Exploring Life’s Next Chapter

As we approach our mid-60s, messages about retirement start to pour in. As a society, our thinking about retirement has fossilized around the notion of age 65. Although that age point is creeping upward, society still tells us that the mid-60s is the age when we should be thinking about retirement, and social notions about retirement still revolve around the traditional “golden years” full-stop exit from the workforce.

But many of us in our mid-60s aren’t ready for the career exit ramp. For reasons of pleasure or necessity, some of us want to continue to work. And for those of us who are phasing out of our careers, many want to continue to remain engaged and do “work” that’s meaningful, whether that’s for a paycheck or not.

The Threshold to a New Chapter of Life

There’s probably never been a better time in all of human history to face retirement age. Increased longevity means that most of us can look forward to about 20 years of life beyond age 65, mostly in relatively good health, and that number is moving upward seemingly each year. (The latest figures available are 17.9 years for men and 20.5 years for women in the U.S. as of 2013, according to the CDC.) [1] The question is, what are you going to do with these bonus years?

Our notions about retirement have reached a crossroads. On one hand, Americans still consider 65 the appropriate age at which to retire. Because of these longer lifespans, the thought of going from a busy career directly into a settled Golden Years routine no longer appeals to many people reaching retirement age. Many leaders on the verge of traditional retirement age feel they have a great deal left to contribute – and they’re right.

Today, 65 feels like an arbitrary number. It’s an artifact of the Social Security Act of 1935, which established 65 as the age at which one could collect full Social Security benefits. (Congress has since changed this to between 66 and 67 depending on what year you were born.) Nowadays, most people at that age are relatively healthy, extremely vital, and have plenty of life’s highway in front of them. They want to give back; indeed, they may even feel compelled to give back. As the psychologist Erik Erikson pointed out in the 1960s, there’s a psychological tension in late adulthood between generativity and stagnation. With childrearing out of the way, we feel the need to turn our generative powers to giving back and setting the stage for the next generation. Many believe, as Erikson did, that this impulse is hardwired into us.

Many people are rewriting the rulebook, recognizing that
retirement doesn’t have to be a full-stop exit from a working life.

Many people are rewriting the rulebook on retirement, recognizing that it doesn’t have to be an exit from a working life. Instead, it can be a springboard into a new kind of career, perhaps the pursuit of underdeveloped or underexplored lifelong passions. The idea of a life of leisure after retirement might appeal to some, but for many, two decades is too long to spend simply on vacation. In fact, for many reasons that I’ll cover in a future post, the Golden Years notion of retirement may have negative consequences for your health, relationships, and longevity.

If you’re ready to write your own rulebook for retirement, you’ll probably find plenty of kindred spirits among your peers. Research suggests that many Boomers plan to postpone retirement either because they want to or need to.

If you want to continue to work for your own personal satisfaction, you’ll have company. In a recent study, 8 out of 10 Baby Boomers said that they plan to work at least part-time during retirement. A study of the nation’s nonprofit leaders found that 95% of them rejected the Golden Years version of retirement, and 60% said that they plan to work until at least age 70.[2]

If you need to work for financial reasons, you’ll have company, too. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 47.2 percent of the oldest Boomers lack sufficient income to cover basic retirement expenditures and uninsured healthcare costs.[3] For this reason, many are planning to work well past 65 and delay taking Social Security until much later. Those who will rely mostly on Social Security have a financial incentive to delay retirement. For most Boomers, your benefits will increase by 8% for each year that you delay taking Social Security, up to age 70.

Increasingly, people on the verge of retirement don’t want to quit working cold turkey. As notable sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot points out, even as people phase out of their careers, they are “continuing to do work that’s meaningful. Continuing to figure out a way to be productive, to be purposeful, to be creative, to be innovative.”[4]

Five Options for Your Next Chapter

Here are five options for composing a post-career life that can possibly satisfy both your desires and your needs.

