Retiring purposefully

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Retiring purposefully.

I enjoyed a conversation with my dentist last week; well, I grunted as he talked about retirement. He's 56 years old and in a position to take early retirement if he wants to, but he doesn't.

He has friends who've tried it and got so bored they are now looking to get back into the workforce. So he's decided he'll work for another 10 years or so and will make do with taking every second Friday off to go skiing or paddle-boarding or whatever with his mates (the ones who haven't gone back to work).

I found the conversation interesting because I've had similar discussions with friends and colleagues and decided there are two camps when it comes to early retirement, just as there are two camps regarding holidays. For some of us, a dream holiday involves nothing more than sunshine, cocktails and a good book, whereas others would go mad if their holiday didn't involve constantly changing scenery and adrenalin-pumping adventures.

For many people, early retirement is nirvana, the reward at the end of a long, hard slog; an escape from the daily grind of work and the freedom to do whatever you like, whenever you like, with people you care about, for the rest of your life.

For others, the thought of not having something to do and not being needed is horrible — "it will be boring, there's only so much golf I can play."

As a society we have to re-think retirement and decide what it means to each of us. Retirement has changed over the years and continues to change. For my grandparents, retirement was a well-earned period of rest. Often men working in blue collar jobs literally had to retire at 60 because their bodies had worn out.

For my parents, retirement was a time for reward when their pension (which they had earned by paying taxes for years) paid for a few years of leisure. More recently, retirement has become, for those who can afford it, a time of rest and recreation. Hence the retirement clichés around golf, cruises and active overseas holidays.

At 65, we are not tired and broken. We are healthier, better educated and more involved in our world and communities than previous generations. One researcher suggests that, for retirees of the future, R&R will stand for renewal and responsibility rather than rest and recreation.

Which brings me back to my conversation with my dentist. When he talked about his mates going back to work, it was not because they were passionate about their work and miss the actual job. They miss the camaraderie, the purpose, and the "busy-ness" of their work. These things are important and we all need to consider how we might replace them in retirement.

A University of California study found retirees experience a "sugar rush" of wellbeing and life satisfaction immediately after retirement, followed by a sharp decline in happiness a few years later.   

Those who managed to maintain the rush and stay happy throughout retirement were those who had a sense of purpose and had re-invented themselves, doing things they truly loved and felt passionate about.

That doesn't necessarily mean doing more of what you've always done. For some, devoting time to family or doing volunteer work or completing long overdue building projects was sufficient to bring purpose into their retirement years.

One author put it nicely: "Freed of the pressure to strive and compete, we can finally tap the nicer person lurking within; the more relaxed, well-rested, unhurried one." It's about finding our encore — be it an encore career, an encore network of friends or an encore opportunity to be a responsible and giving citizen.

It seems, just as we seek balance between work and family in midlife, we need to juggle again in retirement. The secret is in finding the balance between being more relaxed and being bored.

Maybe that's the new retirement: Making the most of leisure time, with purpose. Works for me and it works for my dentist.


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