gardening or any of the activities we associate with the sedate life of an octogenarian. Instead, he explained to both of us that he worked the usual 5 days a week we all experience.
The differences he’d built into his work as a retiree were mostly related to time. For example, as an active person Lamar had built sports and exercise into life decades before, and though age had forced him to leave his beloved tennis and refereeing habits (the man used to play doubles 4 days a week), he still made a point of being active. So, each morning he begins his day by commuting to a local city park and walking the full 2 ½ miles of the path that surrounds the property. Upon his return home he showers, shaves and begins his workday by 10 that morning pursuing sales leads, making cold calls and setting up appointments with prospective clients. He told us he usually worked until lunchtime, ate his lunch then retired to his bedroom for the nap he’d need to make it through the afternoon. Afterward he would have his appointments, usually at restaurants and coffee shops and finish his work day at approximately 5 o’clock that evening. While he used to sell investments and retirement plans, Lamar had decided he didn’t care for the relative headache of SEC regulations and compliance audits, so he’d shifted his focus to the business and commercial insurance sales aspect of his company. These allowed him to continue the relationally driven parts of his work that he finds most fulfilling – the things that allow him to take care of people and their needs.
After our conversation with Lamar ended I asked Thomas what he thought about Lamar’s approach to retirement. “I didn’t know such a thing was even possible”, he replied. “This opens a world of possibilities I hadn’t really considered’, Thomas continued, “I thought it was one or the other, work or retirement.” Since that day our work together has centered around building the structure for Thomas’ retirement; thinking about the activities and time parameters he wants to comprise his semi-retired life. He’s excited about getting to design a retirement that uniquely suits his desire for a purposeful and fulfilling retirement.
But what if you’re not Thomas’ age and can’t even imagine what retirement would look like? The principles involved in planning his “next chapter” are applicable to each of us. We live in a time where conventional structures of work – going to a work place, doing certain tasks, and repeating these the next workday – are incredibly fluid. If anything, increasing opportunities to work remotely, the fast pace of economic changes, and even our ability to reinvent our work-selves and the fields we work in have made career decisions more complex than they’ve ever been.
It’s a great time to change the question we all heard as children, “What do you want to do when you grow up”, to the more substantial, “Who do you want to be?” Because work isn’t simply about taking care of basic needs (though these are important), it’s also about who you want to be in the world. And that’s an important question to answer at any age.