What is your retirement song?

‘Don’t get to your grave with your song unsung’. So said American speaker Cavett Robert. It’s my favourite saying. Why? Because it challenges me to think about the big questions in life. Why am I here? What do I want to achieve while I’m walking this planet?

I’m a baby boomer and I’m keenly aware that there is now more life behind me than potentially ahead. So I find myself pondering what’s important to me, what would I still like to do. And I’m not alone in this. Plenty of people, not just baby boomers, wonder about what their song is and whether they are singing it.

We don’t just have one song in life. We could be singing multiple songs at different stages of life. The songs you sing as an unattached, free-ranging 20 something will differ from young parents juggling jobs and bills. Stacks of songs are possible for baby boomers, depending on whether you’re an empty nester, need to care for elderly relatives, have an interesting job, are in good health, operate a business or have a mortgage. What I find though, is at some point people start thinking: Is this all there is? They have a sense that at some deep, personal level, something is missing. Of all the songs they’ve been singing, ‘their song’ has yet to be sung. Retirement provides an opportunity to sing it.

While you’re busy, juggling many demands, you may not have given much, if any, thought to that period of life called ‘retirement’. Why would you? You’re still working and there seems no pressing need to consider the next stage of life into your sixties and early seventies. And certainly there’s no time to think about it, let alone plan. Yet planning doesn’t have to take a lot of time, nor be completed in one sitting. But it does need to be done.

Retirement is a process

Retirement has traditionally been regarded as an event, marking a distinct phase of life, when full-time work stopped, and people moved into a life of leisure and relaxation. This model of retirement, with its cold turkey exit from the workforce, may still apply to some, but with the line between working full-time and not working blurring, baby boomers need to consider their options.

Retirement is now more a process than an event. Without some planning, the risk is that people retire from what they are doing, without having a clear idea of how they will retire and what they are retiring to.

How do you find your song?

Planning for retirement is just as complex and important a process as deciding what occupation or profession to embark on in the first place. We place much emphasis on asking the young ‘What would you like to do when you grow up?’ This is not a once-only question. It’s also a question that can have different answers each time it is asked. Pre-retirees also need to ask themselves, What do I want to do now? What is my song now and for the next couple of decades?

I suggest baby boomers become ‘career activists’. These are people who take charge of their life, thinking through what retirement means, how they want to live it and creating their own path to find it.

Why become a career activist?

Three reasons come to mind as to why baby boomers should take charge of their careers. Firstly, each of us needs to work out for ourselves what retirement means. What comes to mind when you ponder retirement? Is it positive or negative? Whose retirements have you observed? What would you like to emulate or do differently than these retirements?

Secondly, retirement is a major life change. Our roles, relationships, daily routines all evolve. Retirement involves a transition between two significantly different stages of our lives. Drifting into retirement with no clear plan, hoping it will evolve on its own, is a poor recipe. Career activists have the skills to handle this change so as to obtain the best possible outcome.

Thirdly, this transition is stressful. Three areas cause stress in retirement. People underestimate the emotional impact. Do you understand what you are leaving behind? Will you miss your job title and all those problems you face at work? Stress also comes from a lack of fulfilling activities. Have you thought about the loss of structure to your day? Will playing golf be enough? Yet another source of stress is the change in family dynamics. How much time do you really want to spend with your spouse or partner? In short, can you imagine rising each day with the same anticipation you experience during your working career?

There’s much to think about for a pre-retiree career activist. The main task is to make sense of retirement in the context of your own life. The popular image of the happy retired couple strolling hand in hand at sunset along a pristine beach may fit and be attainable. Then again, you may wish to join the grey nomads touring the country, topping up the coffers with casual farm labour, such as fruit picking. Or you may wish to indulge some long-neglected hobbies. Any of these are worthy songs so long as you’ve thought them through.

Naturalist Diane Ackerman said: ‘I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I just lived the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well’. Part of the breadth and depth of life is singing your song. What will your song be?

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.