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The reality check of retirement – a must-read for anyone 50+ thinking about retirement

26 November 2019 By Victoria Tomlinson

On a scale of one to ten, how much have you thought about retirement? If you have at all, is it a sort of fantasy world of travelling and relaxing? Or a move into a portfolio of interesting roles? Or playing golf and walking with friends most days?

Whatever your vision, the reality for most is very different from what they vaguely had in mind – and far, far tougher than anyone usually talks about.

I have been working with hundreds of people who have recently retired and initially was shocked at how difficult they found it to create a new life. And then we did an event in London two weeks ago for 20+ partners of a global professional services firm and the recurring themes really struck me.

On the first evening, we had a panel of five men and women who had ‘retired’ in the last few years – three were alumni of the firm, two had been FTSE directors. Even though I knew all their stories, hearing the five of them together really brought home how similar their stories were – despite very different journeys and end results. These included becoming a campaigner, helping start-ups and qualifying in a new advisory role.

Here I have pulled together their themes – which I have combined with stories from others I have worked with – and also the lessons learned. With hindsight, what would they have done differently?

1. Think and plan ahead

Time and again, people sit in my office and say, “You would have thought I’d have a plan for retirement, but the truth is you are working 24/7 and it’s always something in the future. I honestly have no idea what I am going to do – other than possibly look for a non-executive director role.”

One of the directors on the panel emailed me after to say, “Those partners are very lucky to have the support of their in house team and experienced people such as yourselves to help with their transitions to their next phase of employment” – everyone on the panel was very envious that these partners were now being given time and support to plan for their retirement. You may not be lucky enough to get something similar, but you need to make time to think and plan ahead.

2. Be selfish

If you have worked for an organisation for 20 or 30 years, you have an instinctive loyalty to them. But you need to change your mindset and put yourself first while you plan your exit. The reality here is that life will go on without you – and even though you know this, your brain doesn’t really accept it. The instinct is to do the ‘right thing’, such as giving plenty of notice and not leaving peers, clients or your team in the lurch. And if you think of others first, you may be the one left in the lurch.

I have heard dozens of stories on these lines – I have merged a number together to protect the individuals, who are still loyal to old colleagues! – to explain this.

It goes on these lines, “I was in Beijing airport at 5am and suddenly thought, what am I doing here? I am no longer enjoying this. I came back and discussed this with my chief exec – I had in mind that I would retire in perhaps a year or two. But we had such a good succession plan in place, he said why don’t we bring this forward? Before I knew it, I was in the middle of leaving parties and looking at an empty diary.”

There is not just the ‘what to do next’ issue here, for many there was an unexpected financial consequence. One or two said they put their foot down and insisted they work another year or whatever, so they could sort their finances. But this brings its own problems, described by one as ‘the walking dead’.

3. The walking dead

Once you announce you are leaving/retiring, inevitably your clients and colleagues immediately see you differently. Clients now want the new team on board – sometimes you are lucky even to be included still in these meetings. You want/need to stay on for financial reasons, but what do you do if you aren’t leading on major projects/clients any more? Occasionally clients do want you to continue to the end, but these seem to be rarer occasions.

One former partner said the whole thing became so painful, they brought forward their retirement date – which was ‘a relief for everyone’.

4. Are your peers really your friends?

This issue is really interesting. You may socialise with your peers, but how much of a friend are they in reality? There is a strong theme that after you leave, your peers more or less cut you dead. Every time I hear a version of this, I can almost hear the story-teller thinking in their head, ‘I may have done this to others’. It isn’t that you are cut dead in that brutal, moving on way. It’s that your peers have busy lives, new pressures, they probably wake up once a week and think, “I must call Jonny or have a drink with him.” And then three months later think, where has time gone?

Time takes on new dimensions between a busy working life to sitting at home, waiting for the phone to ring.

On a positive note, just about everyone says their teams were great. Calling, emailing, catching up – and this was hugely valued and appreciated.

5. The pressure of expectations

When you announce your retirement, there seem to be two responses from colleagues. The first is ‘you lucky thing, no more commuting, all that travel and leisure time, you can lie in if you want and time to see your family.” The second is, ‘What are you going to do? Oh, you’ll get a non-exec role.”

Both of these can fill the retiree with dread. Endless leisure – yes, of course there is a certain appeal. But with it comes, ‘Is that it? I have skills and energy, do I now just sit at home?’

And the expectation of finding non-exec roles can be a huge pressure. As one former partner said to me, “I have spent the last few years advising FTSE boards, so everyone assumes I will now get a non-exec. I am not sure I even want one, but I still don’t know what else I might do. Why am I even thinking of finding non-exec roles – mostly it’s because my peers are expecting me to do this. I know rationally I shouldn’t care, and some days I don’t. But others I really care what they think!”

