Reinventing Retirement - Make the Most of a Post-Retirement Job

Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D.

As you look ahead to retirement -- or, if you've already entered those years, consider ways to reshape it -- odds are you may think about some kind of employment, not just to keep the paychecks coming but to stay busy, productive, and involved.

Don't be put off by rampant misconceptions about older workers. You can pull your weight at the office well past 65, and employers are beginning to realize it -- and count on it.

Clearly, some occupations are unappealing or even off limits for older employees, who may work less swiftly or and some can possibly struggle with physically strenuous tasks. Yet contrary to popular belief, workers over 55 don't sustain more work injuries or absences -- younger workers do.

Moreover, more and more thoughtful employers are adjusting their work environment and benefits -- -doing things like improving lighting and acoustics and offering regular health screening and fitness programs -- to accommodate workers of all ages and capabilities.

Productivity Knows No Age Limit

Aging does not equal lost productivity. With your extensive knowledge and life experience, you can easily offset any age-related shortcomings by working smarter, being better, at filtering out what's not important, and focusing on essential actions. You'll simply work smarter.

The true key to remaining productive isn't staying young; it's staying healthy. Regardless of age, people in poor health tend to leave the workforce earlier and have high rates of the highest rate of absenteeism. Interestingly, staying on the job is one way to stay healthy. Early retirees report more health problems . People who stay on the job longer (or in equivalently intensive volunteer work) enjoy the psychological benefits of feeling a sense of contribution and of self esteem, and of belonging to a workplace community with vital intergenerational contacts. The best way to preserve your brainpower is to keep using it.

Can you be as productive as when you were younger? That depends on the kind of job you take. The physical demands of climbing power poles and stringing cable every day are beyond the typical 55-year-old.

So if you're a lineman, you'll probably need to put your knowledge and skills to work in some other end of the business. Likewise, a lot of nurses retire early or switch jobs before retiring because of the physical strains of that work.

No Reason to Stop

But generally jobs are becoming less physically strenuous, and the latest research reveals that mature workers are effective at many tasks far longer than previously believed.

Consider airline pilots. Those over 60 are the least likely to fail flight simulator tests, recent studies show. Commercial airline pilots in the United States are now lobbying to do away with the mandatory retirement age of 60, or at least extend it to 65 -- on par with Europe and other parts of the world.

People of any age can perform the overwhelming majority of jobs today. For instance, Lee Iacocca once told Wired:

"I've always been against automated chronological dates to farm people out. The union would always say, Make room for the new blood; there aren't enough jobs to go around. Well, that's a hell of a policy. I had people at Chrysler who were 40 but acted 80, and ... 80-year-olds who could do everything a 40-year-old can. You have to take a different view of age now. People are living longer. Age just gives experience. Besides, it takes you until about 50 to know what the hell is going on in the world."

Your Career Trajectory

We tend to picture a career path as a straight climb up the corporate ladder that ends with a plummet into the abyss at retirement. But that's the wrong model for most of today's aspiring retirees.

Sure, some folks still look forward to carefree years of pure leisure. But far more simply want to adjust their roles, schedules, and other work arrangements -- not leave employment behind entirely. They might want to downshift into a less intensive but still rewarding work pattern that can evolve through and past any official age of retirement.

Which trajectory are you on? There are three basic ways to go: the traditional retirement path, where responsibility and contribution stop cold; the downshifting trajectory, where you decelerate but stay at work, often in a carefully planned role as mentor or project manager, or by turning a hobby into a small business; and the sustaining trajectory, where high responsibility and contribution continue as long as you remain healthy, eager, and able.

Sustainers are special cases, though every field produces them. They possess fertile minds, a hunger for knowledge, and a desire to contribute meaningfully to society. Well-known sustainers include the late Peter Drucker, the management guru, and Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela in world affairs.

Most folks, though, will prefer the downshifting model. The field of education offers a clear view of how this model works. There, professors serve as faculty advisers, committee chairs, department heads, and research center directors. Some reach such leadership heights as dean or university president before returning to the laboratory, the field, or the classroom, with lighter teaching loads and fewer students, until they join the faculty emeriti.

What Older Employees Desire

A growing number of employers are working to accommodate your evolving workplace needs. They can't tailor their programs to the whims of all who seek a special work arrangement later in life -- there are just too many variations.

Some older employees want to do less of the same work. Some would rather do entirely different work but for the same employer. Some feel stale in their job and want to do the same work elsewhere, often in a smaller organization. Some want to do totally different work in a different organization -- a late-career restart. And some want to provide service for nonprofits or volunteer outside the officially tabulated workforce.

But here's what every employer understands about your later life career ambitions: First, you want to contribute meaningfully, possibly taking a leadership position and having the chance to blossom into a late bloomer. Second, you want to improve your skills and stretch your talents.

Third, you'll probably want a more flexible work arrangement that lets you get the job done without neglecting other important areas of your life, like grandkids and the social life that you may have ignored for so many years while climbing the corporate ladder.

Employers Will Want You

Progressive companies are providing for all that -- for selfish as well as altruistic reasons. They'll face a brain drain as baby boomers begin to retire and there are too few workers to replace them. While it may be hard to imagine in this youth-obsessed era, in the years ahead, they'll want to keep you.

"Older workers are very responsible," says Stephen Wing, spokesman for the pharmacy company CVS. "They care about the customers. They're good examples to our younger employees. They also relate well to CVS' older customers, who trust more experienced employees, particularly in vital positions such as pharmacy. We now the have reputation of empowering older workers, which puts us in front of the competition in attracting both older employees and older customers."

Clearly, your post-career career is taking shape, even if you don't know it.

Adapted from Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the coming Shortage of Skills and Talent by Ken Dychtwald, Tamara J. Erickson, and Robert Morison.

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