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Retirement Planning - Finding Purpose in Retirement

An article in the Financial Times looked at what Arsène Wenger (68) – the extraordinary former Arsenal football manager – and Martin Sorrell (73) of the global advertising conglomerate, WPP, should do next. Once it would have been obvious - retirement. Retirement planning advice used to centre around people putting their feet up, travelling, playing golf and spending time with their families and friends.


Retirement Planning - Finding Purpose in Retirement


But these days, people aged 50 and 60 plus are ‘younger’ than they have ever been.  They want more from this next stage of their life. They may not have a clear retirement plan yet, but they know they definitely don’t want retirement as we knew it. It’s not just a question of wanting something to do, but more importantly using all those skills and experience they have built over decades.

Research we have carried out amongst ‘retirees’ aged 55+ shows that what really matters to them is to feel useful and relevant (66%) and to have a purpose (60%) – these are significantly more important than earning money or having status (just 15% and 7% respectively). Nearly half (45%) want to keep using their skills - sadly, one in ten of these have offered their skills to others without much success.

So if you are one of those who wants to have a purpose in retirement, how do you find it? Here we share our tips to help you with your retirement planning – based on the experiences and learning from your peers who have done this successfully.

Download our guide to becoming a consultant in your unretirement

Why should you find purpose in retirement?

It may be useful to learn from Mr Wenger whose first comments were that he would need a while to decide if he wanted “another crazy challenge”. Managing a top team was hugely demanding. “It’s a job that requires total commitment,” he said. “I must give myself a little distance…  I’ll have to see how much I miss it.”

FT journalist Michael Skapinker wrote about this interesting topic of retirement planning. He said:

“What ambitions to pursue as we get older is a question for all of us, even those who have not achieved Mr Wenger’s eminence. Having something new to aim at is important at every stage of our lives: it keeps the mind active and prevents us sinking into slothfulness, especially as people of Mr Wenger’s age (68) can expect to live another 20 years or more.

As we confront the time that stretches ahead, the temptation is to dive back into what worked for us before: look at Martin Sorrell, who left WPP, the huge advertising group he built, after an unspecified allegation of “personal misconduct”, which he denies. At the age of 73, he has swiftly plunged his own and other investors’ money into a new and similar-looking venture, S4 Capital. Mr Wenger’s time for contemplation before deciding what to do next is a better idea.”

Michael Skapinker, FT journalist

Skapinker recommends a book by Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was an extraordinary survivor of Auschwitz.

As a psychiatrist, he recommended to his fellow prisoners to find meaning even in the hell of their circumstances – to think about what they still wanted to do and what they had already achieved.

When writing the book later, Frankl reflected that when in Auschwitz he began to predict who would probably survive and those who probably would not. And it was all about identifying those who had a sense of purpose for the future.

Research carried out by the Centre for Ageing Better and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation also highlights the need to find purpose for a successful retirement. These two organisations ran a number of pilot courses to identify issues and provide strategies for successful retirement planning. In their evaluation report, Evaluation of Transitions in Later Life pilot projects, they looked at the process of thinking about retirement and creating retirement plans. 

“Interviewees who were approaching retirement spoke about the sense of purpose and self-worth that working gave them, and of their role in the workplace influencing how they see themselves. The workplace provides the environment that lets them use their skills and strengths and make a valued contribution. Interviewees acknowledged that prior to the course they were anxious about the gap that retirement would leave in their lives.

We also heard from those who were already retired but found themselves ‘in a bit of a rut’. These people felt that they still had something to offer and things they wanted to do, but found that they lacked the motivation, confidence or knowledge to change the position they found themselves in.

Those approaching retirement reported that the chance to explore different ideas, options and potential opportunities helped to alleviate some of their concerns, helping them to see that the end of working life does not mean the end of doing something constructive, worthwhile and valued. As a result of the course, several people had already made plans for what they wanted to do following their retirement. Similarly, the courses re-enthused those interviewed who were already retired, giving them a greater sense of self-belief and a desire to make positive change. Making plans and setting goals has been an important element for those already retired.

