Pretirement Disrupts Retirement

The largely-outmoded On/Off Retirement Model world was about earning and saving so that, eventually, loooooong into the future, you could quit and not work anymore. As I look around at those I know who, like me, are in or around our 50s and 60s, hardly anyone seems to actually do that. We wonder if our lives would be more enjoyable if the paid work we did offered more of a creative challenge, while also allowing us more free time. We’ve achieved a certainly level of mastery in our professions and have crossed many of the goals off our list that used to motivate us. Are there many remaining rungs on the ladder before we reach the final one: Freedom from the ladder itself?

The largely-outmoded On/Off Retirement Model world was about earning and saving so that, eventually, loooooong into the future, you could quit and not work anymore.  As I look around at those I know who, like me, are in or around our 50s and 60s, hardly anyone seems to actually do that.  We wonder if our lives would be more enjoyable if the paid work we did offered more of a creative challenge, while also allowing us more free time.  We’ve achieved a certainly level of mastery in our professions and have crossed many of the goals off our list that used to motivate us.  Are there many remaining rungs on the ladder before we reach the final one:  Freedom from the ladder itself?

The traditional retirement model is not an ancient concept.  It was fully a product of the Industrial Revolution, with its production quotas, shift whistles, typing pools and lunch pails, whatever those were.  Like most outmoded systems, products and services, whether carburetors, taxi cabs, or making hotel reservations, traditional retirement is similarly ripe for disruption, technologically and socially.  I haven’t figured this new era all out for myself yet, much less for others, but I want to explore pretirement, sharing what I experience while learning from similarly-inclined people.

The traditional retirement model was full of carrots at the finish line, most prominently pensions (remember those?), mythical gold watches and, eventually, when you are nearly spent, the full corporate endorsement to go play shuffle board in Florida.  Those things have largely gone the way of leaded gas.  Unfortunately, our society hasn’t yet embraced a clear replacement model for how most of us actually live post-full-time work.  There is literally no established structure or language around dialing work down in our society, no gradual staircase from full-bore career to more self-determination that is understood and accepted as fully legitimate.

Few workers seem to understand those who “give up a really good career” in their 50s or even earlier.  That’s the time when we’re supposed to be in full Benjamin-stacking mode and demonstrating the mastery of our professions, grooming the next generation climbing the ladder.  We managers might have finally become one of the people everyone else is working for.  How could we just quit and do something else when we finally have all the brass rings in hand or nearly-so?

It helps to consider how insecure our position as even a senior professional really is.  We mostly work today for corporations and organizations that call themselves “At-Will Employers” (see your Employee Handbook.)  Employers have all of the power to hire and fire you, which they certainly do without any hesitation when they choose to.  An individual has no power in that arrangement, except to exercise the other half of it, which is to build some assets and skills while working full-time so that we could ultimately fire the employer “at-will.”  That language is also in your employee handbook, though few of your colleagues are prepared to exercise it as ruthlessly as your employer is.  What if we had an acceptable, honorable language for today’s vast ranks of people our age who have put themselves in a position to exercise their half of the At-Will-Employment equation?

Pretirement Power

If our employers, explicitly and in writing, feel no obligation to help us descend the escalator from full time work to something else, what can we do for ourselves?

What if we learned how to hack our financial assets in non-traditional ways before age 59.5 to support the pretirement lives we want to build for ourselves right now?

What if we didn’t fear the loss of employer-provided health insurance anymore, because we can now use Health Savings Accounts and health insurance exchanges and other methods to bridge us to age 65 and Medicare? Our country is finally, fitfully, joining the rest of the rich, advanced world toward more rational and high-quality health care delivery.  We can finally come out of the cave of dependency on At-Will employers for our very medical care, blink in the daylight and chart our own paths.

What if we got out from under oppressive mortgages and expensive house upkeep and, instead, leveraged our accumulated home equity to generate income, pursue travel or engage in more creative, smaller-scale and perhaps international or even cooperative living arrangements?  Many, many people explore the infinite variety of housing arrangements that are better for them and provide significant financial relief from the expensive 3BR/2BA, two car garage model.  Their housing choices make their pretirement budgets work really well.

If we pursue for ourselves a creative and practical toolkit for pretirement, using words that are more nuanced and useful than On/Off “retirement,” then five or ten years from now, most people we meet will know instantly what a person means when they say “I’m pretiring.”  Pretirement could be a fully-respectable, accepted and understood phase of life.

