Globe & Mail, December 07, 2007
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
Recently, I was talking with two women in their early fifties who were feeling similarly insecure at work.
Both were picking up subtle - and not-so-subtle - comments from younger bosses about their age. These comments - ranging from questions about the women's levels of energy and engagement to out-loud concerns about being obstacles in the way of younger workers - got the two thinking about taking early retirement.
But while both might be tempted to leave their senior management jobs in large organizations, one was a lot readier than the other to make the leap.
Through years of speaking at conferences and writing for newsletters, the first had developed a profile as a leader in her industry and built a broad professional network. She also had a lot of friends outside her job, as well as many non-work-related interests, from painting to gardening to volunteering. And she felt that her financial needs had become more modest so she didn't need the big job any more. Rather, she was intrigued by a new way of living that would combine a portfolio of professional gigs and personal interests.
The second woman, in contrast, hadn't developed much of a professional reputation beyond her company; nor had she many friends or interests outside of her job. She still needed a sizable income but had no idea how she'd produce it if she gave up her current employment. Moreover, she couldn't imagine not having a job to go to every day.
Given these differences, it was clear who would be more successful in taking early retirement.
These women aren't the only ones feeling the squeeze. Despite all the talk about skills shortages, a lot of organizations are making the lives of some of their older workers uncomfortable, causing many to consider retirement years before they expected to.
Even those who aren't being pushed out might feel pulled in new directions. Shifting values, priorities and aspirations are all part of normal development at midlife, causing restlessness in older workers. Whether pushed or pulled, you must ask a key question before heading out the exit door: Are you ready to retire?
Here are things to consider before making the early retirement decision. Think of them as a checklist; the more you can tick off, the easier the transition will be.
Reappraise the r-word
Many boomers associate the word retirement with a kind of psychological death, a state of being old, unwanted, disengaged and useless, with too much time on their hands and nothing to do with it.
But there are other ways to look at it. Think of retirement as a fuse being lit rather than extinguished.
To retire is to withdraw from one thing but to re-engage with another. In reality, we constantly retire from endeavours throughout our lives as we shift directions and start new chapters.
Rather than focus on what you are moving from, think about what you are moving to.
Define yourself broadly
When I occasionally bump into one former client, I try to avoid her. Why? Every time I ask how she is, she tells me the same things: about her job's importance, her stock options, her influence on senior management.
How uninteresting to be in your mid fifties and have nothing to talk about besides the size of your job.
At midlife, one should have a sense of self that extends far beyond job and income. Title and organizational affiliations are not what define you as a human. That comes from your personality characteristics, the nature of your involvement with the outside world, and the broad range of roles that you play, from parenting to volunteering to being a friend.
The more widely you think of yourself, the more likely you will be able to make it in the world outside of your job.
Have a new life vision
Before taking the leap, you have to have a concept of where you're going to land, a way of being in a world different than what exists now.
Some people have a very clear plan of what they want to do, and have tested it. Typically, they've come up with a combination of activities that pay, both in money and pleasure. Usually, they are less interested in prestige than in personal satisfaction; often, a component of giving back is central to their vision.
Others haven't gotten this far. But even if they don't have a clear plan, they do have a sense of what they want in their lives that guides them.
To create a vision, consider:
• The activities and projects outside your career that engage you at a deep intellectual or emotional level;
• New arenas in which you might want to test yourself, recreationally, philanthropically or professionally;
• Former interests that you've drifted away from and might want to reconnect with.
Consider how you can take all of these pieces and put them together into a viable plan.
Your vision also should reflect your current values, life circumstances and geographical preferences.
Don't work from old scripts - consider what is important now.
Miserable on the job?
Out of fear or inertia, too many people cling to jobs they have outgrown. But there is nothing more dispiriting than bad work. Its impact spills over into other life domains. In this case, the devil you know may be worse than the one you don't.
If your job is making you miserable, consider whether a paycheque is really worth the price you pay for the hit to your self-esteem.
Comfort with ambiguity
For some people who have spent their entire working lives in organizational settings, being freed of the shackles of schedules can be terrifying. Others, however, love the thought of a blank canvas of time all their own to fill in.
