Thinking of Retiring? Not So Fast

My 91-year-old mentor, who is still working, has a great answer when asked about her "secret" to longevity. She says that work is what keeps her alive and going, and that everyone she knows who retired died young, and certainly much younger than her. When faced with mandatory retirement in her 50s she started on a new career which she continues to work at today.

I thought about her while reading Chris Farrell's story, "Get Used to a Working Retirement." This article also made me think of a 92-year-old gentleman I met recently—through his work, I might add—who told me that his secret to longevity is to "always keep learning and share what you know."

This economic crisis is forcing many of us to rethink our career paths and futures. People will need to work longer and make career transitions and shifts. Retirement plans will have to be put on hold and envisioned in a drastically different way. What it doesn't mean, however: feeling that you're stuck doing something you hate for the rest of your life. It means looking outward and inward and rethinking what you thought you knew.

Change Before You Have To There are options. It may be hard to see them now or to be optimistic with all the bad news coming at us daily, but it is possible to forge a richer personal and working life, even in times like these. Whether by choice or not, many of us are being forced to transition our careers, and as with every transition, this involves rethinking your career, assessing your goals, and using this as an opportunity to recalibrate your work/life balance.

As we contemplate longer work lives than previous generations, our self- and occupational identity opens up new hopes and dreams to finally go for that big dream of launching a business or exploring a new avenue in which to focus our skills. Particularly in today's economic climate, many of us are scrapping our retirement plans while dreaming up fresh plans, and turning dashed career plans into a new sense of what could be, instead of what might have been.

Begin with the End in Mind Although I'm nowhere near retirement age, thinking about retirement became a passion of mine very early in my career when I was at my first job as an early childhood teacher. I watched my mentors and colleagues retiring without having done the right kind of planning or thinking, to the point of being in complete denial. Some of them fell apart emotionally while some found themselves not living the life they'd once envisioned. Others became physically ill, falling into emotional distress and depression.

That's when I decided that classic "retirement" might not be the best physical or psychological option for me, and so I began looking at ways that I would do things differently. As with many people today, I planned early on for my own career transitions, maintaining a flexible and open attitude that has led to a varied career which, most gratifying of all, has led me to help others do the same.

Keep Calm and Carry On When it comes to rethinking your career options and long-term plans, my first advice always: Don't panic. Thinking through a couple of areas you might explore and scenarios for how you might get there will get you started. Ask yourself questions and take notes along the way as you do some career, financial, health-related, emotional, and psychological reconnaissance.

As we explore new options, it helps to think about not only what you can do, but what you might want to do. Consider how these choices will affect you and your loved ones. Contemplating change can be scary, so allow for (and expect) some emotional and psychological shifts as you consider how you might reinvent your career.

Conduct a Self-Interview You may perceive yourself and your working life one way today, but that can and will change as you start to tweak your career and retirement plans. Other key questions to consider include: What transitions will you be going through? What kinds of issues might you encounter and how will you handle them? Simply put: How do you get ready externally and internally for the new realities you will be facing?

Think about what information you'll need, and what kind of support systems you'd like to have in place. Be very specific and detailed as you draw up a road map for making changes. It's your life. Don't give it away. There are also practical considerations for revising work and retirement plans, including figuring out a financial plan in sync with the kind of life you want to live moving forward.

The Rocking-Chair Test As for what new areas you might want to focus on, the answer is personal and more complex than one might think. You may need to seek assistance from an outsider who can be objective about your needs and those of your family. In the words of the British singer Joe Jackson, "You can't get what you want 'til you know what you want." After you know what you want, you can start taking the steps to figuring out how you can get it.

Rethinking your working life brings new expectations, needs, lifestyle, and financial changes. It takes hard work and planning, but will pay off. The more prepared you are, the smoother the change and the more successful it is likely to be. As my 90-year-plus career inspirations tell me, take the rocking-chair test—imagine what your 90-year-old self might tell yourself now, looking back at where you are now, and go for it!

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