We normally think of retirement as an ending – the completion of life’s working phase. Agile Aging is dedicated to original thinking, looking ahead to shape mindful seniority. So let’s reexamine retirement in a new light. Not as an ending, ringing down a curtain, but as a beginning, opening a new act. From this perspective, retirement is our well-earned admission ticket.

It’s possible, of course, to age without retiring, or without having worked at all. Just as it’s possible to retire early, before aging; or never to retire at all. But for most of us, retirement marks the start of seniority. And how we feel about retirement is a telling preview of how ready we are to begin Agile Aging.

A Gradual Transition

In my case, the transition engineered itself. As a self-employed international-development consultant, my practice wound down over time. The telephone gradually stopped ringing with clients’ recruitment calls. But since I was cranking out my international memoir during this wind-down, my focus was still backwards, prolonging my career orientation. De facto retirement snuck up on me.

Eventually, self-awareness caught up with reality. It was the end of an occupation, and a preoccupation, that had dominated my life for decades. What attracted me was the compensating recognition that the new phase awaiting me through the retirement portal was open-ended, ready for defining and exploring. A transformation beyond mere transition. For the first time in decades, I began asking myself existential questions. What did I want to try next? What personal interests and passions had been sidelined by my career? Who was the senior person I’d like to become? And how could I make all this happen? I intuitively interpreted retirement not as shutting down but as starting out – on a last-act adventure.

Looking around, I naively assumed that most of my peers would automatically share this enthusiasm. After all, statisticians have estimated that two-thirds of working Americans dislike their jobs. Finances permitting, why wouldn’t they leap at the chance to leave the work force and enjoy unprecedented free time – time to spend with family, to stretch and to play?

In my defense, my ignorance about prevailing U.S. retirement attitudes was skewed by two atypical experiences. Working for 40 years as an independent consultant, moving on from client to client and country to country, I had never formed a long-term relationship with any single employer. So “letting go” at retirement for me involved no wrenching severance or goodbyes. New horizons had always meant fresh beginnings. Moreover, in the African, Asian and Mediterranean cultures where I had lived and worked for decades, retired elders were revered as repositories of life experience and wisdom. They stayed actively engaged in communities and extended families, and seemed to rarely feel marginalized or diminished.

Different Strokes

When I returned to live in the States, I began to learn to my surprise that several of my peers across a range of professions were considering retirement unwelcome and even forbidding. To my further surprise, in most of these cases their inhibition seemed to spring not from a desire to keep working, enjoying perks and prestige. It was their inability to figure out how to fill a feared vacuum of “empty time” after employment. Paralyzing inertia was keeping them in the harness. “What the hell am I going to do if I stop working,” one 76-year-old snorted to me. “Put my feet up on the front-porch railing and watch the goddamn world go by?”

Even for friends who were ready and willing to transition, retirement loomed as off-putting. As another pal suggested, as much in exasperation as in jest, “Someone ought to offer us pre-retirement training. Like workshops for first-time parents or returning Peace Corps Volunteers. Everyone assumes we know how to retire, but we’re totally unprepared.”

Which brings us back to Agile Aging. From this point forward, this blog will be mostly devoted to celebrating and exploring a wide array of engaging senior activities. Collected and reported from my own experience, that of acquaintances I’ll be profiling, and blog-followers’ responsive contributions. I’m convinced that together we can demonstrate this new territory is anything but empty.

We won’t be focusing on retirement training, but the next post offers a useful shortlist of recommended readings if you’re interested in pursuing this sub-topic on your own. The expert opinions I’ve been digesting seem to agree that preparation is crucial. Specialists encourage new retirees to embrace the opportunity to recalibrate their priorities and pleasures. Imagining new passions and reviving old dreams are frequently recommended. Since many retirees emphasize that they won’t miss workplace stress but will miss the fellowship, a repeated suggestion is to include building new relationships and participating in group activities as core components of our seniority agenda-planning.

Ready When You Are

Those of us promoting an Agile-Aging investment should take care to remain respectful and patient with peers who aren’t ready to traverse the retirement portal. Many will feel constrained by financial pressures or family obligations to postpone retirement and keep on working. Others may perceive that they’re still “at the top of their game,” making valuable professional contributions. Still more may prefer the comfort of familiar employment to the risks of reinvention.

At the same time, we should stay aware there’s abundant clinical data that, somewhere around 70, seniors begin to experience diminished physical strength and stamina, compounded by declining judgment, memory and mental acuity. These patterns are among the valid reasons that some employers set mandatory retirement deadlines.

And while “partial retirement” might seem a tempting strategy to hedge our bets, making a clean break from our working past can allow us to pivot our attention and energies to our senior present and future.

Once we’ve negotiated that clean break and pivot, here are some practical tips from two advisors I respect on making a smooth transition:

  • Don’t rush to replace 60-hour work weeks with a packed senior program of book clubs, tennis lessons and binge matinees. Remember those gym-club deposits we squandered after making earnest New Year’s resolutions? Instead, budget a generous post-retirement interval for decompressing and adjusting.
  • Even after that transition, we should make sure to retain serenity in our evolving Agile-Aging routines. Cherish the joy of being still.
  • Likewise, don’t rush to take major lifestyle decisions, like selling a house or moving to a new State. Just as after the loss of a spouse or partner, we’d be prudent to wait six to twelve months following retirement to regain our emotional equilibrium.

Let’s give Hugh Downs the last word: “People and plants need repotting.” Agile Aging was created to nurture senior re-flowering. Pro-active retirement can free our roots and renew our growth. Take your time but don’t leave it too long.

CLICK HERE for a list of Recommended Readings on Retirement Planning and Preparations.

Coming June 15:

Savvy, Satisfying Senior Travel