Having something to aim for and achieving goals provided a sense of achievement and self-worth. Furthermore, those who had set themselves goals to do new and different things were finding that this also added to the sense of purpose that they now had.”

Evaluation of Transitions in Later Life, the Centre for Ageing Better and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Why is it so hard to find purpose in retirement?


So all these experts and commentators talk about the importance of finding purpose in retirement. What they don’t do is say how you do it!

Over the last few years we have helped nearly 100 people making the transition from full time careers to what we call ‘unretirement’ and for many it was about finding purpose for this next stage. What we have found most surprising is how difficult this can be, even for people who by most people’s standards have been highly successful.

Going back to Wenger, his comment that being Arsenal football manager required ‘total commitment’ is the clue as to why this transition can be such a challenge. If you are successful in your career, it can be almost impossible to find the headspace to think about what you want next.

Having said that, those who have made the smoothest transitions to a new career are those who put retirement plans in place some ten years before they actually made the move!

Download our guide to becoming a consultant in your unretirement

7 steps to finding purpose in retirement planning

We agree that you need to find purpose. We accept that you have not had time to think this through properly so far – in your head, your retirement plans or in actions.  And while you may have lots of ideas in your head, they are still that, ideas without focus.

Where do you start in planning a retirement that will use your skills, make you happy and fulfil the ambitions you still have? While our research shows that earning money in retirement is not necessarily a top priority for most – it is for a significant minority.  And even while you may not ‘need’ to earn money, for many they want to earn something to top up their pension, delay using their pension or just for the sense of self-worth that earning money can bring.


1. Give yourself time to think

Finding purpose in retirement planning - give yourself time to think

There are two sides to giving yourself time.

On the one hand, the more time you give yourself – without having a retirement plan underway  – the more depressed you can feel. 

One person said to us:

“When you no longer have to get up and go to work to pay the mortgage, time can slip. You need to have a plan and get help to make that plan and make it happen. You don’t have all those people relying on you any more – or those teams around you who made your ideas happen. You need new structures in place to create a meaningful retirement plan and put it into action.”

However, just about everyone we have spoken to has said that they needed space between the old, full-on life and a new way of working and living that gave them more pleasure. 

The best way around this seems to be:

  • Have short term activities planned for when you initially retire and leave your full-time career – people have mentioned cruises, golf lessons, holidays with family, walking with friends, cookery courses or other forms of learning
  • These give you short-term purpose so you don’t feel completely at sea – but they aren’t taking up all your headspace. You have spare time available to start thinking, reflecting and planning
  • Use this ‘spare time’ for your first steps in finding a purpose in retirement. Start this process by asking the following retirement planning questions…

2. What really makes you happy?

When helping others, we used to start by discussing someone’s strengths and skills.  These are important, but what has emerged is that what you are good at, doesn’t necessarily make you happy! 

As an example, someone said to us, “I am really, really good at analysing accounts to find the sweet spot of profitability, but I just need a break.  If another financial report pops into my inbox, it will just give me a sinking feeling.  I’ve done this, I want something that makes me excited now.”

Retirement planning is about creating a life on your terms.  Think about what gives you a sense of excitement or brings a smile to your face. What lifts you?

This could be anything from giving careers advice to your children’s friends to public speaking to problem solving.  Jot these down and just think about them. Will  you feel good if you do more of these?


Finding purpose in retirement planning - what really makes you happy?

3. What dreams do you have?

Just because one stage of your life – your full-time career – has finished, does not mean your life has finished with retirement.  If you have  dreams, you may need to give yourself permission to think seriously about them.

Have you had an idea for a business?  Did you always want to write?  Ever imagine yourself as a conference speaker? What about a secret dream to be a university lecturer? Or walking the Himalayas?

One woman said:

“My father was a pilot and I always had a dream to learn to fly. When I was in my 50s, I read the story of a journalist learning to fly and she was only a few years younger than I was.  I suddenly asked myself, what’s stopping me?  There was nothing – I asked family for flying lessons as a present.  I didn’t want to go solo but the lessons were enough.  I didn’t stop grinning for days after each session.”

