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Coach and author Ida Offenbach Abbott ’69 upends the rules of retirement
About five years ago, lawyer and professional coach Ida Offenbach Abbott ’69 noticed that more and more of her clients were asking her questions related to retirement. She brought together a group of women who had expressed an interest in the topic; they found the session so useful that they decided to meet regularly, with Abbott as their facilitator.
As Abbott began researching retirement, one thing struck her: The literature mostly focused on financial issues, but what the group of women really wanted to know was, “What am I going to do with my life?” Abbott says.
The work Abbott did with that initial group became the basis for her book, Retirement by Design: A Guided Workbook for Creating a Happy and Purposeful Future, which in 2020 was named one of The Wall Street Journal’s Best Books on Aging and Retirement. Using concepts of design thinking—which starts by looking at the needs of the end user—Abbott developed a set of exercises to help readers create a plan. Today, she has added retirement to her consultant services. Here she discusses her approach to planning for—and living—your best life in retirement.
The perfect plan
It has to be individualized. It really is a time to focus on yourself—something that women especially have a hard time doing. I also think you need to be very flexible, as opposed to the traditional way we have learned to plan—set a goal and work toward that goal. When you’re talking about how you’re going to live your life, it needs to be open-ended. You want to be flexible, so that as things change, you can change. That’s why using design thinking is a great way to think about retirement.
Design thinking and life planning
The concept starts with the end user in mind. When you’re applying that to how you’re going to design your life, the end user is you—what will give you the most comfort, the most meaning, the most joy? And then it’s action-oriented—try things out, then assess. I didn’t realize until I read about design thinking that I think this way anyway. But even people who are more goal-oriented become adept at it very quickly.
Visualize the retirement you want
The first thing I do with clients is determine how self-aware they are. There are some people who are very aware of what they’re interested in, what’s most important to them, and what they want to do. For those who don’t know, I help them identify what they enjoy doing and start making lists of these things. People usually have many more interests than they realize. A lot of what you do as a coach is to bring to the surface things that have been somewhere in your mind, in your heart. Somewhere that you just haven’t paid any attention to for a long time. One of my recommendations—and I encourage people to do this at any age— is to keep a running list of things that sound interesting. That’s something that I think everybody ought to be doing. That way, when the time comes to start identifying activities to pursue in retirement, you already have a long list of possibilities.
Be ready to change course
The perfect example of the need to be flexible is the pandemic. Our lives changed on a dime, and suddenly you couldn’t do the things you wanted to do. Imagine the people who retired in 2020 and expected to travel. If that’s all you were looking forward to, that was a problem. Or you may find yourself doing something that you thought sounded great, but discover you really don’t like it. If you always wanted to sail and you take sailing lessons every week, you can continue the lessons as long as you like, but if you find you don’t really enjoy sailing after all, you can quit and try something else instead. What will that be? You get to choose. That’s the beauty of this process.
The big adjustment
A lot of people are happy in retirement from day one, and that’s great. But for many people it’s a huge adjustment. They’re excited to sleep late and catch up on reading and gardening—and that’s great for a little while. But they find they miss friends from work or having any daily structure. Some feel a sense of loss. That’s why having a social network is so important.
The money myth
Many people feel they can’t afford to retire. Some people really can’t afford to, but I’ve talked to people with millions of dollars in the bank or in investments who feel the same way. There’s always uncertainty; there’s always risk. But I find that when people sit down with a financial planner, many are surprised that they can easily retire.
Consider a side gig
There are options today for people who want to leave the demands of their full-time jobs but continue to earn money. First, if you like your current job, maybe you can negotiate a part-time arrangement. Can you make a go at freelancing? The gig economy offers myriad opportunities—everything from providing dog-walking services to making jam and selling it at farmers markets—and these opportunities continue to grow. You can start a business or be a consultant. Most of the entrepreneurs in this country are over 50.
Retirement is for all ages
A lot of people who contact me are in their 30s and 40s, and they’re starting much earlier to think about retirement because it means different things to them. Young people are retiring from work for a while to raise a family or travel, and then going back to work or going to school or changing careers. And nobody trusts that Social Security is going to be around forever. Nobody has pensions. So, what’s the source of your income going to be over your lifetime? Many people are trying to answer that question by planning early.
Life is not linear
The idea that we are living longer, healthier lives means that people are going to work longer, so instead of thinking of careers as a steady climb, there will be hopscotch patterns. It will be more staccato. There will be breaks. I’ve had people tell me, “I flunked retirement and I’m back at work.” The definition of what retirement means is becoming more and more fluid. Many people are starting to look at life in ways that aren’t necessarily linear.
Advice for the journey
Before retiring, it’s a good idea to form a personal advisory team. Friends and family members can provide encouragement. Colleagues who have retired can advise you on what their experiences have been. You may also want to include your doctor, if there are health issues, or an estate planner.
Nobody likes the word—it’s not useful anymore. I’m not a big one for labels but basically, to me, it means you get to make choices. You decide what you want to do or don’t want to do. And that is liberating. In Spanish, the word for retirement is jubilación—jubilation comes from the same word. So, it’s seen as freedom, as opportunity. You may choose to stay at work in your 70s or 90s and stay productive that way, or you may choose not to. But the concept of retirement—meaning sitting on the porch waiting to die—is long gone.
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