“What’s Next” As You Anticipate Retirement?


Melita DeBellis

My father is 87 years old.  He retired nearly 20 years ago, after spending 37 years as superintendent of schools in my hometown.  He was one of the “lucky” ones – from the generation that could expect to hold the same job for their entire career.

After he retired, my father dabbled for a bit in real estate.  He also taught math at the local community college, until it became a little tough for him to drive at night and in bad weather.  Eventually he experienced some health problems (heart attack, quadruple bypass), and the serious illness and death of my mother when he was 77.  In the 20 years since he retired, I don’t think a week has gone by that he hasn’t suggested to me that I should take – or teach – some classes in the local college.

The remarkable thing about my father is that to this day he still looks at the want ads.  I used to think he was doing that to find me a different job (maybe I wasn’t living up to his expectations), but I came to realize that in reality it is a hobby for him.  Actually, it may be even more than that, because he continues to see possibilities for himself in the listings he reads.

I’m constantly amazed at my father’s perception of time – he seems to operate in DST – Dad Standard Time.  The fact that he is 87, a bit unsteady on his feet, and grappling with arthritis, heart issues, and a ridiculous quantity of medication doesn’t seem to stop him at all from thinking about what else is next for him.  Just the other day he spoke of resuming his math teaching or tutoring to keep himself busy.  On a recent visit, he brought along a statistics book for “a little light reading”, and now he is planning to develop some mathematical guides to help people grappling with every day math issues – all rooted in a strong vision he holds for himself and his future.

My point is that regardless of age and health, my father continues to hold a remarkably vibrant vision of possibilities for his life.  Even after 20 years of “retirement”, he continues to seek avenues for contribution.  No doubt he will be reading the employment ads until he dies.

So, what about you?  What’s next for you?  Is there a dream that was derailed or put on the back burner 30 or 40 years ago when you started your career?  As you get closer to the expected time for retirement from your career or current position, what else might you choose? 

Maybe for a large portion of your career you have made choices that were rooted in the expectations of others.  I started out my career that way.  In fact, I spent a few years as a practicing attorney in the Washington , DC area – a career move precipitated when my casual mention of the possibility of law school to my parents suddenly took on a life of its own.  (Of course, I had nothing to do with it.)  Next thing I know I’m at George Washington University law school, wondering what the heck I had done!  But it seemed like the cool thing to do – especially in 1978, when there were fewer women in law school.  And my parents were so proud.

After a few years my journey shifted – from immigration attorney to work in a corporation handling legal affairs.  Gradually this led to employment law issues, and then another shift to a career in human resource management.  Finally, 20+ years after finishing law school, I started making choices rooted in what I knew to be most important to me, and found my place and passion in life and career coaching in Vermont .  Yet for those 20 years, I made so many choices based on what I thought I should be doing.  I did what everyone else I knew from law school was doing.  I got a good paying job, bought a condo, got a car, traveled, splurged on clothes and restaurants, went to shows, redecorated the condo, and grappled with trying to have a career and find a husband.  I was no different than most of the yuppies in the city at that time.  I remember talking to my mother about my dissatisfaction with my work – and try as she did, she just couldn’t understand.  She kept saying, “when I was young, I knew what I wanted and I did it and was happy with it”.  But of course, her options were limited – nurse, secretary, and teacher were among the more common professions for women in the 1940s and 1950s.  She chose teacher – although I suspect it chose her.

There’s a term that’s gaining widespread recognition now, known as the “Third Age”.  It refers to our lives from around ages 50 to 80, and it is know as the age of fulfillment.  Unlike our Second Age (our 20s – 40s), when the focus is on achievement, the Third Age offers the opportunity to begin reconsidering what is important to each of us for our lives, based on our own internal beliefs and desires.  The opportunity for third age fulfillment is made possible by the fact that we are living longer and so many of us can expect to live long and healthy lives well into our 80s.  This means, if one retires at age 55, 60 or 65, they can expect to live another 20 to 30 years.  That’s not much less than our working years!

Retirement, traditionally, has meant a period of gradual withdrawal.  I don’t think the word applies to most of us any more, because the whole concept of retirement is being redefined by the baby boomers.  Third Age, by contrast, is a period of commencement – commencement of a new and emerging life stage that didn’t even exist for previous generations.  The life stage of adolescents and teenagers is remarkably different than what it meant to be 13, or 15, or 18 as recently as 75 years ago.  Such is the same for our Third Age.  The possibilities and opportunities for a fulfilling life in our 50s, 60s, and 70s – characterized by a second period of growth and renewal – are unlike anything available to our grandparents or great grandparents 75 years ago.  And I don’t use the terms growth and renewal lightly – it’s not merely the wishful thinking of this boomer on the cusp of 50.  Rather, it is the observation of sociologist and college professor Dr. William Sadler, whose 15+ years of research of individuals in their Third Age demonstrated to him the remarkable capacity of individuals to experience renewed growth in their lives when they follow certain principles and practices. (for more information, you might enjoy reading his book, “The Third Age – 6 Principles of Growth and Renewal after 40”).

So, what will you do with your Third Age?  What are the expectations of your profession for what retirement should look like – and how closely does that match your true interests?  Do you feel drawn to Florida ’s sandy beaches and the country club?  Or perhaps something else holds greater heart and meaning for you.  As your identity shifts from the family and career roles you have held for so many years, who would you like to become?  What are the new ways for making a contribution using all of the gifts and talents you have honed over the years?  What does the concept of legacy mean to you?

The prospects of entering Third Age can seem daunting.  In fact, the Third Age is a bit like a Mapquest map zoomed all the way out – you know, where you see 2 or three black lines, a couple of dots, and maybe a star.  There is no roadmap for this journey.  In our Second Age, we knew what was expected of us and what we thought it should look like.  In our Third Age, we get to be the cartographers of our lives.  We – you – get to draw our own maps now – and fill in the landmarks that are most important to us.  It’s an Etch-A-Sketch for grown ups now!

You have likely spent a long or satisfying career supporting and serving others, perhaps helping them with planning or solving their problems.  Maybe your energies have been directed at caring for your family.  Now is the time to give yourself that same support as you ponder what’s next for yourself.  Think of yourself as a life artist, and consider your Third Age life portfolio.  What vision would you like to draw for yourself with respect to work for fun or pay?  Recreation?  Your personal growth?  Your health?  The questions we begin asking in our Third Age are quite common, but the answers and approach to finding them will be uniquely personal to you.  There are many resources out there to help you figure out what’s next – books, self help guides, friends, family, life coaches, workshops, and more.  The approach doesn’t matter – what does matter is recognizing that you have choices and taking advantage of them. 

And if you need additional help – there’s always my father.  I think he’s finished with the paper for today.

Melita DeBellis, JD, CPCC, is a life and career coach in Richmond, Vermont and an associate of The Center for Third Age Leadership (www.thirdagecenter.com).  She is a 1981 graduate of The National Law Center , the George Washington University in Washington , DC .  If you are interested in learning more about third age life planning, you may contact Melita at 802-434-6600, or email her at Melita@turning-point-coaching.com

© 2005 Melita DeBellis - all rights reserved.