Don’t hold back and don’t introduce barriers when planning for retirement. Think honestly about what you would love to do – and then think, how do I make this happen?


Finding purpose in your retirement planning - What dreams do you have?

4. What skills do you have?

Having thought about your dreams and what makes you happy, now move on to what skills you have.  Think about these widely and be very specific – not just ‘good at networking’ but any particular types of people you are good at networking with.  Not just ‘marketing’ but maybe ‘helping others to understand and use the latest marketing strategies.’ 

The more detailed your retirement planning is, the more this will help you find opportunities with  your skills. Now you just need to think about who these skills might benefit.

Download our guide to becoming a consultant in your unretirement

5. Dealing with a blank sheet

When we have worked with people to help them plan their unretirement, many actually have ideas of things they would like to do. They just didn’t have the confidence or know-how to turn them into a plan of action. 

However, a few people really can’t see anything ahead.  This tends to be because they aren’t feeling great about this stage of their life and their mind is blocking out ideas and enthusiasm.

In this case, you want to do a few things that will bring out the best in you. Your mind can then start to find opportunities in retirement planning , rather than shutting ideas down before they have started. A few ways to do this are detailed below:

  • Chat to family and friends and ask if they know anyone who could do with some help. You probably want to avoid doing the classic ‘volunteering’ things of helping in a charity shop or distributing leaflets because you may not feel you are using your skills enough – and it may reinforce any negative thoughts. But could you help out at a local school or ask any business friends if they have anything you can help with?  Just go to people you know for now and make the offer simple and easy to say yes to – or you may get caught up in time-consuming processes.
  • Have coffees and lunches with people who are still working but you haven’t seen for a while. Listen out for any problems they may have and offer to help – this could turn into paid consultancy or projects but for now keep it a simple offer while you are thinking about the future
  • Are you involved with any charities – or do you have friends who are? Ask if they need a hand with anything from their accounts to HR issues to property help. 

What you are trying to do here is find something that will remind yourself of the skills you have and make you feel confident and positive.  Working out the things that you like doing and the things you really don’t will help your retirement planning.  You are also giving yourself a purpose and plan for the short term while you work out the longer term.

And don’t rush off to things you really know won’t work.  Lucy Kellaway famously set up the charity, Now Teach, for people to go into teaching after City careers.  She had 1,000 applications, but one person rang her the next day to withdraw his application and said, “I chatted to my wife about this last night and she reminded me I don’t like children, not even our own!”


6. Start prioritising

Finding purpose in retirement planning - start prioritising

Most people find their purpose at this stage by one or more of the following:This process should all be starting to help you find what you want for your longer-term retirement plan. 

  • Using their skills to help others – this can be paid or voluntary
  • Becoming a consultant so they feel a direct link to using their experience – and get paid for it
  • Starting a business to solve a problem or fill a market gap or just do something better than they think others are doing
  • Mentoring others – that can be schoolchildren and students with interview skills; start-up businesses; sounding board for business or charity managers and leaders and more
  • Becoming a non-executive director
  • Becoming a charity trustee
  • Helping charities with specific projects 

Some will find that looking after grandchildren can give that sense of purpose – but many find they want this as part of the mix of what they do in the bigger picture of retirement plans, where they use their experience more specifically as well.


7. Find a sounding board

What most people have said to us is that having someone independent to challenge and support them has made all the difference.  They can be open about how they feel – rather than worrying partners and friends (to use their phrases). Outsiders also tend to ask more questions in areas that friends may fear to go.

Whoever it is, most people will find that having someone to work through a plan will help them. This may be a partner or former colleague, a coach a longstanding friend.  We can also help you by providing retirement planning services.

As a Next-Up member you get an assessment questionnaire which will help you prioritise your initial thoughts, and with this comes an hour’s coaching to turn it into a plan.  From this you can then start adding to your skills to make this plan work – and join a group of people like you so that you can support each other.