When you say the word retirement, many people (especially high achievers) have associations of things like spending your days golfing, being thought of as ‘out to pasture’, the phone no longer ringing or being yesterday’s news. Clearly these are some fairly negative perceptions about how you may be seen by other people and by society, and also how you might feel about yourself.
For CEOs, entrepreneurs and other driven, successful, hard-working and high-achieving business people, a key issue is often a concern about identity and no longer feeling relevant, valued or important. And for someone who’s had such a high powered or high status career, this is often an unappealing or even unpleasant or uncomfortable association. I would even go as far as to say that many of the very successful clients I work with are somewhat allergic to the word or even the concept of ‘being retired’.
A reaction against ‘retirement’
For a lot of CEOs, entrepreneurs or highly successful people, a large part of their identity – even their sense of self worth – comes from their work. To retire would therefore be a drastic change to or loss of this identity. The problem with this, is that the dislike of or even fear of the label or the idea of retirement, and all its perceived negative connotations, can push people to keep doing what they’re doing even when it’s no longer ideal for them or it has significant costs for them.
Many people who are lucky enough to no longer need to work or to work to the extent that they do, often work far harder or for far longer than they need to or that may be right for them, at least in part as a reaction against the idea of being seen as ‘retired’. Of being seen as or feeling no longer relevant or important.
Every day I see my clients working longer or harder than they need to – often in ways that affect their day-to-day happiness, their health, their relationships or even just the amount of time or energy they have for other important parts of their life.
I’ve also worked with many clients who’ve kept working at a punishing level of intensity after having had cancer, a heart attack or other very serious health problems or scares. And these were all people who did not need to work financially (which of course is a necessity for many people in this situation). But deep down, the thought of retiring was clearly more undesirable, unpleasant or even terrifying than a risk to their own life.
So in order for people to truly feel liberated to make choices about how to live and work without feeling under a negative shadow of being ‘retired’ – two things need to happen.
1. Retirement makeover
Firstly, retirement needs to be seen in a radically different way. In my view, it needs a fundamental makeover or a complete reframing. It’s time for it to be reimagined and seen as the positive opportunity and gift that it actually is. What it really needs is some good PR or rebranding!
After all, not having to work used to be seen as the greatest achievement of all. Early retirement being an aspiration – unattainable for most – that only the super successful could aspire to.
I’m a great believer in the power of language, so I feel we may need to start using a different word or concept for retirement to eliminate the negative associations in a world that places such great value on work, achievement and status.
Some people call it the ‘Third Act’, ‘Third Stage’ or ‘Third Life’. Personally, I quite like the phrase ‘Changing Gear’ from the book of this title by Jan Hall and Jon Stokes who talk about moving on from a “full time, full on career”. The idea being that you may be choosing a different type of work or way of working. You might be working less or part time or not doing any paid work at all. You might be giving back in some way or taking on some NEDs or doing some consultancy or mentoring or doing some writing or working on personal projects. Whatever it is, you are changing gear, not stopping. Not hanging up your boots.
The concept of “rewirement” rather than retirement is also an interesting one as it really is an time to look at things differently. To try new things. To flex different muscles. To do things you may not have had time for before. And in doing so it’s an opportunity to change some of your thinking, your perspective and your outlook on your life and how to live it in the best way. Perhaps also changing some of the inner progamming that has probably been driving you and your decisions for a large part of your life.
But this is only possible if we’re comfortable with the story we’re telling ourselves or what we are saying to others about this stage of our life. I’ve worked with many people who felt unable to do what they really want to do until they managed to find the right narrative for themselves. Once they found the words that resonated with them, and that they felt comfortable telling others, this freed them to choose to do whatever they wanted to do.
For example it might be something like “I’m doing some investing”, “I’m involved in a number of business projects I feel strongly about”, “I’m taking time to figure out what I really want to do before jumping into anything” or “I’m working less now so I can travel more”. When you have the right story for yourself, this liberates you to do as much or as little work as you want, while still retaining an identity that you are comfortable with. The important thing though is that it is YOUR narrative – the words and story that feel right to you and not somebody else’s way of describing this phase of your life.
2. Changing our overidentification with work
The other thing that needs to change is our overidentification with work. Of it being the core part of our identity. Our work needs to go back to being what we DO and not who we ARE.
Think of all the roles you play – parent, daughter/son, sibling, friend, cousin, aunt/uncle, grandparent, confidant, football coach, cyclist, music lover, tennis player, guitarist, skier, writer, runner, dog owner, artist, surfer etc.
Think of all your interests and hobbies, what you love doing. And what makes you feel truly happy, alive, energised or like you’re really living your life.
Think about who and what’s important in your life, what gives it meaning.
And think of the characteristics or qualities that describe you – humorous, resilient, adventurous, thoughtful, witty, kind, empathetic, strong, analytical, loyal, creative or a people person.
These are all things that make you you. That are nothing to do with the work you do. This is who you are. And work is only PART of that.
The more grounded we are in this, the easier it is to make choices about our work, our retirement or how we live that are based on what we really want to do and not based on an overdeveloped need for achievement, sense of identity related to work or ego validation. Unfortunately many of us learned at a young age to feel good about ourselves through achievement, and this can very easily become the programme that subconsciously dictates the choices we make in our life without us even realising.
But this CAN be changed.
No matter what age you are, if you’ve reached a stage in your life or will soon be reaching a stage where you no longer have to work full time, this really is a wonderful opportunity and can be a very exciting one. You may no longer need to work in a way or in a type of role you may have needed to in the past for financial reasons or for a sense of achievement. It really is a time of immense opportunity. Of choice. Of growth. Of learning. Of reinventing yourself or your life. Of deciding how you really do want to live and work.
We have different gears for a reason. So why not find the one that’s best one for you at this point in your life!
p.s. And by the way, if you do have a great new name for retirement, please let me know – I’d love to hear!
Mary Boissel says
Great ideas and clearly expressed. We all need to reimagine retirement and come up with better ideas for this ,still fruitful, oeriod
Jill Walker says
Couldn’t agree more Mary. The concept of retirement needs a radical makeover!
Mads Kamp says
Thank you for a great article!!!
The narrative and The overidentification with work – you are right on The money.
I’d be curious to hear your thoughts what needs to – and Can be – done in organisations you advance The thinking (and action) in this area
Jill Walker says
Glad you found it useful Mads. My work these days is all with individuals, and while not easy, there is much that can be done at that level to work on and improve this. For organisations, that’s a bigger and more systemic issue. It needs a societal shift too. Some signs that this may be happening a little as a result of covid. Fingers crossed!