Over the last few years, my business has been helping a lot of people who are coming up to ‘retirement’ – I use the word retirement cautiously, because the last thing they actually want to do is retire.
I have seen definite themes coming through and want to share them here – if you are still working out what you want to do and how you will do it, I hope it might help to know you are not alone and you can make it work.
Of course, everyone is different – and some will just want to spend time with their grandkids. But this is a summary of the stages that most people seem to go through when leaving a full-time career and planning for their second act, unretirement or ‘encore career’.
One woman told me, “It’s the terror of 365 days – how do you fill them? I want to learn golf, go walking and keep fit, but what do you do for the rest of the time?” Now this extraordinary woman has a fantastic network of friends, a holiday home in the Mediterranean and is always sociable. What she really meant was – where is the purpose in this life of unretirement?
She mentioned friends who were volunteering in charity shops, but to her, it didn’t sound fulfilling. She couldn’t work out what you do after ‘work’.
Of the dozens of people I have helped, nearly all of them had a vague idea of building a portfolio of paid non-executive director positions somewhere in their minds. In fact, that is where our conversations usually start, because they suddenly realise they need help in writing a strong non-executive director LinkedIn profile.
Initially, they are full of enthusiasm for finding a non-executive director role, and then gradually as weeks and months go by without success, they realise how hard it is. And they have no back-up plan. What else are they going to do?
These days people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s are still at the pinnacle of their working lives. They have a huge amount of experience.
One minute they are chief executive, director or partner; highly paid for their skills and rated by peers. And then… what? As one man said to me, ‘Surely someone wants my skills?’ Of course, the answer is that there are plenty of people who want your skills – charities, communities, children from disadvantaged homes, business school students – but this may look very different from what you had in mind for this unretirement stage and you have to work at offering your skills.
Anger, defensiveness, cynicism – these are natural reactions to major change – which Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross highlighted in her grief curve and is now recognised as applying to any major change in our lives.
So, depression is an almost inevitable part of this change process. For some it will be minimal, for others a major issue and last some time.
I remember my father retiring – he had been an Air Force test pilot and then went on to piloting hovercraft. Looking back, I think he was quite depressed for some two or three years following his retirement – the contrast in his life from action man to 24/7 leisure was too much.
For successful people, a major part of their identity is often wrapped up in their work. Without it, who are they? This can be an issue for their family as well. A friend of mine, who had been managing partner of a prestigious London law firm, said that when he retired his wife said, “Gosh, I used to like you coming back being important – now you are just hanging around. We’ve got another 20 years at least – are we just going to travel and see the world? Or what?”
Carolyn Hax eloquently writes in the Washington Post about the challenge of being honest if you don’t have a plan in retirement. This was in answer to a reader question, “Everywhere I go, whether meeting with old colleagues or strangers, I get the same question: ‘So what are you doing in your retirement?’ I wish I could answer honestly: ‘I haven’t settled in yet, and I’m scared.’ But of course I can’t say that.”
The thing that has surprised me above all in the last few years is that most people have actually got an idea they want to follow, but many don’t have the confidence to do it.
When they have been talking to me about their fears, their ideas, their plans – nearly always they start talking about one thing which makes them light up. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to spot what they really want to do. When I ask ‘what’s stopping you?’– the answer is always similar. I’m not sure, is it ridiculous, where do I start?
The bit that the Kübler-Ross curve doesn’t cover is that change affects confidence. I have struggled to believe how men and women can be running the country one minute (well, nearly) and the next, they are not sure what to do next in their own life. But it happens. Time and time again. And without confidence, little will happen.
The flip side of losing confidence with this peer group is that it can take very little for someone to get their confidence back. Honestly, sometimes this can be done in minutes!
And it makes sense – if you reassure them that their idea makes sense, start discussing a plan to test it out and make it happen. Then you are back on home territory for them. These people are used to making decisions, making things happen – they just need a bit of reassurance and support and often that is it. They are off.
Recently I started digging a bit more into why people haven’t gone ahead with their ideas. They all had good networks – a trusted spouse, successful friends, supportive family. I struggled to understand why they weren’t discussing their future with these people.
I have had a mix of replies, but typically these have been ‘These people are too close to me’, ‘I don’t want to talk about what I am going through with my family and friends’ or ‘I don’t want to change the basis of our friendship/relationship’.
And this has confirmed much of the advice out there for people retiring. You need new networks. You can’t rely on your old work colleagues – they are still steeped in their work. Family and friends are probably too close for much of this. You want people who can be supportive but objective and independent. And what has become clear is that even the most successful people need new buddies to help make their plans work.
One client refers to me as her ‘terrier’. She said, “When you don’t have to get up every morning to go to work and pay the mortgage, it is very easy to let time slip. I want you to help me refine my plans and make them happen.”
This same client also said to me, “You have to remember that retirement or your second career or whatever, is not static. Things change – a grandchild arrives, you want to organise that family reunion, finally you are going to write that book. You have to keep reviewing and changing your plans, just as you would with a full time working career.”
The thing I have loved about helping people in this stage of their lives is that it takes so little to help people find a purpose, start a business, mentor others, support a charity. And to give them a real sense of purpose and satisfaction. Sometimes initial ambitions have to be rethought, definitely new networks need building, but if you have been successful once, almost certainly you can make all this work again.
The answer is probably already in your head, you just need to pull it out, test it and make it happen. And you may need a terrier to help you do that!
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