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A Guide to Not Retiring
Some people nearing retirement age simply don't want to leave their jobs. But defying expectations can be difficult—in the office and at home.

By Anne Tergesen - WSJ

It's an inescapable reality of getting older: At some point, everybody expects you to retire.

There's your spouse, who perhaps is already retired and is looking forward to enjoying a relaxing life with you—traveling, visiting grandchildren and just enjoying each other's company. Then there are your co-workers, who may already be whispering about who gets your office. And, let's face it, the rest of society also figures you're ready to retire, because giving up work is simply what most people do.

But what if you don't want to? What if you could afford to retire, but prefer to keep working because you love it? To turn the old saying on its head: What if you find yourself on your deathbed and really do wish you had spent more time at the office?

Still, deciding to stay at work isn't easy—either at home or at work. It means bucking a lot of people's expectations. It means possibly sparking resentment and misunderstanding. And it often means taking a hard look at your own abilities and actions, to make sure you are equipped to maintain the standards you had set for yourself in a very different era.

A great number of older Americans are wrestling with these issues. Average retirement ages are climbing, and nearly half of baby boomers say they expect to work until age 66 or beyond, according to Gallup Inc. polls. Driving the trend, economists say, are highly educated workers in professional-services jobs who are sticking around by choice, rather than due to economic distress.

"Life expectancy is a good 25 years longer than it was a century ago," says Jackie Peterson, age 71, a consultant who also advises entrepreneurs at a small-business development center in Portland, Ore., and has no plans to retire. "As long as I'm healthy and having fun, why not continue to work at something I love and get paid for it?"

What follows is a guide to help those approaching traditional retirement age determine whether staying in their current job or career path is right for them—and, if so, how to navigate the process at work and at home.

Should I keep punching the clock?

For people coming up on retirement age, the most basic question is figuring out whether it's time to go or stay. And that requires some serious soul searching.

"As we age, time is the economic variable that gets scarce," says Bill Winn, a psychologist with career-development firm New Directions Inc. in Boston. "People really need to think about how they want to spend that time and whether they want to work as hard or in the same way anymore."

Patricia Smith, a managing director at New Directions, says it's important to "be self-aware and tuned in to where you are now, versus five or 10 years ago," and to look at your life plan, including your values, family situation and interests. Another gauge of whether sticking around is a good idea is your willingness to take on new projects and stay current, including with technology.

"Taking on a new project, raising your hand, particularly if it gives you new skills to stay current," is a sign of passion, Ms. Smith says.

Last year, Randall Martin was feeling restless and thinking of retiring. The 56-year-old industrial designer, who had spent 25 years at Hewlett-Packard Co., knew he could afford to stop working, but he didn't know if he wanted to. So he asked himself a series of "hard questions," starting with, "What would I do if I didn't have to go to work today?" The Houston resident, who loves to hike, cycle, fly-fish and camp, had no shortage of possible answers.

Balanced against that was his love of work. Even on weekends, he takes on design projects for fun. "I used to remodel the bathrooms in my free time," he says. "I was the kid who was always modifying my bicycle and building forts. I've never really seen my job as a job."

Indeed, when he envisioned retirement, "I almost always concluded I would be working with some of my design friends on a consulting project for a computer company."

While he was going through this process, a headhunter called him to ask him if he knew of anyone who might be interested in a job at Intel Corp., developing products that use the latest Intel chips. It sounded like the kind of challenge Mr. Martin was looking for, so he ended up taking the job himself. "Developing these innovations is the thing that gets me up in the morning," he says.

What's more, Mr. Martin and his wife like the outdoorsy lifestyle in Oregon better than Houston. So, when his wife wraps up business in Houston, the two plan to settle in the Portland area, where they can be near the mountains and the ocean.

Others who have chosen not to retire say they frequently ask themselves two questions: Am I happy? And am I having the impact I want to have?

