The Perils of Traditional Retirement

Originally published: 12.01.13 by Lisë Stewart


Warning, gentlemen: retiring may be harmful to your health!

Study after study indicates that traditional retirement (ceasing to work suddenly, devoting time to ‘leisure activities’) can have a highly negative impact on the physical and mental well-being of men, especially those who are entrepreneurial, self-employed and/or senior leaders in their organizations. 

In his wonderful book, How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free: Retirement Wisdom That You Won’t Get From Your Financial Advisor (Sept 2009), Ernie Zelinski points out that men often demonstrate a very different approach to women in developing their self-worth and establishing social circles of support. Experiences from my own 25 years of practice tend to confirm this theme. The difference stems from a range of factors, including some behavioral and cognitive traits more commonly observed in men.

First, men are more likely to view their role in their business as a primary source of personal self-worth. When this suddenly disappears, men in retirement often have few opportunities to make an impact or have an influence in areas they deem to be of value. After years of being the ‘go-to guy’ at work, they are now scrambling to put their intellectual and business skills to good use. Women,

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on the other hand, often rely on other roles in addition to President, CEO and owner to achieve a sense of value and self-worth – such as being a mother, daughter, caregiver, community leader or networking specialist.

Second, men commonly name their spouse as a best friend, closely followed by those they work with on a daily basis as valued friends and associates. Women, however, are more likely to list a network of friends, followed by their spouse, children and extended family members as sources of friendship and trusted camaraderie. For men, leaving their workplace may mean a deep sense of loneliness, lack of casual and humorous conversation and the loss of a shared connection to something that felt important.

Finally, women tend to be better at developing a range of hobbies and interests outside of work, whereas men often report that their work IS their hobby. Sometimes we imagine a rosy future of ‘retirement’ where we can play golf, spend time with friends, take up new hobbies and travel, but the reality is that if we never do those things before we retire, it is unlikely that we will engage in them after.

So, what is a person to do as we contemplate the next phase of our life after running our business on a day-to-day basis? Here is my list of planning ‘musts’ for a successful transition:

  1. Think about a gradual transition from day-to-day operations and management to a part-time position, then moving to a consulting position and finally to a board position. At each stage, be clear about how your responsibilities and tasks will change and use your small amount of free time to build new connections in your life.
  2. Identify the skills that you have that you value the most. What do you contribute to the organization that is unique or special or that you simply enjoy doing? Then, look for other organizations that might benefit from those skills. Many community groups, educational organizations and local business collectives are hungry for seasoned executives who are willing to share their skills and knowledge. But start slowly. Join one organization that you think might be a good fit while you are still actively engaged in your ‘real work’. Test the waters and don’t be afraid to change your mind.
  3. Consider a completely new opportunity to put your skills to use. Are there start-up businesses in your area that need you? Can you envision a new entrepreneurial opportunity to explore?  Are there young and promising leaders in your own organization that might benefit from your mentorship? Again, ease into this and test your level of interest well before you move away from your current role.
  4. Most business leaders and entrepreneurs have a certain personality: they like to compete, to win, to make the most of opportunities, push boundaries and take risks. These attributes don’t go away as you get older but they do change in focus. Try finding new hobbies where you might put these rich and rare attributes to work. Take up bike riding with a club and become a club leader. Identify an economic development opportunity for your community and become a major fund-raiser. Find something that makes you feel alive and helpful and valued – and that feels enjoyable – and then figure out where you might fit and what you might do.

However, the most important message is to do all of this BEFORE you move away from the day-to-day duties that have been the source of your passion and motivation for most of your working life.

Those who report a high level of satisfaction with their new life role tend to be those who feel connected to their families, their friends and their communities. If those components are feeling weak right now, take the time to develop some important connections and relationships…and then consider gradually moving away from the world you know so well. 

Remember, retirement won’t make you happy if you have spent most of your life being miserable. The attitude adjustment has to come first – the personal validation and fun will come later. 

Lisë Stewart is founder and director of Galliard Group, a training and consulting firm specializing in family-owned and closely-held businesses. She is a nationally recognized author and speaker who draws on her 25+ years of experience to share practical advice for ensuring sustainability of family businesses. Lisë can be reached via email at lstewart@galliardgroup.com.


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