Testing the Waters

Dan McDermott

AT THE PUBLIC POOL where I swam growing up, each hour’s mandatory safety break ended with the announcement that, “You may slowly reenter the water.”

There were two kinds of swimmers during those hot, humid Iowa summers. One group didn’t even hear the entire announcement. They were already enthusiastically running, yelling and jumping feet-first into the pool. The other group walked to the pool, tested the water with one foot and then waded in bit by bit, gradually getting used to the temperature.

Traditionally, most people have thought of and planned for retirement as a defined event. But like my fellow swimmers from childhood, there are different ways to approach it. From my reading and research, along with conversations with colleagues, friends and former classmates, I’ve come to view retirement as more of a process than an event.

I’m an advocate for planning a phased retirement. Begin to reduce your commitments to work and career over time to better orient yourself to what your retirement might be like. Less time devoted to your career leaves more time to test out retirement experiences, reassess your expectations and make changes as needed.

Over the past two years, it seems we’ve heard even more about retirement than usual. Some workers were forced into a sooner-than-planned retirement due to COVID-related furloughs and layoffs. Some opted out of the workplace for a variety of personal reasons. Many others are vague on their plans. They talk of “working just a few more years and then I’ll be done.” But there’s no clear timeline and it seems as though they’re just postponing decisions.

Even the terminology can be confusing. While the term “retirement” is well-accepted, most attempts to describe something more flexible have fallen flat. Unretirement? That doesn’t work for me. It sounds like you retired too soon, didn’t know what to do and went back to work fulltime. Semi-retirement and other phrases like it sound both passive and static.

In a less-than-scientific poll, I asked readers of my blog to vote on the term that best describes a gradual, planned shift from work to retirement. About 50 responded. The winner by a wide margin was “phased retirement.”

Phased retirement is an approach to retirement that’s actively planned and managed. It allows you to look at and experience all aspects of retirement before, ahem, taking the plunge.

The focus shouldn’t be on the financial aspects alone. While those are important, most retirees I’ve spoken to were well-prepared financially but failed to plan for and adapt to the social, physical and mental aspects. Contrary to the advertisements, retirement is not just golf and dinner out with friends every day. There’s a lot of time to fill.

My research and thinking about my own retirement goals started more than 10 years ago while I watched a mentor navigate the process. He modeled every step. Some of it was planned, but oftentimes he encountered some new life situation that caused him to think anew. But since he was “phasing” his retirement, it was never a major change. Just a course correction.

When I asked him how he was easing back on his professional career, he used a metaphor. He talked about landing the plane slowly and smoothly before arriving at the gate.

He held leadership roles as a fulltime employee at several large companies. His first phase was to retire from a large company to join a consulting company that could market his skills. It was fine with him if he didn’t always have work. That was a part of his plan to wind down his working hours and begin to explore other interests. Eventually, he took on only certain projects and, near the end of many years of transition, he would take on projects for only one specific client.

Start planning your phased retirement now. Could you reduce your workload at your current employer? Or would you prefer a clean break with some time off followed by part-time work? What will you do to make your additional free time productive and enjoyable? If you put off exploring other interests, like travel and adult learning, you may find someday that you have little time or energy left to embrace them.

Planning for these changes in a phased way could help you minimize any disruptions to your lifestyle, and help you better acclimate and embrace the changes.

Repeat after me: “You may now slowly enter the water.”

Dan McDermott is an information technology executive in Minneapolis. He and his wife Sarah split their time between Minnesota and Arizona. They have two grown children. Dan works hard to learn about cryptocurrency from his son and Instagram from his daughter. Going for a long, leisurely run is his precious thinking time. Check out Dan’s blog.

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