About 135 years ago, retirement age was set at 65, which may have been a bit ambitious, considering that by 1900, life expectancy for American men was 43 (48 for women.). For those who did make it to retirement age, the concept was simple — ride out the clock for the year or two you have left and don’t let the Pearly Gates hit you on the way through.
People hitting retirement age today (which is 67 for anyone born since 1960), however, have 20, 30 years in them, says John George, an expert on (and practitioner of) encore careers through the Princeton Senior Resource Center and his own psychology practice. This longevity demands that people find a way to make the golden years count, because if one day is a long time when you have nothing to do, imagine how hard nine or ten thousand days of nothing is going to be.
George will present “Encore Careers: Combining Passion, Purpose and Paycheck,” a free workshop through the PSRC, on Thursday, May 28, at 7 p.m. at Princeton Public Library. Visit princetonlibrary.org.
The idea of finding your Act II career is not George’s baby, and he is quick to give credit where credit is due. George takes his approach towards counseling those in transition from the likes of Richard Leider and William Bridges, two authors who have written extensively on the stages of life’s big transitions, as well as Marc Freedman, who developed Encore Careers as a way to help retirees find that purpose and, ideally, make some money with it.
And while George is all for making some dough, he doesn’t like to concentrate on the money. Too much about what to do in the retirement years, he says, focuses on being productive, on work. What he espouses is the idea of being content, no matter what that means for you.
“There’s no one right way to do it,” he says of life past 65. “People say that 60 is the new 40, but I don’t buy it. The goal is really contentment. If you can wake up every day and feel content, I think that’s success.”
In transition. The life of 70-year-old John George offers an ideal example of what he’s trying to help retirees do. Born and raised in New York City to “a whole family of artists,” George began life after high school as a graphic designer. And he succeeded in the field, but after five or six years, he got “the itch,” he says, to help people in a substantial way.
George then went to college to study clinical psychology. He earned his bachelor’s from Columbia and his Ph.D. from Adelphi, doing his post-doctoral work at NYU. He opened his practice in New York City and, later, Poughkeepsie, where he spent 30 years counseling patients.
“Family reasons” brought him to Princeton, where he now lives, and where he spent a year and a half in retirement before “the itch” struck him again. George started volunteering at PSRC (which he does not shy away from raving about), helping those who just let go of their careers figure out what to do next. Before long, he reopened his practice, part-time, specializing in helping those in transition get through the dangerous middle-ground temptations to either backslide into the familiar-but-unappealing or fast-forward into the exciting-but-not-clearly-thought-out.
The example for others comes through how George handled his own transition. At first, he bought into the idea that he was retired, so he should just kinda bop around doing whatever. But that wasn’t for him. George needed purpose. He needed to feel connected. And he needed to help others he was sure were wrestling with the same debate of whether to listen to what people tell you that you should want or do what makes you happy and content.
Retirement by the numbers. Even if you hate your job and can’t wait to retire, consider that work provides you with seven major functions: Money, utility, social interaction, time management, status, growth, and challenges, George says. The first five are generally accepted functions of work, the last two, George adds to the mix.
Five or seven, the deal is the same — you leave work and you’re suddenly bereft of all those things. “The question becomes, how do you replace those functions?’” he says. One day you’re the boss, the next you’re watching TV. One day you’re at work, gabbing with people you see every day, the next you have no one to talk to and nothing to get back to.
You could, of course, relish the solitude and lack of responsibility. Or you could reconnect with your former career in a new way, like George did. Or you could start a new business or venture. Or you could volunteer your time for a cause you believe in or feel could help people, also like George did.
The point is, listen to the little voice that tells you what you want to do with yourself, George says. We usually know what’s good for us, we just need to pay attention.
This may hurt. A big thing to keep in mind, George says, is that transitions can be painful. They can be confusing. They can make you feel lost and disconnected.
That’s OK. More importantly, that’s normal. In today’s “you can do it” culture, we’re taught to downplay the rough spots. But what that often does, George says, is make people feel isolated, as if no one else is going through the same doubts.
We all do, whether that transition is retirement, a new career, a divorce, a death, or leaving college, he says. We all face the same doubts and emotions. “Acknowledge the detours, the false starts, and the roadblocks,” George says. “Part of the process is serious soul searching about how to make your mark.”
Just be sure to avoid isolation. Cutting yourself off from everyone is a dangerous move, George says. Social interaction is important to helping your mental state, especially in retirement, where the transition is the first time people really start feeling that they’re on a countdown. “Friends and relationships are very important,” he says.
The final measure, of course is if you feel you’re living the life you want. It’s key to be all right with whatever that is, for you.
“Some people go back to familiar work, some go elsewhere,” he says. “That’s one of the great things about retirement. It gives you the freedom to follow a passion.”
And maybe get a paycheck with it.