As the first wave of boomers begins to spill into their 60s, I predict that you’re going to see fewer and fewer mentions of the word “retirement.” People won’t quit working just because they’ve blown out some arbitrary number of candles on a cake. Being a member of that generation myself, I hate the implication that I’ll ever stop being useful and active, especially in terms of mental acuity and professional competence.
Aside from the financial complexity of this trend, which I know you’re hearing a lot about, you may be faced with equally untraditional emotions among clients who are struggling to find fulfillment in their “third age.” Using the following examples, I’ve suggested some ways to help them navigate this passage with optimism and fortitude.
Q: Why is it that retired people are assumed to have lost their judgment? I’ve always enjoyed lively and inspiring discussions with a client who successfully ran a large company for many years. He actually has more time to study and comment on important issues now that he’s retired, but journalists no longer seem interested in his opinions. How can I help him adjust to this disappointing reality?
A: Today, the word “retired” has become so negatively loaded that I think we need a new one to describe our older colleagues. If as current wisdom indicates,”60 is the new 40,” why do we keep using a term implying that someone is past his sell-by date?
In the meantime, it’s saddening and infuriating that an experienced professional like your client has to deal with such disrespect. To get around this age bias, he might consider describing himself as a consultant in his former field, and omit any reference to retirement, which implies a lack of activity.
Advise your client not to lose heart. If reframing his role doesn’t succeed in putting him back in reporters’ Rolodexes, he may need to seek meaning, excitement, and satisfaction elsewhere. He could mentor younger professionals in his field, volunteer in an area in which he feels a strong connection, or consider teaching in an adult education program in his community.
He may also want to get together with other ex-CEOs who have had similar experiences and discuss ways to become more visible and useful. Their combined influence could effect some changes in how their views are received. I warrant they’d have plenty to say that’s worth listening to.
Q: My client, now 59 years old, intends to sell her business next year and initiate a new career as head of a nonprofit organization. Her life partner, a school superintendent, will retire at the same time and wants her to retire with him. Their inability to agree on this makes working with the two of them very difficult. Is there a solution?
A: We can expect to come across more dilemmas like this as boomer-generation clients move closer to the traditional retirement age of 62 or 65. In my coaching practice, I see a growing number of couples who need to individuate more than before, with one slowing down before the other is ready. Often, it is the wife who is ready to gear up to a new work challenge, while her husband looks forward to stepping down from work responsibilities, relaxing, and enjoying himself.
I think your couple ought to view the disparity of their plans as an opportunity, not a calamity. When two people are too closely merged (“enmeshed,” in psychological terms), there sometimes isn’t enough distance between them for a spark to travel. So I’d urge the husband to give his wife the freedom to pursue her work. Encourage him to envision new sources of fun, relaxation, and pleasure in his life, including some that might include making new friends.
If they approach this next phase of their lives with love and respect, this couple may find that the space in their relationship actually inspires more passion between them.
Q: A new client consulted me recently in a state of despair, because she was convinced she could never reach the “magic number” that would allow her to retire comfortably. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered anxiety of this kind. Even after I help clients see that the situation isn’t so dire, they sometimes find it hard to abandon their pessimism. Why is this, and is there something I can do about it?
A: Most people forget how many variables are involved in generating that “magic number”: the inflation rate, their rate of return, and their life expectancy, to name just a few. Furthermore, this number is almost infinitely adaptable, depending on each person’s choices and desires.
I would suggest that your client start all over by discussing with you what she wants her future to look like. What does she envision herself doing? Some people have a vague idea of staying home and taking it easy, but when they’re urged to imagine a typical day of being retired, they realize that part-time work may be preferable to no work at all.
Once you have a well-defined picture of what your client wants to do, you and she can estimate how much it will cost. If she’s unlikely to have enough money, is she willing to make tradeoffs by scaling back her spending, moving to an area with a lower cost of living, or downsizing to a smaller house or apartment?
In any case, try to get her to relax about striving for a do-or-die number. It may help her to reflect on her family, community, and spiritual connections. When people get together to work, play, or pray, sometimes they come up with surprisingly affordable and satisfying group solutions.
I wish you luck in calming your upset client. Once she gets out of the panic mode, she’ll be much more able to think her situation through with your expert help.
