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What Gold Watch?

Richard Connor

RECENT NEWS ARTICLES have noted the sharp increase in early retirements, many triggered by the pandemic. Just over 50% of Americans age 55 and older are now retired, a two percentage point increase from 2019, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

I have several friends and colleagues who are bucking that trend and instead delaying their retirement. They’re financially set but concerned about the transition from fulltime work to “doing nothing.” Yet some of these same workers are also struggling with changes in their companies and industries. The stress is making them feel as if they’ve had enough.

My wife has two former colleagues in this situation. Both women are successful executives in health care. Both are retirement age and trying to figure out if they’re ready to quit. One tried to switch her schedule to part-time. She found she never actually stopped working fulltime, so she went back to fulltime status. Both women are married and their husbands are already retired.

Their employer has gone through significant change in the past five years, including acquisitions, mergers, teaming with a private equity firm and leadership changes. They’re finding that their experience, skills and knowledge are less valued by the new leadership.

This can create a quandary for someone close to retirement. You may be financially ready to retire, but not mentally, and yet your job situation is hinting it’s time to get out.

I saw this happen numerous times over my last decade at my former employer, Lockheed Martin. New leadership brings in new ideas and organizational structures. Some of it was driven by the government, which was our primary customer. Some of it was driven by changes in technology.

The result was that many successful senior employees quietly left. They weren’t as valued any longer. It was sad to watch a successful colleague leave under less than glorious circumstances.

In my last management position, I oversaw the winding down of one of our largest systems engineering programs. It took a few years and, by the end, we had let about 50 people go. Some were able to find new jobs within the company, some found new jobs outside and many quietly retired.

For about 12 months, we held a weekly goodbye luncheon for those leaving that week. We all got farewell fatigue. The mood was somber.

Having watched my friends and colleagues leave, I tried to prepare myself for my turn. My last day was March 31, 2017. I was one of the last to leave the program. They scraped together a mix of employees for a brief farewell lunch.

When I had a chance to say a few words, I expressed gratitude for the interesting and challenging work, and for the many wonderful, intelligent people I’d worked with. And I sincerely meant every word of it. But later, it was hard not to think of it as an inglorious way to exit. I honestly would have preferred to leave quietly.

I have no solutions to offer for this quandary, except to recommend that folks start preparing for their retirement as early as possible. I put lots of time and energy into making sure my wife and I were financially ready. But I put much less effort into preparing mentally and physically for retirement.

One important step is to make an honest assessment of your job, your skills and the likelihood of working for as long as you want at your current employer. Stopping work—especially work that you enjoyed—is a big transition. When it comes about not because of your choice, but because of someone else’s assessment of your value, it can be doubly hard to accept. My advice: Prepare as best you can—and do so as early as you can.

Richard Connor is a semi-retired aerospace engineer with a keen interest in finance. He enjoys a wide variety of other interests, including chasing grandkids, space, sports, travel, winemaking and reading. Follow Rick on Twitter @RConnor609 and check out his earlier articles.

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