It seems we spend our entire working lives financially preparing for a period – an increasingly long expanse of time – when we will no longer work. Around the age of 60, we are expected to gracefully withdraw from our busy, productive working lives and make room for the next generation. This is perceived as a sudden stop, a boundary between our working lives and an endless vacation with smiling grandchildren and sunny beaches.
At first sight, this can look like an attractive proposition. There is an appealing aspect to being freed from a compressed schedule where the demands of building our companies, managing a web of business relationships, and keeping ahead of the competition have led us to shortchange other areas of our lives. We will be able to spend more time with family members, travel, and make up for all the times we couldn’t be there for others. Interests and passions which have had to take a back seat to other priorities can be explored and developed.
However, retirement is also a withdrawal from a whole set of variables that have defined us and our relationship to others. There is a defined hierarchy in the work world: you know your place and how others will relate to you based on that structure. Successful people are used to being accorded a degree of deference and respect in the workplace, to being seen as accomplished and powerful. Your expertise and experience are sought when there are important decisions to be made. Every day, your sense of self-worth and the value of your contribution are reinforced. How much of this will you be able to retain when you step over that retirement boundary?
There is also a predictable shape to your working week. You get up every morning knowing what is expected of you, what role you will be playing. You have lists of things to do today, this week, this month, this year, and clear priorities about what needs to be done first. You also have supportive staff to help you get them done, which confers a sense of being part of a collaborative project, something bigger than yourself. As a business owner, you are contributing to the well-being of a network of employees and customers. This, in turn, gives purpose and meaning to your days. How will you replace this in retirement?
Work provides social coherence, as well. Chances are that you have spent more time with some of your colleagues at work than you have with your family and friends outside of work. Your work has provided the framework of shared interests, goals and inter-connected relationships. How long are you going to be able to maintain those relationships when you are no longer plugged into the work environment?
In short, what are you going to do in retirement that will continue to give value and meaning to your life? How will you replace all the intangible psychological benefits of the working world? Without reflection and careful planning, there is a real chance that after the initial euphoria of being free of the worries and responsibilities of your business, you will feel a strong letdown and sense of loss.
For all these reasons, there is a growing trend for people to keep working in some capacity well into their 60s and 70s, and even beyond. Concerns about how to finance a long retirement obviously play into this decision for many people, but even those who are well prepared financially are rethinking the old retirement model. The truth is that things have changed in the last couple of decades. We are suddenly living much longer than any previous generation and we are in better shape, physically and mentally, than preceding generations. Medical science has protected us from the childhood diseases that used to cause permanent damage and agricultural technology has given us an abundance of food. Medical technology can keep us alive for a very long time, even if it can’t guarantee quality of life. Because there is a correlation between wealth, health and education, many of us can look forward to perhaps another 30 years after retirement from our businesses or careers. That’s a very long time to be on vacation.
There is also a new and growing body of evidence that the brains of high achievers continue to get better in many ways well into the 60s. This is welcome news to counteract the societal perception that it’s all downhill for the grey matter after our 20s. It seems that experience has been tremendously undervalued in assessing work performance. While it is true that younger brains have faster processing power, older brains more than compensate by being able to quickly and effortlessly see the big picture and make new connections with incoming information. While younger brains use the left or right brains exclusively for different activities, older brains have learned to use both hemispheres simultaneously, which results in a more holistic approach to a problem. For a more nuanced (and life-affirming) explanation, read The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind by Barbara Strauch. You might well conclude, as she does, that putting 60 year old minds in their prime out to pasture is an appalling waste and loss to society.
Another book that passionately argues for a rethink of how we spend our 60s, 70s and beyond is The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife by Marc Freedman. He refers to this as our ‘encore’ stage, a time when we are able to make our best contributions to society. In one of his many anecdotes, he quotes Charles Leadbeater: “The values of youth are about possession, consumption, expression and individuality; the values that underpin dignity in age and death are about relationships, connectedness, sharing and participation – far more powerful drivers for social change.”
What are you doing after work? The most healthy answer might be that you are entering a new stage of work, where you reconfigure your talents, interests, expertise and experience to make a difference to generations yet to come. An old Greek proverb puts it well: Society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.
This article by Daryn Form was first published in the March 2014 issue of Business Advisor.
Daryn Form is a Senior Financial Advisor with Assante Capital Management Ltd. providing wealth management services to principals of family-owned and privately held companies. Assante Capital Management Ltd. is a member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund and is registered with the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada. The information mentioned in this article is for general information only. Please contact him to discuss your particular circumstances prior to acting on the information above. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Assante Capital Management Ltd. Rates are not guaranteed and are subject to change at any time without notice.