Anne Tergesen

Recently, I had dinner with a friend I’ve known since we were just months old. We talked a lot about her two young daughters and my three young sons. We talked about how hard it is to balance work and family. And we discussed the challenges of being both employees and employers (to our children’s caregivers). We also talked about why—despite all the hassles—we continue to work.

The most obvious reason is to help pay the bills. But we are both lucky in that if we had no choice but to leave our jobs, our families could get by on the income our husbands’ earn and some belt-tightening. Of course, we both enjoy our jobs and colleagues. But there’s more to it than that. My friend figures a paycheck gives her some leverage in an ongoing debate she and her husband are having about whether to stay in the city or move to the suburbs. Give up that paycheck, she reasons, and she’d lose some control over the purse strings.

My motivations are complicated, as well. There’s some escapism involved—both from the incessant demands of three young children and the sometimes myopic social environment of the community I live in. I also value the intellectual stimulation I get from my work. But, according to an online retirement program I recently completed as part of a work assignment, my personality finds fulfillment more easily in a highly structured environment—ie: a regular job—than in a more fluid, free-form existence.

The program, called My Next Phase, aims to help people approaching retirement identify activities and pursuits that can fulfill them in the same ways their careers do now. When I tried it out while researching a recent article, I was struck by how the results resonated with me. The program’s first step, an online personality test, took my answers to 80 questions on topics ranging from whether I enjoy new challenges to whether I like to work in a place that’s quiet and calm or full of activity. Then, it spat back an assessment of my personality that determined that I am more “practical” than “visionary,” more “empathetic” than “analytic,” more “structured” than “flexible,” and more “cautious” than “optimistic.” All of this was on-target.

Next, it asked me to answer a questionnaire that analyzed what things fulfill me, such as “creative expression” and “independent accomplishment.” I was told that work is my main source of fulfillment in several areas, including “creative expression,” “recognition,” “purpose,” and “social connection.”

How did the program figure this out? One of My Next Phase’s three co-founders, Eric Sundstrom, says the software relies on psychological research that indicates certain things come more easily to some personalities than to others. For example, because a "visionary" thinker is likely to have less trouble finding new creative outlets than a "practical" thinker, the program figures that practical types (like me) depend more on work for creative fulfillment. Bingo.

That’s not to say I couldn’t be happy if I were to decide to stay at home with the kids. But I would probably need to make a conscious effort to replace my job with activities, pursuits, and interests that offer creative outlets and opportunities for recognition—something that’s possible now that all three of my kids are in school for part of the day.

Whether you’re contemplating a real retirement or an extended break to spend more time with the kids, this program might help you clarify exactly what you get from your job—aside from a paycheck, of course. A few caveats: Although My Next Phase defines retirement broadly enough to include leisure, intellectual, spiritual, and work-related pursuits, all of its tests and exercises are written with retirement in mind. Also, it’s not cheap: My Next Phase costs $39.95, $109, or $395, depending on whether you go it alone, register for five phone-in classes, or hire a coach for five sessions. (Another BusinessWeek writer who formally reviewed this program found it most helpful to have assistance.) And it can be somewhat time-consuming: Our editor spent about 12 hours on the program. Although I did only parts of it, what I did produced useful insights into the ways in which my job fulfills me and the ways I might go about finding activities to replace what my job gives me.

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