A PurposeFilled Retirement

July 9, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — A century ago, retirement in America was a much different thing. The population was still mostly laborers, and that second, resting stage of life lasted only a few years.

"That first generation retired and then they died," explained Paul Damon, president of Family Capital Management in Grand Rapids. "Our parents, they retired and they didn't die. Baby boomers are going to live into their 90s and beyond. A baby born today could see 102. We're talking about retirement as a life span of 30 to 40 years."

For most of the last decade, Damon devoted his practice to helping people transition into retirement. With few exceptions, that planning consisted entirely of financial concerns.

"And every once in awhile, I would see this situation where they didn't experience the joy and satisfaction from retirement that they thought they would," he said. "I'd hear, 'It's good, but it's not what I thought it would be.'"

The majority of his retirees seemed to enjoy their newfound lives of leisure. Many became doting grandparents. But some suffered a surprisingly difficult transition: how to settle into a life previously spent working 40-50 hours a week for 50 weeks of the year.

"Most people think of replacing work and career as replacing income," said Jerry Field, a retiree and certified retirement coach working with Family Capital Management. "It's the status, the purpose of having a career. It's having a reason to get out of bed in the morning."

This summer, Family Capital Management is piloting a new seminar program with its clients aimed at planning for a purpose-filled retirement. The program was developed through research commissioned by the firm which identified that, while there is a multitude of financial planning services available for retirees, there are virtually no planning services for the personal aspects of retirement. In addition to relational concerns such as being removed from the social structure of normal employment and being with a spouse thousands of additional hours in a year, a key topic is finding meaning in retirement.

Not long ago, Field was undertaking a similar process. The sudden acquisition of the company he worked for retired him unexpectedly at the age of 65. He was financially secure, but admittedly lost. These were concerns he didn't expect to have for another decade.

Field began his own course of study on retirement, coming to a similar conclusion as Damon: The first, pre-retirement stage is preparation for the second stage of life, when people have an opportunity to devote their lives to "something significant."

As devout Christians, Damon and Field's goals for a purpose-filled retirement are mission-oriented. If the needs of roughly half of the world's population that live in poverty could be matched with the resources of the 77 million-strong baby boomer population, Damon reasoned, it would have a significant impact.

"This is a totally different message than what retirement is supposed to be about, which is really a permanent vacation," Field said. "But most people have a deep-seeded need to be something significant, to make some kind of contribution, a mark, so that when they're gone, they'll be remembered by it."

Of course, that purpose will be different for every individual. It could as easily be found in family, art or a new career. The key is finding what that purpose is.

"You should ask yourself, if you could do anything in the world, if money wasn't an object, what would you do?" explained Damon. "A lot of time it gets people thinking, because it isn't what they're doing now."

Ideally, a person should work in an occupation that fulfills them, Damon said, but that does not seem to be the standard. People tend to become "trapped" in a career or field by their skill sets and experience. He cited a recent client who had intended to work as a consultant in the automotive industry after retirement. It only took a moment for the client to decide that was not what he wanted to do. His expertise was in automotive manufacturing, but he didn't enjoy the field.

"A purpose and fulfillment is not always something that we have an opportunity to do in the first stage of our life," said Field. "Retirement can truly be an opportunity."

For the majority of individuals, retirement as a time of leisure is perfectly acceptable, Damon said, and there is nothing wrong with that. A research study conducted on behalf of Family Capital Management suggested that only 10 percent of people will seek a higher purpose in retirement. However, Damon and Field believe the percentage will likely prove much higher, particularly in the local market.

If the program is successful, Family Capital Management hopes to roll it out to non-clients in the coming year, as well as to community and employer groups. In the long range, Damon hopes to market the service as an employee benefit to companies with a large number of upcoming retirees.

For employers, the program could have additional human resource benefits. As large clusters of workers move toward retirement, a labor shortage is imminent across all fields, with some industries already suffering. Such a program could slow the transition of workers retiring from a company by keeping them engaged on a part-time or contract basis.

"Rather than walk away, the company can help them do the things they've always wanted to do," Damon said. "It's a win-win situation."     

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