Pretirement is already practiced by perhaps a majority of people.  Our commercial society just doesn’t fully understand and recognize the concept as legitimate yet.  To many, it still seems a little flaky or unfortunate to just abandon the earning and spending treadmill early.  “Oh, does she have a health problem?”  “Did he get fired?”  “Their kids are out of college and his wife comes from money so, sure, he can quit and travel.”  Quitting seems”crazy” and/or “irresponsible.”  It’s been said that every job, no matter how good, comes with it’s own bucket of manure.  Perhaps the people who make those comments and who can’t fathom your choices will be able to understand once their bucket finally overflows, too.

Those in the non-profit sector, like my wife and me, face an additional challenge, because we are supposed to be about improving a society that needs us.  We feel some inherent guilt pondering changes to careers dedicated to addressing the needs of the homeless/environment/sick people/children/other serious problems of society.  I am part of some professional organizations full of people my age and older who seem to remain genuinely fully-motivated to work-until-they-can’t on behalf of their organizations’ missions.  It’s awesome to see the ones who are still positive going strong for four or even five decades or more of full-time work for a better society.  I am in a good place at the moment, career-wise, though I know some others who are no longer happy in their work but who stay year after year.  I do not want to become one of those folks and I won’t ever let that happen.

Sometimes you hear that someone is “semi-retiring”, “going part time” or “retiring early.”  Those words, along with the less-common “pretirement”, are part of the lexicon of this phase of life and are descriptive for many people’s routes through it.  As I said, I might be eventually done altogether with my demanding profession and not be interested in going part-time or semi-retiring from it.  I don’t know yet so I am working to make sure my choices, including working longer, are totally optional.  If I do change the type and volume of my paid work, preretirement seems a better fit for me than those other descriptors.  It’s hair-splitting semantics, perhaps, but it’s more apt for my mindset and probably for a lot of others out there.  It’s important to have the right word for what we’re each doing.

I understand and respect that responsible people do what they have to do in the total context of their lives.  Many people just need to work to provide for others who depend on them.  I am sure that many other people still really like working at what they’ve been doing.  I read recently about a 107 year-old barber – who drives to work.  Fine, though also a bit terrifying as a fellow driver.  I’m not judging others’ choices and situations.  Some people still have a pension dangling out there, which seems to both entice and torture them.  There is no one-size-fits-all, only individual journeys that each person navigates as best they can.

I’m the type who takes action when I need to.  As I face up to my own situation and feelings using whatever assets I have to create flexibility to make changes easily if my wife or I choose, perhaps others like us will obtain some benefit if I write about it.  I want to use my blog as part of my personal toolkit to explore alternative work and a lifestyle for always keeping myself happy, challenged and engaged throughout my one life.

How are you thinking about pretirement?

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Pretirement Motivation: The Bosses I’ve Had

The longer I work, the more the quality of my relationship with my supervisor seems to count toward my job satisfaction.  I’ve had several managers in my life with whom I worked for significant stretches of time.  I was really fortunate with most of them but, two of them, well, hoo-wee!  They did more to plant me on the long path to pretirement freedom than anything else.  More later about what I learned from working for them, and getting away from them.  If it’s true that we learn the most from the challenging people in our lives, then I am grudgingly grateful for this pair’s abundant gifts to me.  Or something.

The longer I work, the more the quality of my relationship with my supervisor seems to count toward my job satisfaction.  I’ve had several managers in my life with whom I worked for significant stretches of time.  I was really fortunate with most of them but, two of them, well, hoo-wee!  They did more to plant me on the long path to pretirement freedom than anything else.  More later about what I learned from working for them, and getting away from them.  If it’s true that we learn the most from the challenging people in our lives, then I am grudgingly grateful for this pair’s abundant gifts to me.  Or something.

When I started out in my career, trying to get my first foothold on the rock face of the mountain climb ahead, I didn’t care to whom I reported.  “Just gimme the job and I’ll figure it out.”  In my twenties my attitude and best plan was that I wanted some kind of a coherent non-profit career.

What a strange thing the manager/report relationship is, when you step back.  You’ve had maybe one or two interactions with the person in an unnatural competitive interview process.  The next day, that near-stranger holds a huge amount of power over your every day existence and entire professional future.

Managers matter, too.  In college, one of my very best friends and I held part time jobs working at a golf club with a team of other students.  We took golf bags off carts, cleaned the clubs and kept the driving range stocked with balls.  Clearly, the job was not complicated or demanding, which was a perfect counterbalance to working so hard for good grades.

One day, the assistant golf pro who managed us, an easy-going fellow, was suddenly gone. I never learned why.  In his place was a new guy, Wade, who was memorable to me only because he was wound so tight that it was comical to other people.  It was a golf course, not a hospital emergency room, but Wade was prickly, ambitious and clearly insecure in his new assistant golf pro role.  I don’t actually remember any words he ever uttered but, as with nearly everyone we humans encounter in life, I recall perfectly my inner reaction to him:  Poor Wade’s vibe was, “Saguaro Cactus.”

