When Gloria Walker wanted to scale back her work in sales and marketing for a retirement community in Falmouth, Maine, she gave her employer more than two years’ notice about her plan.
That lengthy lead time gave her company plenty of time to find and train someone to replace her after her 18-year tenure and gave Walker time to adjust to the idea of working three days a week instead of full time.
“I’ve never not worked a full-time job. I didn’t want to go cold turkey—that’s too abrupt,” said Walker, 62, who will move to her lighter schedule in January. “I’m not going to be full-time retired. But I’ll get to hit snooze two days a week and be on my own schedule.”
“‘We’ve made the question of being ready to retire all about money, but some people miss the point. You need enough money to be able to sleep at night and enough purpose to wake up in the morning.’”
Having a long road to retirement can help ease transitions, provide more time for financial planning and give companies opportunities to plan, experts said.
“In the past, the protocol was you reached a certain age and you retired. That’s not the norm anymore. And it’s an ageist precept,” said Mitch Anthony, author of “The New Retirementality” and retirement coach.
It may even be good for your health. Anthony said working an extra year can add 11% to your lifespan.
“We’ve made the question of being ready to retire all about money, but some people miss the point. You need enough money to be able to sleep at night and enough purpose to wake up in the morning,” Anthony said.
Gerontologist Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University, said the idea of full-time employment followed by full-time retirement is becoming less and less common.
“The whole retirement situation is much more fluid,” Pillemer said. “People un-retire and re-retire multiple times across the course of their lives.”
Pillemer said most workers have a contemplation stage when they begin thinking about retiring and they examine their lives and look at what their peers are doing. Then they begin actually planning their retirement and what they will do with their time, following by disclosing and announcing their retirement.
Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, has been working on retiring from the helm of the pro-business organization since the spring of 2021. He gave the board of the chamber, where he’s been president for nearly 30 years, plenty of warning so they’d have time to find a replacement. Though he initially targeted leaving at the end of 2022, he now may stay longer until the right candidate is found, he said.
“I had a feeling of need and obligation and having a Ionger runway to retirement made sense for me,” said Connors, 79. “It’s hard letting go when you’ve got ownership that you’re probably not entitled to. But it’s the right time for everyone. A long runway was good for the board, too. I’m having a hard time letting go. I have to remind myself I’m leaving.”
Connors is still sorting out what he’ll do after he leaves his job and is weighing serving on boards, volunteering, consulting and traveling.
“I suspect I’ll need to do something that’s meaningful,” Connors said.
While having transitions can be a benefit to help a worker get used to the idea of not working and plan what they’ll do with their free time, there’s a potential downside to announcing plans too early, Pillemer said.
“There’s enormous evidence of ageism in the workplace. When you announce when you’re going to retire and it’s a long time away, people may ask if you’ll be committed, they’ll ask why aren’t you retiring now, and could shift tasks away from you,” Pillemer said. “Announcing a retirement too early carries some risk.”
Pillemer said the “sweet spot” of retirement announcements is about three to six months ahead of time. That’s enough time to give a company time to find someone new, it gives the employee incentive to plan their postwork lifestyle, and it’s not so long that the worker runs the risk of being phased out before they’re ready.
“A lot longer in advance and you risk being marginalized,” said Pillemer.
Retiring when you’re ready — ‘age is irrelevant’
Most Americans express mixed feelings about their retirement.
While 57% of retirees and 43% of non-retirees feel confident about retirement, many from each group also report feeling anxious (19% and 41% respectively) and overwhelmed (14% and 34% respectively) about what is to come, according to a new retirement readiness survey by diversified financial services company Thrivent.
Only 5% of those nearing retirement said they have everything fully planned out and are 100% ready for retirement, while 19% in this group said they’ve done a great amount of planning and 32% a good amount of planning, Thrivent found.
“A successful retirement is retiring to something, not from something. It might be a cliché but it’s true,” said Chip Conley, founder and CEO of the Modern Elder Academy and author of “Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder.”
As much as people hope to travel, spend time with family and friends and explore hobbies, retirement can also bring on a loss of identity and socialization that had been provided by work, not to mention the financial aspects, experts said. The average retirees watches 47 hours of television a week, Conley said.
There’s even health risks associated with giving up work. In the first year of retirement, there’s a 30% reduction in short-term memory, Anthony said.
“How many people have that on their bucket list? No one wants that,” Anthony said. “When it comes to retirement, age is irrelevant in this discussion. Don’t do it until you’re ready to retire.”
If you do have a lengthy retirement transition—make the most of that time and mentor other employees and help their growth by passing on your wisdom and experience, Conley said.
“Two or three years can be helpful. It gives the person time to mentor and for institutional wisdom to get passed on,” Conley said. “Use that time to be the librarian and confidante and mentor. It’s a beautiful time to be the wisdom worker, not the knowledge worker at your company.”
“You want to stay energetic, curious and engaged. It’s like the last inning of a baseball game can be the most interesting—go out in a blaze,” Conley said.