Mark Shepard, senior consultant at New Directions, says it's important to delve into what you find most fun and satisfying about your work—and make sure the job is delivering enough exposure to those things both now and in the future.

For some, sticking around for the culture and social opportunities may be enough, says Dr. Shepard. "If the culture and community you are in are nourishing you, then maybe that's a strong enough reason to stay."

Jan Abushakrah, 69, typically works 60-hour weeks as the chairwoman of the gerontology department at Portland Community College in Oregon. But retirement, she says, isn't on her agenda.

"I have pretty much purged the word from my vocabulary," she says. "As long as I am healthy and happy every morning when I wake up and have something exciting on my plate to look forward to, it is easy to say I could keep doing this forever."

Dr. Abushakrah's responsibilities include planning the curriculum and teaching and advising students, many of whom arrive on campus "with low self-esteem, low expectations and looking for direction," she says. "I couldn't possibly remove myself and disengage from all of these exciting things."

If anything might influence her to quit, Dr. Abushakrah adds, it would be signs of fading support for her initiatives from college administrators. "If I get to a point where I am feeling I am getting no support—where there isn't enough of a payoff for the energy I put in or if I feel I am being undermined or my students' well-being is being compromised—then I would rethink what I am doing. But I do not feel that way at all."

How do I approach my spouse?

Once people make the decision to keep working, they should compare notes with their spouse. Remaining on the job may make all the sense in the world—to you. But it's important to sort out tough topics including money, age differences, job satisfaction and hopes for the future.

"Many couples operate on parallel tracks while raising kids and working," says Dr. Winn of New Directions. "Now they need to figure out how to make a new intersection or a different collaboration work."

Psychologist and author Dorian Mintzer says it's important not to "present your spouse with a fait accompli." Sure, there's a chance your partner will welcome your decision to keep working. But there's also a chance he or she will be disappointed that you won't be available to travel or see the grandchildren, or incensed that you "made a momentous decision and didn't bother to consult with him or her."

Dr. Mintzer recommends that both spouses create an "individual vision of what each wants to achieve in the next part of life," and then compare notes. "Really listen and appreciate what the other would like to do," she says. In the event you have to "agree to disagree," such an approach "creates more empathy and understanding."

If your spouse feels disappointment at your decision, she recommends finding a way to "negotiate working a little less," if only by working from home one day a week and devoting the time saved on commuting to doing something together. The key is to "begin taking each other's needs into account, to hear what's important to each other" and to come up with a plan to keep talking, if not to compromise.

Ms. Peterson, the entrepreneurship coach, says she and her husband, Bob, have had their differences over her desire not to retire. Shortly after the two married in 2001, Mr. Peterson retired from his job as a financial counselor for the state of Oregon's Public Employees Retirement System. Ms. Peterson, in contrast, says she can't foresee a time when she will ever want to stop working.

"I love what I do. He liked what he did. That's a big difference," she says.

Ms. Peterson says her husband has made it clear that he would prefer that she retire, too. "He'd really like to do more things on a casual, spontaneous basis, like go for a walk on a sunny afternoon," she says. "But my calendar is booked."

At some point, she adds, her husband gave up asking her to retire, and instead asked her to "be more available." (Mr. Peterson declined to comment.) In response, Ms. Peterson recently hired an assistant to handle some of the administrative responsibilities in her consulting business. She also strives to "stick to a predictable schedule." And, thanks to the flexibility of the small-business development center where she also works, she takes summers off.

In contrast, Roberta Taylor, 71, a retirement and money coach and speaker who lives in Waltham, Mass., says scaling back isn't an option. The co-author with Dr. Mintzer of "The Couple's Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Creating an Amazing New Life Together," she is writing a new book and rebranding her coaching business.

Work is "always on my mind," says Ms. Taylor. "When you are self-employed, you have to be the one to think about how to grow the business."

