Executives often struggle with life after retirement, and enter this phase of their lives ill-prepared. To avoid this happening to you, make sure you have a rich home life, create networks outside work, and find outlets for your skills outside the office. Employers can do more to help as well – and may derive tangible benefits from doing so.
Simon had been really looking forward to retirement. The constant pressure that came with his job had been getting to him. Too many meetings, too much travel, too much of everything.
Unfortunately, retirement didn’t pan out quite the way he’d hoped. Grocery shopping was giving him only a limited sense of fulfillment, and he missed the daily streams of emails and phone calls. He missed talking to his colleagues. He missed being in the middle of things. Basically, he felt lost.
I’ve come across a lot of Simons in my work. People who have enjoyed their careers often find it difficult to accept that they’re over. They may recognize that they are entering a new stage in life, but they will probably have given little thought as to how, on an emotional level, they will deal with their changed status — and the demands their jobs placed on them may have left them with very little time to reflect. The result is that retirement comes as a serious letdown.
Like divorce and death, retirement involves an emotionally painful separation, where the basic challenge is around managing grief. Psychologists James Robertson and John Bowlby offer a useful description of the process based on their studies of children. The three stages they identify — protest, despair, and detachment — lay out how we adjust to life after a separation. As is to be expected, some people go smoothly through these stages, while others struggle. For example, men living with a partner who is still working often experience retirement as a shameful and parasitic existence. Those feelings may well lead to depression and will even drive a few to early graves.
How can you make the transition less painful?
Invest in personal relationships. There’s no better place to start than home: spending time with friends and family. The famous Harvard Longitudinal Study is just one of many studies demonstrating that close personal relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy.
Create networks beyond the office. Along with making time for personal relationships, people approaching the ends of their careers should begin engaging themselves — if they haven’t already — in activities outside of the office. Volunteer work in the community, for example, can provide both a sense of bringing value as well as access to new relationships. Look also for opportunities to keep learning — for instance, by enrolling in a university program. Some find teaching to be an active outlet for their creative abilities. Guiding younger people and contributing to the success of the next generation can bring enormous satisfaction.
Find new outlets. Many retiring executives take on part-time or interim employment as consultants or board members for companies or nonprofits. You can also mentor budding entrepreneurs or young executives. As a mentor, you can provide answers to questions and offer suggestions that can make a big difference to younger people navigating the business world. And because networking is vital for company success, you can use your connections to give a jump-start to the people you are mentoring. You can even get actively involved in their ventures.
Navigating all these options can be daunting, and it is easy to feel paralyzed. Many people will avoid making decisions or taking actions. Employers can help by providing resources to employees who feel stuck about what their next step should be. Personal counseling, therapy, and personal-growth workshops are valuable resources for people in making journeys into themselves and in aligning values and new behaviors in the next phase of life.
At present, unfortunately, few companies are very involved in helping people transition to retirement. But that doesn’t have to be the case, and professional service firms in particular are showing the way. I once advised a very large strategic consultancy that sets a relatively early retirement date for its senior partners. Its HR professionals actively prime outgoing partners for life after the firm by arranging workshops and counseling with life coaches. That has proved to be a win-win deal. The retiring partners have found it easier to adjust to a new mode of living, and the firm benefits from its network of former partners who serve as ambassadors for the firm and in some cases bring in new business.
Managing retirement has traditionally been all about financial planning; the psychological dimensions weren’t usually part of the package. Today, given our longer life spans, assuring financial security is only one element in a creating a retirement plan — and in our knowledge economy, it’s perverse to let healthy, mentally active managers feel they no longer have contributions to make.