Comfort with such ambiguity will make it easier to deal with being agenda-free. If having an empty agenda troubles you, that doesn't rule out retirement, but it does mean you should consider what you could do to avoid the panic, and plan now for how you would organize your time, whether scheduling get-togethers with people in your network or developing a new business proposal.
Remember, you are free to design and organize your days. You can create new routines and rhythms to give your day a new arc.
Many people cling to a job because they overestimate their financial requirements, expecting that they'll have to keep earning the same monthly paycheque.
But at this stage of life, financial needs are often not the same. Rather than acquiring more stuff that they don't need, many people are editing and paring down. As well, houses are often paid off and kids have finished their schooling.
So what will you need? Develop a budget, taking into account new interests, such as travel, and plan accordingly. Figure out how much additional income you will need, and how you'll go about earning it.
If you do still need to make some money after you leave your job, as most people do, having professional skills that are in demand will obviously make the transition easier.
Think about how to sell your skills, and how to leverage your network to help you. Some people have skills and networks so tied to a long-time employer that it's difficult for them to determine how to transfer them to a broader arena.
Ideally, you will have time before leaving to examine your skills and potential buyers of those skills.
Similarly, use the time before you leave productively, to hone your skills and broaden your professional network beyond your company and industry.
Psychological preparedness may be the most important readiness of all.
Do you still have any unfinished business in your current job? Is there, for example, a major project that you see as your swan song, and want to see through to completion? Or, are you already thinking about the next phase to move on to?
Try this acid test: Would you be more disappointed in yourself if you clung to a job out of insecurity or fear of uncertainty, or if you left before you were emotionally ready to do so?
Imagine you made the decision to leave and it is six months down the road. Are you filled with anger and regret, or excitement and pride about having made a bold move?
Be honest with yourself. Many older workers who feel their job is threatened or that they are not truly valued defiantly stay on in roles they are no longer suited to because their ego is bruised.
Often, when they get over their defensiveness, they realize they are now, in fact, too big, rather than too small, for their jobs. They have outgrown those roles and are truly ready to move on.
Ease the transition
Find yourself retired before you planned to be? Here are tips for easing the transition.
Give yourself time. You may be grieving or angry. Before you make any further moves, digest your emotions.
Revisit your accomplishments. You may feel deflated, as though you suffered a hit to your self-esteem. Look back - remind yourself what you have accomplished and where you talents lie, and take satisfaction.
Broaden the vision of yourself. Your old script may have been built around your title, stock options and salary. But you are much more than that. Your importance comes from all facets of who you are.
Be realistic about money. A client who recently quit her job says that, although she knows she is not poor, she feels like she is - she's never before had no regular paycheque deposited into her bank account. Consider how much money you really need at this life stage. If the kids are gone and the mortgage is paid, you will require significantly less.
Don't make a move in panic. When you first lose your job, there's a tendency to panic and jump on any opportunity to generate income. And if you've been in a senior role, you've developed a robust Rolodex that many people will want to exploit. Don't be lured by speculative business ventures.
Consider all options. Think creatively. Many older workers find the greatest satisfaction by reconnecting to earlier sources of engagement. If you have spent a significant part of your life in a management role, you may be better off selling leadership, rather than professional, skills. Think about contract work. Look into the not-for-profit sector as well as the for-profit sector.
Find a project: Whether it's designing a garden or creating a potential pitch for a client, pick a project that is personally meaningful, will hold your attention, give you focus and create a sense of self-satisfaction. It can be income-producing or purely to engage you, for the long haul or for a short time. The important thing is that it helps you feel good about yourself.
Give back: Many older workers derive satisfaction by doing things in tune with their values: Having a positive effect on people or causes you care about gives great gratification. Mentoring, volunteering or doing professional work that benefits others all fall under this umbrella.
Chill. You've been accustomed to doing and achieving and may be uncomfortable with a lack of structure. But quell your tendency to want to keep accomplishing immediately. These moments of quiet often produce the greatest insights.