Ms. Taylor says she has always made it clear to her husband, Bruce Narasin, 73, that work is "a part of who I am" and that she has "no intention of retiring."

But she is also careful to carve out time with Mr. Narasin, who retired last spring after a career at companies including International Business Machines Corp. and Intuit Inc. The pair spends two days a week caring for their 2-year-old granddaughter and has regular date nights, as well as evenings out with friends.

Mr. Narasin says "there are times when it would be nice if we had a little more time together." But, he adds, "we have good quality time. How could I say, 'I want you to stop doing what you love doing so you can spend more time sitting around and looking at me?' "

Mr. Narasin says he makes an effort to keep busy. He joined a men's group, teaches computer courses at a local senior center and performs many household duties. Ms. Taylor—who says she sometimes worries that her husband "feels abandoned"—tries to cook "as much as I can. I feel like that's a loving, nurturing thing to do."

How do I handle things at work?

Finally, there's the question of how you should change your approach to the office once you get close to what is typically regarded as retirement age. For a start, how should you communicate your decision to your colleagues and clients?

Your instinct may be to remain silent—and let your hard work speak for itself. But thanks to age-related stereotypes, career counselors say, it's important to position yourself so that no one will look at you as likely to bow out soon.

"We have a societal expectation of what people do at certain times of life," says Helen Dennis, a Redondo Beach, Calif., specialist on retirement and careers. "When you are in your mid-60s and above, unless you state otherwise, the assumption is that you will be retiring soon."

Consider Margaret Neal. At 62, the director of the Institute on Aging at Portland State University says she has no intention of retiring anytime soon. "I am at a point in my life and career where I am loving what I am doing," she says.

Prof. Neal often works long hours—from morning to midnight—juggling projects that include the city of Portland's involvement in the World Health Organization's Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities, which started with a study she and her colleagues conducted in 2006. Her work, she adds, is "having an impact," such as increased interest in developing accessible housing.

As a result, Prof. Neal says, she was surprised when a colleague recently asked her about her retirement plans. "People's assumptions that I might be thinking about retirement are coming much earlier than I expected."

Career counselors say some people encounter consequences that can be far more serious.

For example, they say, if colleagues assume you will be leaving before you intend to go, they may treat you as a lame duck. In a worst-case scenario, they may cut you out of projects, look to others for guidance, and not offer you the best assignments or long-term ones. Some may even start angling for your job.

As a result, career counselors advise older workers to take steps to signal a long-term commitment and a youthful mind-set. Tactics include taking on lengthy projects, keeping technology skills up-to-date and cultivating "like-minded friends of all ages," says Ms. Dennis, who recently found a "reciprocal mentor," the CEO of a startup company, to help her enhance her social-networking skills.

Ms. Smith of New Directions says it's also important to disclose your desire to stick around in both informal conversations and an annual performance review. In the review, she adds, you should also take the chance to "articulate your value."

"The marketplace has changed its attitude toward workers age 50 and over," Ms. Smith says. "Older professionals have amassed so much skill and experience. Their accumulated know-how can be essential to the success of an organization."

It's also important to figure out how to maintain passion, says Dr. Shepard of New Directions. When people see "the same problem coming around the corner, no matter how complex it is, if they have done it and solved it 15 times, the thrill is gone."

That's a sentiment Edwin Harnden can relate to. "Passion and excitement for what you do doesn't just drop like manna from heaven," says the 68-year-old managing partner at Portland law firm Barran Liebman LLP. "It's one of those things that take work."

To that end, Mr. Harnden engages in goal-setting exercises, both alone and in monthly meetings with colleagues, who "challenge one another to make use of our skills, stay engaged and give back" to the community with pro bono work.

Like others, Mr. Harnden has also gravitated toward playing new roles, including mentoring younger colleagues.

"It helps keep me pumped up," he says. His mantra: "Am I pushing my boundaries?"

Ms. Tergesen is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York. She can be reached at encore@wsj.com.


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