Rethinking Traditional American ‘Retirement’

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on May 14, 2018

The prevalent cultural norm within American society is to work hard for some 40 or 45 years and then retire and enjoy life. But retire to what? A second career doing something else? Pursuing a life-long interest or hobby? A life of day-long leisure without responsibility nor a care in the world?

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines retirement as “withdrawal from one’s position or occupation or from active working life.” I would like to suggest an alternate definition: “the opportunity to renew oneself and to pursue new interests, engaging the world in a different way.”

Some people retire with no plans beyond traveling and playing golf and are happy doing so. Others start out this way, but inevitability, they find something lacking in their lives – a purpose, a mission. Their identities were tied to what they did and accomplished during their working years. In retirement, without a purpose, that has all changed. This has caused some of them to go into depression for which they seek help.

Many articles have been written about retirement. One of the most instructive is an April 2016 article by Neil Pasricha in the Harvard Business Review headlined, “Why retirement is a flawed concept.”

Pasricha writes, “We don’t actually want to retire and do nothing. We just want to do something we love. And I’m not talking about endless days of back nines, fishing, and sailing into the sunset. While we might want some time to do those things, you’d be surprised to learn how quickly the bloom can come off of that type of rosy retirement.”

Pasricha cites a study of the people of Okinawa who have one of the longest life spans, seven years longer than Americans. Within Okinawan society, there is no concept of retirement from work. Life is a continuum, where people move through life’s phases.

Pasricha writes, “They don’t even have a word for … [retirement]. Literally nothing in … [the Okinawan] language describes the concept of stopping work completely. [Their lexicon however] has the word ‘ikigai,’ (pronounced ‘icky guy’), which roughly translates to ‘the reason you wake up in the morning.’ It is [the] thing that drives you most.”

So, does having a “reason for being” spell the difference between some people suffering from depression and others living a fruitful life, not only in retirement, but through the years before retirement?

Pasricha identifies four elements of life that significantly contribute to one’s happiness and well-being in retirement. He has dubbed these as the 4 S’s. Quoting Pasricha, they are:

  • Social: Friends, peers and coworkers who brighten our days and fulfill our social needs.
  • Structure: The alarm clock ringing because you have a reason to get up in the morning, and the resulting satisfaction you get from earning time off.
  • Stimulation: Keeping our minds challenged by learning something new each day.
  • Story: Being part of something bigger than ourselves by joining a group whose high-level purpose is something you couldn’t accomplish on your own.

I agree with Pasricha. I believe that all four elements enhance not only retired life, but also life prior to retirement.

I stepped down as CEO from my company 13 years ago upon its sale. I didn’t “retire.” During my second career, I served on a number of public company, private company, private equity company and nonprofit boards.

I am currently in my third career as a board member of four educational institutions and as a nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance for the Philadelphia Business Journal and its 42 sister publications across the U.S., having never been a writer or trained as one.

The adages “you need to get out of your comfort zone” and “you never know what the future will bring” are true. You never know what opportunities might come your way or what opportunities you can create for yourself.

Everyone is different. Some people will be happy pursuing a life of leisure after they retire, while others will pursue second careers. Many will pursue an interest that makes a difference in their lives or in the lives of others. One should think where along the retirement continuum they want to be and do what makes them happy and content.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.