  1. Immediate, full-time retirement. For some, the life-of-leisure approach is just right. After decades in leadership roles with the joys, struggles, and pressures that you faced, you may feel entitled to the rest-and-relaxation approach to retirement. You might want to give some attention to your level of community engagement and engagement with your social support network. But this approach also has health implications, as I’ll discuss in a future post. For others, the entry into full-time retirement may become more of a time-out stage where you pause and potentially get reconnected with aspects of yourself that were pushed into the background by your leadership roles. You may find yourself returning to the work world through an encore career or re-engaging through a bridge job (described below). It may include engaged retirement, where you’re pursuing a robust schedule of volunteer commitments, delving deeper into hobbies, or spending time with grandchildren. Whichever approach you take, retirement can be a demarcation line between the have tos of your career and the want tos of your post-career. Hopefully, it will be a time of greater freedom and choice.
  2. Phased retirement. This is an arrangement in which you continue working for your current employer with a reduced workload, with the expectation of an eventual transition from full-time work to full-time retirement. There are two typical approaches to this option. The first is a pre-retirement arrangement, with a gradual reduction in days or hours leading up to the transition out of the current role. The second option is a post-retirement arrangement that might include a temporary, part-time, or seasonal role with your current employer. You could also explore the possibility of a job-sharing arrangement. Some post-retirement examples include contracting with your current employer to provide consultation on a project, providing strategic advice for your successor, or performing a different role within the organization that might be full-time or part-time. The benefit of the post-retirement arrangement for the employee is that it typically results in a higher income level than might be provided by a similar role at a different organization. This arrangement has benefits for the organization because the employee’s skills and connections will remain within the organization a little longer. Your employer may also enjoy reduced training costs because of your familiarity with the organization’s clients, systems, culture, etc. One caution about this approach: If you’re the departing CEO, for phased retirement to work, it has to work for your successor too. You certainly don’t want to cast a shadow on your successor’s leadership role. The success of these arrangements often depends on the personalities of the departing and arriving leaders. As the departing executive, you need to give your successor space to assume leadership. If you’re offered this kind of arrangement, take a good long break from the organization, at least 60 days. After that, ideally, work offsite. Also, set up a neutral process to assess if the arrangement is working, and if it’s not, you should take the initiative to move on.
  1. An encore career. This approach may involve a new job or career with your current or a new employer, or creating your own gig through an entrepreneurial venture. Marc Freedman, an early and consistent thought leader on encore careers, outlines three approaches to an encore career: (1) the career recycler, who parlays existing skills into a new job or career, (2) the career maker, who turns a lifelong interest (maybe a hobby) into a new career, and (3) the career changer, who makes a fresh start in a new field.[5] Retirement, along with the possibilities afforded by 21st-century longevity, can simply mark a transition into a different kind of career, a career perhaps more specifically tailored to your individual skills, talents, and needs.
  2. Bridge employment. This is a widely used approach that involves taking on a role that provides money and meaning in the retirement years. This option can embrace a number of approaches: full-time employment, part-time employment, a job that extends your current career, or a role in a completely unrelated field. The specifics about the job are probably less important than the fact that this is a strategy to produce the necessary income, as well as genuine, meaningful engagement during retirement.
  3. Entrepreneurship. Starting and growing a business may be the perfect post-career route for you. Don’t buy into the myth that entrepreneurship is the domain of the young. In 2013, nearly a quarter of new entrepreneurs were in the 55–64 age bracket. And this is a part of a longer growth trend: between 2003 and 2013, the number of older entrepreneurs grew at a faster rate than that of those under age 45.[6] Clearly, starting a business is a popular avenue for many approaching their third age of life.

Because Americans are living longer, retirement needs to be considered not just as an event – the departure from full-time employment – but also as a phase of life, or a life-stage process. Much of what we hear about retirement, and what we’ve discussed in this article, revolves around the retiree’s relationship with gainful employment. There are, however, many more considerations when it comes to your overall well-being when you leave the workforce. Once you have basic necessities covered, such as financial reserves that will allow you to live comfortably, and good physical health, much of your overall satisfaction in retirement has to do with maintaining an active social life and involvement in meaningful projects. The wonderful thing about retirement is that it affords you the freedom to take these other factors into account as you design your next chapter of life. Instead of thinking of retirement as leaving the workforce behind, it can be a phase in which you can re-balance your life portfolio – rearrange your personal and professional priorities so you can get the most out of post-career life. Welcome to the new version of the Golden Years!


[1] National Center for Health Statistics. 2015. “Health, United States, 2014: With Special Feature on Adults Aged 55–64.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus14.pdf.

[2] Kunreuther, F., Segal, P., & Clohsey, S. 2012. The New Lifecycle of Work: Long-Term Nonprofit Leaders Prepare for their Future. New York, NY: Building Movement Project.

[3] VanDerhei, J., & Copeland, C. 2010. “The EBRI Retirement Readiness Rating: Retirement Income Preparation and Future Prospects.” EBRI Issue Brief (344).

[4] Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. 2010. The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years after 50. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Also see: Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. 2009. “A Conversation with Bill Moyers and Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. In B. Moyers (Ed.), A World of Ideas: Conversations with Thoughtful Men and Women About American Life Today and the Ideas Shaping Our Future. PBS.

[5] Freedman, M. 2007. Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life (1st ed.). New York: PublicAffairs.

[6] Fairlie, R. W. 2013. Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity: 1996–2013. Kansas City: The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.