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What Is Retirement, Anyway?

During three decades or so of helping clients plan for and manage their retirements, I have had a lot of time to think about what retirement is and how to make it a good one.

The task reminds me of that assigned to Deep Thought, the fictionally massive and massively fictional supercomputer from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Deep Thought required 7.5 million years to consider the meaning of “life, the universe and everything” before concluding that the answer was 42. In my case, I have reached the conclusion that there are about as many answers to what retirement is as there are retirees, though not all retirements can be described as good. Granted, my answer is not as elegant as Deep Thought’s, but I arrived at it faster. Circle back to me in a few million years for a better one.

One of the best pieces of retirement advice I ever heard came from a former colleague, back when I was just starting my financial planning career. We were giving seminars to automobile factory workers who were being offered early retirement. I handled the financial component; my associate, who had a psychology background, discussed the emotional aspects of retiring. His advice was to retire to something, rather than from something. This advice has stayed with me, because it rang so true at the time. Most of my experiences since have only reinforced it.

Glenn Ruffenach, a semi-retired columnist who writes for The Wall Street Journal, recently gave himself a B when asked to grade his own retirement. He gave his wife an A. He based those scores largely on planning their new schedules well in advance of retiring and on how comfortable each of them seems in their new, work-free routines. Routines, after all, are just that – and a large part of most adults’ time preretirement revolves around the element that retirement takes away.

For a lot of people work is only a job, something they must do to pay the bills. For luckier individuals, work is a calling, or a passion, or simply fun. Whatever way you look at your work, it provides a structure around which we build our daily routines. We can let it absorb most of our time and energy, or we can place it alongside family, friends, hobbies, faith, community or any number of other interests. But work is an important part of our lives, until one day we decide we have retired. What then?

A lot of people have no answer to that question as they approach retirement, when they enter it, or even after they have been retired for some time. That is when things are prone to go wrong. If work provided social interaction and personal validation – after all, somebody valued our time, skills and energy enough to buy them – then withdrawing from work without a plan can mean depriving ourselves of that psychic nourishment. Humans are social animals. We tend to feel best when we feel we belong.

My mother is in her 90s and in very good health for her age. She is fortunate to live in a community with an active, locally funded senior citizens center. Most weekdays, a bus from the center picks her up in the morning and returns her home in the afternoon. It also provides regular trips to the supermarket, the bank, the pharmacy and the mall – everything necessary for someone who has never placed an online order and never will. At the center, my mother plays cards and has lunch with her friends. She also acts as the caller or treasurer for their bingo games. Going to the center has become her “job.” In her case, she can’t wait for Monday to come around again. That’s a pretty good retirement in my book.

Right now, employers want older Americans to stay on the job or to go back to work. In the five years between 2011 and 2016, the number of workers age 65 or older in the U.S. increased by nearly 35%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Encouraging older workers to keep working is one answer to a tight job market and a dearth of middle-aged workers to follow the newly retired. The baby boomers, who are now mostly in their 60s and 70s, were followed by a much smaller cohort, Generation X, who are mainly in their 40s and 50s. The boomers’ children, the millennials, are in their late 20s and 30s – often not ready to step directly into their parents’ shoes. For the next decade or so, barring a major economic downturn, there are a lot of incentives for businesses to try to keep their older employees.

At the same time, work is becoming more intellectual and skills-based, and less physical. This plays to older workers’ strengths. According to a study from SeniorLiving.org, the top three occupations for workers age 65 and older are management, sales and office support. The 60-year-old worker of today probably has much stronger computer skills than someone of that age even 10 or 15 years ago, which helps keep them relevant in the job market. Those same skills enable workers to perform many jobs from home or while traveling. Much of today’s work can be integrated into a form of “retirement” that is more a change in the nature of employment than a complete withdrawal from it.

This also works when individuals leave the workforce involuntarily. More than once, I have hired freelance editors who had been laid off or bought out from jobs in the newspaper industry to work on our company’s books and newsletters. Staying employed during “retirement,” or at least past what otherwise would be retirement age, is often good for the psyche. It is almost always good for the pocketbook.

I have watched many clients proceed through various stages of retirement. In the early years, they are often busy with part-time work, volunteer and community activities, travel, sports, and second jobs or avocations such as buying a farm or running a shop. Looking after grandchildren to help working parents is a big outlet as well. Later, as their energy flags, their health deteriorates and their grandchildren get older, they tend to stay home more. The retiree’s world begins to shrink. In late old age – or sooner, if poor health intervenes – the world may not extend beyond a few rooms at home or in an institution.

But even then, social and intellectual activity can make the difference between fulfillment and emptiness. Some people become avid followers of sports teams to which they paid scant attention earlier. Others obsess over politics or the stock market. Social media gets a bad rap these days, but online communities can keep people of any age connected. When your entire age cohort has limited mobility, Facebook can be a lifeline that connects your past to your present. Most boomers have not reached that stage yet, but they will.

In his Journal column, Ruffenach suggested that most people long for a balance between engagement and freedom in their later life. Finding a way to maintain both, without letting one overwhelm the other, is generally what a “good” retirement looks like.

So what about me? I run my own business, which means I get to leave on my own terms. I hired and developed most of my staff directly from school, so while they are highly capable and experienced already, they are also much younger than me. As they take on new responsibilities, my job keeps changing, allowing me to focus on new, strategic ventures like building our entertainment and sports practice and our international clientele. This growth also gives me the opportunity to adapt our marketing, technology and human resource practices to changing conditions and new opportunities. I will hand over these functions too, in due course, but there is no need to rush.

When retirement arrives for me, I will keep as busy and engaged as my health allows. Beyond family, I don’t know exactly with what just yet, but that’s not really a concern. I have a lot of interests, and there is no need to spoil my own surprise.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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