6. It can take a long time to disconnect from the past

It is no good telling yourself that you have moved on, it takes a long time mentally to disconnect.

Another director emailed me recently and said, “I tend to define myself by my past career. Pictures in my study are of signing contracts with ministers, a group shot of us as students at a swish business school or the view from my swanky CEO’s office in Sydney etc.

There is a real need to move on and think about what we want to define us now and in the future. Family, sport/leisure, voluntary work, support to less fortunate folk, NED roles or whatever? Just think it through, I didn’t, so can give the impression of living in the past. An inflated view of my attractiveness to other companies and a naivety of how people would seek me out for employment was probably at the root of it.”

In the workshop, I had run a session on personal branding and talked about moving from ‘I was…’ to ‘I am …’ At the end when we were reflecting and discussing what impact the workshop generally had had – which was huge – one said, it was this phrase that had resonated the most. He needed to create a new ‘I am’.

7. Be prepared for ‘dark days’

When you listen to people’s retirement stories, it is clear this is a major mental health issue that is rarely discussed and certainly not addressed. The panel session was a relaxed early evening event leading on to dinner. As we filed out for drinks, an organising director asked me, “Have we left this too negative?” I said no, it is the reality and people need a wake-up call. The panel discussion was unbelievably powerful – and shocking, to be honest. But incredibly helpful. The whole workshop was about giving people new skills and ideas and ended on such an upbeat note (partly, this was because we brought in six young entrepreneurs – watch this video if you want to be uplifted). This panel’s reality check in the middle was absolutely needed to ensure people give themselves time to plan ahead and don’t slip back to work being the priority.

Tech Ent

Please click here to play video clip

8. You are a newbie again

A few directors talked about winning that coveted (so they thought) non-executive director role and then realised how hard it was to be the newbie again. One mentioned that when he was being recruited, the board had said how they were looking for ideas from other sectors and wanted real diversity of thinking – but actually, that is rubbish. There were a number of nodding heads at this. Another had got an NHS role – and stuck it out for the experience but hated it. And another talked about the difficulty of how you contribute at meetings – they were used to listening a lot but realised you are expected to say things around the board table and almost this becomes your perceived value. The main message here was not necessarily that getting the non-exec was right or wrong, but to accept that you may be way out of your comfort zone, there may be far more to learn than you anticipated and you may have a bumpy first year or two.

OK, so those are some of the key themes that you want to think about. And I should say, on a positive note, that most of the panel were getting to or had achieved a life that they wanted. One talked about the joy of being able to put his partner first, another that five years on she now loved her non-exec portfolio work – and was having more fun than in a long time.

What advice would all these amazing people give to others coming up to retirement? Here is a summary

  • Have a plan – start thinking, testing out ideas and building new networks long before you leave
  • Keep your cards close to your chest about retirement plans until you are clear in your own mind about what you will do. And be prepared for a quicker exit than you might have expected
  • Talk to family, especially spouses/partners/close family and manage expectations/create plans together
  • There is more to life than non-exec roles, think widely about what you could do at this new stage of life
  • Recognise it will take time – possibly four or five years – to get to where you want to be. And you may need to try a lot of different things to work out what this looks like
  • Be kind and helpful to colleagues who are retiring before you!
  • Be selfish – you have spent your life putting the company first, now it is time for you

I recently wrote a template for professional firms to help partners who are retiring. Listening to the latest discussions, I want to add to this. I think partners should be given major internal projects to lead in their last year so they have meaty, worthwhile things to do if they are tailing off client work. This will help with new contacts and new energy and maximise their value to the firm.

We have had amazing feedback from this workshop – one partner emailed to say it was a ‘masterpiece’! We are so grateful to everyone who contributed to its success – largely because there are so many people who want others to have a better ‘transition’ than they did. We would love to talk to your firm or company if you want to help colleagues coming up to retirement. Whatever the sector, no matter how senior or junior, the issues are very similar and we can help employees to reduce mental health problems and make the most of what can be a very long retirement.

Victoria Tomlinson

Written by Victoria Tomlinson

Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive and founder of Next-Up. Next-Up supports employers with a range of services for directors, partners and employees to help them understand the impact of retirement on mental health and create a plan to use their skills and experience in new ways to ensure wellbeing. A key part of our role is to inspire people with ideas and contacts, beyond traditional expectations. A former director of EY, she is an international speaker on unretirement, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically as well as on leadership and women on boards. She mentors chief executives and directors, start-up businesses and ex-offenders. Victoria is Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and chaired an advisory board for University of Leeds.

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