In fairness, the assistant pro job was probably an important promotion for Wade, because this private club was selective, expensive and had an influential membership.  Wade sometimes manifested his innate stress by snapping at us about this or that inconsequential thing.  He caused the fun tone we had previously enjoyed to evaporate from our little team of eager college kids, who were mostly there to earn a few simple bucks without a lot hassle.

I never had words with Wade but my friend did.  I don’t remember when Wade left my life or vice versa, but I happily and instantly erased him from my mind.  Years later, his name came up when I was talking with my good friend.  Right out of college this talented friend had started his own software company at the dawn of the dot.com era.  His company followed the classic tech startup script: Identify a niche, write some code, create a product, secure some sales, attract  venture capital, grow the staff to hundreds and, in a few years, sell the company.

He still works full time for himself, though he probably doesn’t have to anymore.  I once asked my friend his motivation for starting his own companies, which always awed me as a person who gravitated to what I felt was the comfort and safety of large organizations.  He didn’t hesitate:

“You remember that guy Wade?”

It took me a beat before I did. “Oh, that guy.  Ha!  I wonder where he is now?”

My friend said, “I don’t know, but I couldn’t see myself working for jerks like him the rest of my life.  That guy made me determined to never have a boss.”

I, on the other hand, proceeded to have several bosses, and I take responsibility for my choices.  I always assumed I had no business having a business, and I think I was 100% right about that.   I also never saw myself as an S&P 500 corporate type, because corporations seemed to me dog-eat-dog environments, where the profit motive caused people to step on someone’s head while competing to climb the ladder.  Now that I have some career experience, I’m sure that’s mostly an incorrect Darwinian stereotype about major corporations.  Nor did I see myself in the military, though I really admire people I know who did go that route. I think I might have liked the Navy or Coast Guard, but that’s just my current self speaking to my earlier self, which is pointless.

Rather, I distinctly decided during my senior year in college that I wanted to pursue my passion for trying to make a difference through some kind of public service, and that I’d probably do so working for a larger non-profit organization or government agency.  I assumed non-profit organizations filled with passionate people who worked to make a difference in the world were also places where I stood the best chance of being treated as a human being myself, rather than an expendable corporate cog, which seemed kind of important, too.

I’m not qualified to judge corporate life with any accuracy but I think I was basically correct about non-profits.  I’ve generally been treated well and I feel that, frequently, I’ve enjoyed the satisfaction of having helped make a difference.  For the most part, I’ve reported to humane leaders who appreciated my contributions and who coached and rewarded me fairly.  I’ve tried to model my own behavior as a manager on what I learned from those fine leaders, some of whom remain mentors and even friends.

I also learned a lot from surviving the more toxic leaders I reported to.  A couple of my many educational takeaways from them were:

  1. “Don’t wish for my boss to change.  I’m the one who needs to change something.”  When I have realized in the past that I’ve lost respect for my manager, I have learned that I am one who needs to act.  People above them have different relationships with them, so no one is likely going to act because I’m unhappy.  It was easy to remain stuck by fooling myself that “This is just how work and bosses are”.  That is simply not true.  I need to analyze the situation and calculate my happiness level in it then, if necessary, start sharpening my resume and cultivating my network.
  2. Life is too short to be unhappy at work.  Some of the most miserable people I have ever met address their unhappiness with work by trying to cement themselves in place more firmly.  Their hate for their jobs and unwillingness to solve it through taking action puts them in a posture of constant pain, which manifests in all kinds of toxic behaviors.  They seem to me like a child who thinks that if he holds his breath long enough, the person he’s angry at will pass out.  Not me.  I believe in monitoring my work happiness and remaining prepared to leave when the organization I once worked for has changed around me unsatisfactorily in some way.  I try hard to stay entirely positive and grateful about being employed but also committed to freeing myself to do something else, if needed.  We work in this modern world of few pensions, few protected unions, no contracts and “At-Will Employment.”  If there is to be any fairness at all in such a lopsided world, we have to approach the agreement to hold a job as a two-way street.

Though my current situation is a good one, a big point of this blog is to help me plan for how to spend my time after I eventually retire the sword and want to do something else, as nearly everyone my age seems to be contemplating.  What I want is still a work in progress.  I hope through this blog that I can explore myself but also learn from others’ experiences in creatively tackling this common question stemming from a growing desire for more work freedom.  In other words, I want to start defining my pretirement.

That exploration is still ahead of me but I realize after nearly three decades of working for organizations, during which I’ve had several significant supervisors, some of whom were wonderful to know and others whom I was relieved to flee, I think I am evolving to the place that my good friend started out with:  At some point, I want to be done with bosses.

What about the bosses you’ve had?