retirement? maybe not!

06/10/2010

by carolyn mathews

Jeremy Jaech has retired twice, and he is working again. For successful leaders, retirement is rarely a smooth event, but rather a state of transition. Instead of a date marked on a calendar that connotes a certain age or number of years with an organization, it becomes a series of decisions and actions. It may involve succession planning, bridge employment, or choosing not to retire at all. I came across a description from 1994 that positions retirement as an exit strategy that reduces the “psychological commitment” to work for a person who has spent a long time in a position. How much has changed during the past 15 years! That description is irrelevant to so many people in the workplace and fails to take into account the intrinsic benefits of our work.

In addition to financial rewards and a sense of purpose, work also provides us with structure and social interaction. By structure, I don’t mean the 9-to-5 work day, but more of a framework for our lives. For example, work provides us with opportunities to use our talents, skills, and knowledge. In addition, work gives us a (sometimes hectic) schedule. Work is also one of the leading sources of social interaction. We may develop friendships through work; it also defines our stature and degree of influence. Most importantly, these things may not necessarily occur after a significant amount of time with an organization.

This brings us back to Mr. Jaech. The New York Times ran a profile story about Mr. Jaech, chief executive of Verdiem, a software company based here in Seattle. At age 55, he has retired twice already. The first time he was 29 and along with a team, he had created the software package called PageMaker. The second time, Mr. Jaech was in his 40s and had successfully founded the Visio Corporation.

For his first retirement, Mr. Jaech played golf all summer (an absolute luxury here in the often rainy Pacific Northwest). But then the autumn rains returned, friends went back to work, and he found himself playing golf alone. Not so much fun! My guess is arranging tee-times did not provide him with either challenging structure or purpose. As a successful and driven leader, his retirement likely also resulted in a lack of social interaction, as described above.

Mr. Jaech returned to work, founded the Visio Corporation, and eventually was in a position to not have to work again. He was in his 40s. However, this time he chose to work on nonprofit boards as a way to give back to the community. In the psychology world, this is what we refer to as generativity, a phase of life (usually midlife) in which we desire to “give back” to help ensure the success of future generations. Work with nonprofit boards is admirable, necessary, and certainly provides one with structure, purpose, and social interaction – if the match is right.

However, it appears the nonprofits wanted different things than what Mr. Jaech was interested in offering. His desire was to share his leadership capabilities with the nonprofit organizations. Mr. Jaech realized two things about himself. First, he wanted to use his strengths such as leadership (“I like to build teams…”). Second, he worked best around other people “…to develop ideas successfully.” Consequently, his second retirement path took a curious turn.

Now, at age 55, Mr. Jaech runs Verdiem. The company provides software for PC networks to reduce energy consumption. Once again, his company is at the forefront, filling a need no one else has in green computing. The twice-retired CEO finds great fulfillment in his work by recognizing and using his strength of leadership and the joy he receives from “…collaborating with a bright team of people to move an idea forward and watch it grow.”

Mr. Jaech’s story is unusual, but challenges much of the conventional wisdom about retirement (particularly for white-collar positions), ranging from age to length of time with an organization. These markers, long used to determine the “appropriate” time for retirement, have been turned upside down. Young dotcom entrepreneurs become retirees, and older adults choose to work longer, sometimes for financial reasons and sometimes for the sheer joy their work brings. Mr. Jaech, probably is not working for financial reasons. Rather, I suggest he finds purpose, structure, and social interaction in his work. The fulfillment created by this combination means there is no need to reduce his “psychological commitment to work” through retirement; instead he reaps the psychological benefits.

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