At each age, I have planned my next stage in life by looking at men a few years older than me and trying not to become like them. (Women tend to react to life differently, so I found them less useful as negative role models.) In my 20s, I listened to men in their 30s talk about mortgages and how hard it is to find good ones. builders in London. In their thirties, I saw mediocre men conclude that they were God because Buggins had retired and given a position of power – or at least a newspaper column.
Today I see disgruntled former executives in their sixties and sixties complaining about a world that no longer needs them. This phenomenon dates back to King Lear, but is quickly reaching a crisis point, given the ever-growing number of retirees, supplemented by the millions more who resigned during the pandemic. As I head into retirement, I make plans to manage it better.
Many retired men today derive their identity from their professional status. Once they lose that, all they have to do is become a danger to their environment.
A few years ago, when a friend retired, I congratulated his wife on the great turnout: your husband was very appreciated at work, I say. She wasn’t impressed: “As long as he doesn’t think he can start hanging around the house and wasting my time.” But that’s precisely what retired men tend to do. After decades of treating their family as an accessory to The Career, they fit into an environment that has learned to buzz without them. Hence the problem of retired husband syndrome, which was first identified in Japanese wives, some of whom call their husbands sodai gomi (oversized waste) or nure-ochiba (wet fallen leaf).
Management thinker Manfred Kets de Vries, in his 2003 founding essay on “The Retirement Syndrome”, explains why “leaders” (as well as many not quite leaders) find it hard to let go. These people have invested their lives in work, neglecting relationships and hobbies.
“The prospect of coming down from the top of the pile and becoming a person has little appeal to them,” writes Kets de Vries. Getting off can be particularly difficult for the current generation of male ex-leaders because they enjoyed such rights: the guaranteed pension, the company car and for some even the right to grope.
Suddenly, no one fears them anymore. Kets de Vries quotes Harry Truman’s complaint when he left the White House: “Two hours ago, I could have said five words and been quoted in 15 minutes in all the capitals of the world. Now I could talk for two hours and no one would care. The retired men fear that their successors will destroy their jobs, and they fear revenge on the enemies they have made for themselves along the way.
All of this tends to happen, notes Kets de Vries, at the stage of life when the body goes into humiliating decline, so that the victim suffers from two serious narcissistic wounds at the same time. “Regrets replace dreams,” writes Kets de Vries, warning: “Old people can be dangerous; they often care little about what happens to the world once they no longer run it.
Any man heading for a retirement pension must undergo a health check. Try to ask yourself: what is the likelihood that every change since your prime will be for the worse? What are the chances that your old organization will collapse without you? How long does the young person you are haranguing have compared to yourself? If you name important people you knew in the 1980s, will the effect be diminished if you have to explain who they were? Are you a victim of the fallacy of the good old days? Are you becoming an Old Bore?
If you’re trying to stay relevant by becoming a mentor, ask yourself: Does your future mentee want to be a mentee? How old were you when you first heard about the internet, climate change and diversity? At what point in your career did you start to prioritize them? Since life is different now, how useful could your advice be?
Better to use your power while you still have it. Appreciate that you got lucky, instead of whining about being busy. Accept that your successor, who will most likely be drawn from a talent pool larger than you, will likely be better than you. Overcome Yourself: Neither you nor your impending demise is a big deal.
In the meantime, prepare for retirement, which, like the greatest death to come, can strike on a morning when you least expect it. Take pre-retirement courses and, if you can, step out of work. Volunteer for charity. Once you’ve been sidelined, don’t expect your old organization to blindly take an interest in you. Don’t try to become a full-time back seat driver or unpaid online commentator. You might as well take advantage of the retirement pension because the next and final stage in life will likely be worse.
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