Retirement Redesigned

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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Retirement Redesigned

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Heavy Time

No one warns you about the time-warping effects of retirement.

The older we get, the more difficult it is to change. Retirement spooks many people. No matter what they say.

It is the giving up of a firm place in the world and the facing of a confusion of what lies ahead. We know who we are by the way we are treated by others; in the workplace, in the family and with friends. But suddenly it changes. There is the prospect of a new identity and there are few guidelines to help you find it.

Who we are, is our identity. It is what we fight for and hold on to for dear life most of the time. Some of it is unchangeable, like gender, or physical appearance or abilities and personality. But the part we are most interested in is that which we can change and do to define ourselves more specifically. Our qualifications and careers; our status in society and our image of ourselves in the world are those things that add the topping to the process of defining ourselves. These we can change. Ambitious people can redefine themselves completely and many stories are told of how some start with nothing and end up at the top. By the time we are past middle age our identity is well established. It is what anchors us.

Some flexible and adaptable people can redefine their lives. Others have become rigid and adapt with great difficulty. Most find the process of retiring and the change in identity it causes difficult.

People who have spent time in prison say one of the worst parts of the experience is how time stretches and elongates; in solitary confinement it is worst. Minutes, hours and days all feel unbearably longer than outside. Inside you are deprived of the daily markers that define the routines and events that help to measure time more accurately. Instead there are only the unpleasant interaction with the guards and the mealtimes that create structure for a day.

Life in retirement is much more comfortable than in prison, but some of the same feelings are there; not easily admitted by those in retirement.

Anyone that has had a busy life has had the advantage of being mostly fully occupied and defining themselves by doing a job that centers around meetings, conference calls, meeting deadlines, quarterly reports, attending to the multiple aspects of office administration, especially the endless e-mails. There is some kind of comfort in daily, weekly and annual routines. There is a sense of being propelled every day by what has to be accomplished. The motive force that drives you it is outside of you. It is in the life and energy of the business.

Suddenly, after all the farewell functions and good wishes from colleagues it is all gone. You now have to provide your own daily motivation and call to action. Some unhappy folks that did not like what they were doing in their jobs looked forward to the release represented by retirement. But even they have to cope with and manage the cold-turkey withdrawal to the isolated, lonesome and, at times, spooky world of retirement; the daily test of self-reliance.

Resourceful retirees can create activities to stay connected with ex colleagues who are in the same boat or with others in their network. But it all feels like an effort and the only agenda is sociability and revisiting fond recollections. There is no pressure to perform, and it is that lack of a driving force that sucks up any available energy. The most resourceful retirees look to invest in new third-age careers or entrepreneurial business ventures. Many want to focus on some way of “giving back”, but even that has to be self-driven. Working in a full-time job almost always has a measure of stress and pressure. That is what we complain about and wish to be relieved of. However, when pressure is no longer there, we realize that much of life’s busyness is what gives meaning to what we do.

We spend our working lives yearning for more time to ourselves. When you finally get it, it can quickly become a burden if you don’t have meaningful ways to fill it.

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Johann is the founding partner of Reset Retirement where we focus on assisting people with planning for the non-financial aspects of their lives after full-time work. He had a long career in executive search and leadership as the founding partner and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles in South Africa where he was the head of the company’s board practice.


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