This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on June 13, 2022 - June 19, 2022
“Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy.” — Victor Frankl, Austrian philosopher and Holocaust survivor (1905–1997)
I visit my nearby place of worship every morning for my dawn prayers. In younger times, I used to joke that it was my way to bribe the Almighty to ensure a productive and meaningful day. Not that God needs bribing, you understand.
I should have expected it, but this morning, when I looked around me, I found my fellow worshippers were mostly of the older generation — folks who have reached a certain age and are in the second phase of their lives — retirement.
For the younger readers of this column, let me tell you that retirement at the age of 60 is quite unsettling because we retire much healthier than our predecessors, and are also living longer than before. We still have songs in our souls that need to be sung!
Otto von Bismarck, the 19th-century German chancellor, introduced the first government pension scheme. Then, he set the retirement age at 65 years when life expectancy at birth was 45. Today, the retirement years account for a far larger part of the average human lifespan: in Malaysia, average life expectancy is 76 years for men and 81 for women. In 1960, just over a tenth of the population of the world were over 60; by 2050, this is projected to reach one-third. So, what is a pensioner/retiree to do?
After prayers today, some of us decided to come together for a cup of coffee and some roti canai and address that subject. It was a convivial atmosphere at the nearby mamak stall as we sat and chatted about retirement.
When I spoke about my definition of retirement, I think it caught my friends off-guard. In my mind, retirement is never who you are or where you’re at in life, rather, it is the transition of your time and money. In other words, it is a process you go through … not your identity.
For me, the transition for money is a transition from accumulating money to utilising it. For time, it is a transition of reallocating the 40-plus hours per week we spent working. This distinction of what retirement means is an important one to make because most people identify themselves with their work — but when someone is no longer working, they default to labelling themselves as “retired”. Here I opined, was the problem: This default “I’m retired” mindset leaves people stuck, and they never really progress toward reinventing themselves. In essence, they have made retirement their new identity, which just seems odd considering that when you say something is “retired”, it often infers that it has outlived its usefulness.
Personally, I do not think this is an accurate description for most successful people who have lived a life of purpose, who have gained valuable insight and wisdom from their life experiences and who have refined their talents and unique abilities over decades.
Therefore, retirement should not be a label used to describe who someone is — it’s not their identity — rather, retirement is a term used to describe the transition a person is going through from one phase of life to another.
While we’re in the daily grind of working for a living, we often visualise life after retirement as happy, stress-free relaxation. Getting a little R&R is certainly important, but there is a limit to the amount of napping, puttering around the house and daytime television a person can take. Without a plan for life after retirement, many retirees find themselves feeling vaguely unfulfilled and restless, craving something more but not knowing what that something might be.
The famous psychologist Viktor Frankl knew a lot about looking for meaning in life. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote, “Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy.” Frankl believed that the very pursuit of happiness is what thwarts happiness, but once you have a reason to be happy and fulfilled — a meaning — happiness comes automatically.
The problem is that my colleagues and I spent more time planning a vacation than we did planning our retirement. So how do we find a replacement for that fulfilment once we’re no longer punching the proverbial time clock?
When you were choosing a college major or career, did you ever turn towards books to help you zero in on your passions? Well, maybe it’s time to reread those guides. When you listen to podcasts or read interviews from visionaries and millionaires, one of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear is to read a book. That advice works as well for pursuing a passion in a career as it does for finding your meaning for life after retirement.
Engaging a life coach can help too. You worked with a financial adviser to help guide your investing and saving choices, but do you realise that there are life coaches that specialise in helping you transition to life after retirement? Just as a financial adviser can help you navigate the complex and sometimes emotional choices in your financial life, a retirement coach can do the same with personal choices faced by people at or near retirement.
A retirement coach can help you view retirement not as an ending, but as a transition into a new, exciting phase of life. You may have planned your retirement financially and even planned where you wanted to retire, but what else are you going to do for the next 20, 30, or 40 years?
Lastly, identify your ikigai. The Japanese define purpose with the concept of “ikigai”. Ikigai is the intersection of what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs and what you can get paid for.
Maybe in retirement, you can have ikigai without getting paid, but it is still a powerful way of thinking about how to achieve meaning and purpose. At the stall today, we agreed that retirement isn’t the end of the road, but just a turn in the road.
Someone once told me that there really are two lives we live: The first life and then the second life, when we realise we only have one life. I shared that wisdom with my friends today. We agreed and I think that someone was right.
Zakie Shariff is executive chairman of Kiarafics Sdn Bhd, a strategy consulting group. He is also an adjunct professor at the Faculty of Industrial Management, Universiti Malaysia Pahang.
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