Q: For years, a couple I work with have been talking about sailing around the world. But now that they’ve gotten to the point of actually buying a boat, the wife says she would rather stay home and spend more of her time with family and friends. While her husband insists he’s not afraid to make the trip by himself, she thinks this is foolhardy, and accuses him of trying to blackmail her into joining him. It looks like divorce ahead, rather than a pleasant retirement. Any advice?
A: As I mentioned earlier, many couples find they don’t have the same expectations for this phase of their life — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, when my husband took a sabbatical from his university position, I thought we would be able to enjoy a lot of traveling. To our surprise, he discovered he was much happier at home. So after letting go of my disappointment, I traveled on my own to Rome and the American Southwest. I had a blissful time. When I returned, my husband, who had missed me tremendously, was more affectionate and cherishing than ever.
In your clients’ case, I think the first order of business is to allow time and space for the husband to mourn the loss of his dream of sailing the seven seas with his wife. Since they have been planning and talking about this for a long time, his grief could be quite deep. If he can’t get over it, couples counseling may be needed to help them steer a course through the rough waters of their conflicting wishes.
Then, encourage them to discuss possible solutions with you. Could the husband try a solo sail in well-traveled waters, to see how safe and enjoyable it is? Or could the wife join him part of the time, with friends filling in on other legs of the round-the-world journey?
If you can help them devise a plan that gives each of them enough of what he or she truly wants, this couple may be able to transform their resentment into mutual appreciation, even though it could mean they’ll be apart for some periods of time. They may also have to work on creating joint activities that enhance the pleasure of being together, whether they’re at home or on the high seas.
Q: Two months after a company merger forced him into early retirement, my client died of a heart attack. His widow is talking about bringing suit against his employer, whom she blames for his death. He did seem depressed and listless after leaving his job. What could I have done to help him, or suggested that he do?
A: Hindsight is always 20-20. So first of all, you need to forgive yourself for not knowing what to you could do to “save” this man. Whether he came to you in distress, or you just think you should have known what he was enduring, it’s entirely possible that nothing would have worked.
If you ever find yourself in a situation like this again, help your client get counseling from a professional (or from a pastoral counselor, if he belongs to a spiritual community). In my experience, men seem to be especially hard-hit by the loss of their identity through work. They need to seek structured, meaningful activities pronto — something that helps them feel valuable and keeps them occupied. Staying home and brooding over feelings of uselessness is the worst thing they can do. They may also want to look for emotional support through volunteering, mentoring, part-time work, or community service.
In the meantime, try to make sure your client’s widow receives the emotional help, empathy, and support she needs to get over the shock and pain of losing her life partner. If you listen to her with as much compassion and patience as you can, and help her find sources of support in her community, or perhaps with a trained professional (grief counseling is one useful avenue), you may be able to help this woman move on and reclaim her future.
Q: My client always said he couldn’t wait to retire. But now that he’s handed over his business to his grown son, he no longer seems to know what to do with himself. His monthly expenses, including greens fees, travel, and dining out, have skyrocketed. I’m thinking of suggesting that he go back to work. Should I? Or is this extravagance only temporary ?
A: Somehow, I’m skeptical that the idea of going back to work will be well received by this client.
I wouldn’t impose solutions on him, or even suggest any specifics, unless his own thoughts and feelings lead you to a recommendation. So before you speak up, consider meeting with him, perhaps over lunch or coffee, to ask how his retirement is going. Is he happy about what he’s doing? Does he feel fulfilled? Does he miss work? If so, what aspects of it does he miss?
Once you’ve explored how he’s doing now, other avenues of discussion may open up. Is he afraid of outliving his money? (Do you think he will?) Does he have any interest in part-time or consulting work? Would volunteering or mentoring help him feel his life is more balanced?
It’s difficult to predict whether or not his extravagance will last. However, I do think that the better he understands what’s going on inside him, the more likely he is to change his over-indulgent lifestyle.
As clients like these enter their third age–leaving, scaling back, or transforming the work that has defined them for years–many of them will need your guidance in making this transition. With insight and skill, you can help them shape a new life-stage that represents who they truly are and brings them new meaning, new friends, and new sources of satisfaction. In so doing, you’ll cement a strong bond with your clients that may endure for years to come.