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Rewiring—Not Retiring

Figuring out the next phase of your life.

Source: patpitchaya/shutterstock

As we enter the new year, it’s a good time to step back and think ahead, mulling how we’d like to change our lives in the coming year. But we don’t mean resolutions to get more exercise. If you’re anywhere near retirement age, it’s time to consider how you want to structure this phase of your life.

Retirement is changing, partly because people are living longer. So many people are living well into their 90s that planning for 30 years of retirement has become conventional financial advice.

Moreover, a lot of people still feel pretty vigorous at 65—or 75—and would like to remain engaged with the world. They want to use their experience to make a productive contribution. They don’t want to be bored.

More and more people continue to work at older ages, especially at high-status, white-collar jobs. In fact, the percentage of 65- to 74-year-olds still participating in the labor force was 26.8 percent in 2016, and projected to reach 30.2 percent by 2026.

Understandably, working after retirement age tends to appeal to the well-educated in high-status jobs. These white-collar jobs bring prestige and many of these people like their careers. A 2013 AARP study found that 73 percent of the 60-to-74-year-olds cited job enjoyment as one of the most important reasons they still work.

Our own approach to this stage of life is different enough from a traditional retirement that we adopted a more fitting term for it: “rewiring.” (The term was coined by author Jeri Sedlar.) Given that successful dual-career couples naturally tend to have a strong commitment to their work, this approach may appeal to many of them.

There are no hard-and-fast rules. To “rewire” rather than retire does not mean that you have to keep working for pay, even part-time, unless you want to work or need the extra income. You don’t need to remain engaged with the business world, if that’s where you come from—you could engage with the art world. You could write a book.

Possibly for the first time in your life, you have the freedom to decide how to use your time: Rewiring is the process of reallocating that time. This means you can devote more time to your children and grandchildren—you’re flexible. You might devote yourself to a non-profit organization, a political cause, or a hobby that’s a true passion for you. The key is to commit to staying active and engaged with the world as best you can.

Bram, for instance, is now entering his third phase of rewiring. In his first phase, which lasted five years, he went to work for a small private equity firm, putting in a 40-hour workweek—a big step down from his previous 80-hour weeks.

In his second phase, Bram partnered with both our children to help with their respective businesses—a venture capital firm and a real estate/property management firm.

And now in phase three, after being rewired for 10 years, Bram is trying to manage down his commitments to the business world and play a little more golf.

Ilene, meanwhile, is still in phase one of rewiring. She’s doing a lot of board work, and she’s also involved with a non-profit organization. Her aim is to keep her commitments to roughly 20 hours per week, but this is not steady—some weeks are busy, and some are free.

It’s wise to take some time before rewiring to plan in more detail how you want to spend your time. We both feel that a year or so for planning is about right. For one thing, it can take some time to put the elements of rewiring in place.

The first obvious consideration is whether you really need, or want, to earn more income for some years to maintain the lifestyle you desire or for some other reason, such as beefing up what you plan to leave to your kids or grandkids. If so, that will constrain your choices and control your time. If this is not an issue, you’re flexible.

But bear in mind, if you’re rewiring, you’re committing to more of a working lifestyle than a retirement lifestyle, especially in phase one. You won’t be playing golf three times a week.

And you should be clear on the persona you’re developing. For Bram, this meant developing a career as a private equity and venture capital investor. For Ilene, it was serving on corporate boards.

We’ve always wanted to keep learning all our lives, and that’s one of the keys to rewiring. Stay engaged with the world; read the paper every day. If you’re still connected to business, keep an eye on the stock market. Bram learned a lot about investing. Ilene needs to keep up with the industries related to her boards, whether defense, paper, or food, and this comes naturally because she has a passion for these fields. You must have passion for whatever you do. When you lose your passion, it’s time to move on.

When and how you move from one phase to another is a deeply personal decision, but most people eventually want or need to dial things back seriously. Over time, you just become less obsessed with trying to be connected on the business side, and you spend more and more time on yourself. So even the rewired may finally fully retire. In terms of the business world—which is not all of life, by any means—the sequence is rewired, retired, irrelevant. But don’t take this personally. By the time you become irrelevant to the business world, the business world will probably be irrelevant to you.

So, in phase one of rewiring, both Ilene and Bram dialed back their time commitments to about half their previous level—Bram was just starting from an initial level that was crazy high. The difference is simply one of preference and personality.

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