Shifting from retirement to sustainable legacy

Here’s a riddle for you. It’s a word most shy away from. Many question how to define it. Others use analogies to describe it. Some have not planned for it; others can’t wait to do it. What is it? Retirement!

The avoidance and confusion regarding the topic are understandable. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines retirement as “withdrawal from one’s position or occupation or from active working life.” Use a thesaurus to find a synonym and you may just feel a bit glum. Words like “retreat”, “flight”, and “withdrawal” will stare back at you from the page or screen. It sounds passive, like one is on the losing end of the journey. Moreover, the definition of retirement does not fit well with how most people want to live.

How does this ill-defined concept reconcile with contemporary life? With “boomers” living longer, healthier lives what is needed is a new term and definition. The term should describe the transition from fulltime, fully engaged work to the next phase of life, where one tips the work/home balance in favor of home. The trouble is no one can come up with such a term upon which everyone agrees. So, we are left to accept the word “retirement” and to describe it for ourselves through our actions.

Retirement is rarely an event these days, but more of a process. So, I propose a process called “sustainable legacy.”  Sustainable legacy might be defined as the transition from a fulltime career to a plan for the next few decades of life. It involves ones’ retirement, reputation, and their raison d’être. Again, something sustainable cannot occur as an event, but requires planning and action. And it is this that appears to be lacking in so many organizations.

Organizations have programs in place for employees at all levels to plan for their financial retirement. Go to the Retirement section of corporate websites, and the content centers on pensions, 401Ks, and the like. Rarely do organizations address other areas of importance to the pre-retiree. If you are in the C-suite, pre-retirement may involve a bit of succession planning, as well. Yet so many aspects remain unaddressed. Read on to find how retirement affects those who have enjoyed busy, high-powered careers.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with a recently retired executive at a conference, who was an emeritus officer for this particular conference entity. During our discussion, he confessed he was having trouble making the adjustment to retirement.  After years of long hours, in which he achieved great success, he felt fairly useless. For years he had an administrator who kept him on schedule as he ran from meeting to meeting. People cared about his ideas and opinions. “Now,” he said, “I can wander around Home Depot at 10 am on a Thursday morning, and no one cares where I am or what I’m doing.” The adjustment was difficult for him because he had no plan, beyond the event of retiring, to engage with others, and use the vast resources (skills and knowledge) he had built up over decades. In essence, he knew how to make it through the next few decades financially, but had no plan for his life. This illustrates why it is important to have a sustainable legacy plan.

Retirement, defined as the act of leaving one’s fulltime career, represents just one element of a sustainable legacy. It involves taking many steps, as opposed to marking an event. Consider the following: Have you chosen or recommended a successor? Have you found a way to share your specialized knowledge with others? Are you interested in some sort of bridge employment or consulting? Have you prepared financially?

The next thing to consider for a sustainable legacy is your reputation with those you care about. Ask yourself these questions: How do I want to be remembered? What do I want to be remembered for? What will those I care about know about my values and priorities? Do I care for myself, as well as others?

The third part of a sustainable legacy involves a sense of purpose, or raison d’être. Many people, especially those who found a large portion of their life’s purpose through their work, hesitate to make the transition from their fulltime position to something else. They feel their identity is reflected through their career.  Instead of looking back upon what has been accomplished, try to look forward to what still can be accomplished. How can you leverage your skills and knowledge, or interests you have outside of work, in a way that contributes to meaning in your life?

As you near [that word no one wants to say] consider developing a sustainable legacy. Have a plan, do things that contribute to a positive reputation, and discover your purpose. There is no need to withdraw from life because you won’t be working fulltime. Instead, start a process can continue for decades while you make all the necessary transitions based on your health, financial, and family circumstances.