Will Retirement Kill You?

One of the most powerful pieces of advice I have ever received from my mentor, Charlie Mifflin, was to never fully retire. Charlie was my executive coach in the late 1980s. He had been a very successful executive in his industry and while he had retired from that particular job, Charlie continued to work. I thought it was a great coup that I had convinced him to continue to work with me. Charlie told me that people who had accomplished all they thought they could have actually started the dying process. That hit home with me, even while in my late 20s.

In the industrial age of the United States through the technological boom of the early 1990’s, the prevailing thought among people who worked was to stay with a company for a long period of time, build up Social Security and pension benefits, then retire. While this sounds like a very sound plan, it only serves the lower level of a human being’s needs according to Maslow. It feeds the hunger of safety and security but comes woefully short of the higher needs of purpose and self-actualization. Those of us in the Baby Boomer generation were raised with this work for a pension mentality. I perceive that does not appeal as much to today’s generation of the millennial workforce. To them, who stays at a job for life?

Upon reflection, I can think of many people who have died shortly after retirement. My father has told me on numerous occasions if he has to sit in a chair and watch television all day that would surely do him in. Getting engaged in something we love every day gives our lives energy and purposeful work. Getting out of this flow can set us on the path of complacency and apathy thinking our best years and efforts are now over. This can happen at 80 or it can happen at 30. Reflecting on business people I admire most, I notice a striking thing. They don’t really retire.

Jack Welch, who was the CEO of General Electric from 1981 through 2001, transformed the industrial giant from an early industrial age company to a nimble, multi-faceted conglomerate. When he stepped down as GE CEO in 2001, he didn’t just quit and go to the farm. He founded the Jack Welch Management Institute with Strayer University. His venture continues to spread his management tents and philosophies to new generations of leaders worldwide through on-campus and online means.

Warren Buffett is 85 as of this writing. His long-time partner in Berkshire Hathaway, Charlie Munger is 92. Only last year did Buffett start his succession planning process. He never plans to retire, he will continue to do what he enjoys doing until he can’t do it any longer. A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to watch the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, and there was Buffett holding court, cracking jokes, eating See’s Peanut Brittle and drinking Coca-Cola at 9 am in the morning. He didn’t look the least bit interested in retiring.

Still, there are those of us who will come to the end of our day-to-day working lives and enter into that time period they always told us to look forward to. It seems to me that to retain your energy and enjoyment, you can retire from a job, but you shouldn’t retire from your purpose in life. So the key question really becomes, how will you continue to keep yourself energized and engaged long after you stop your day-to-day job? What project or initiative can you put your time & energy into that will keep your purpose and life moving in a positive direction?

We might as well be honest with ourselves and know that we will never save enough money to retire happy. The reason is that money and being happy has nothing to do with each other. It certainly provides peace of mind to have plenty of money when you retire and it absolutely gives you more options and choices on things you always wanted to do. Your happiness is a different story. I believe it comes from accomplishment and pride in doing things worthwhile. One thing I know for sure, we shouldn’t use the concept of retirement to put off doing things that make us who we are and are important to us. After all, we spent all this time living and having experience, shouldn’t we put it to good use? This is of course, purely speculation on my part. I am just thinking ahead, check back with me for a report on how I am doing with the idea of retiring in twenty years or so.

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