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Retirement and college degrees are outdated concepts

What I am about to declare is ungrounded. I’m going to say it anyway. Retirement and college degrees are outdated concepts of the 20th century.

First, retirement. I turn 65 years old in a few weeks and I am tiring of hearing versions of a few of the following questions:

  • When are you going to retire?
  • You’re still working? (Offered more often as a statement or judgment)
  • When are you going to start enjoying yourself?

I believe that the traditional view of work and retirement fails to recognize the seasonal and integrated aspects of life. It no longer makes sense – and probably never did – to work as hard as we can for 40 years so we can enjoy yourself in retirement, which often finds us at an age when we no longer have the energy to do the things we would have enjoyed if we’d done them earlier.

I often joke that I retired on November 15, 1991 – when I resigned my position at Coopers & Lybrand (now PWC) and started my own consulting practice. While many think my choice was financial (and that certainly was a piece of it), my primary motivation was about working and living differently. I didn’t want to work 60+ hours a week on the off chance of becoming a partner some day and having a pile of money by the time I retired.

I wanted to learn, contribute, and live along the way. I wanted my time to be my own. And although I didn’t describe it this way at the time, I was playing the infinite game. I was committed to living and enjoying along the way, taking time to enjoy myself and my family. I was also committed to being and remaining relevant in all that I did through my commitment to continuous learning and thinking differently in whatever I chose to do, for as long as I chose to do it.

Now, college. Reflecting on my third career and current occupation as a leadership development coach and consultant, I realize that I really didn’t need a 4-year degree in accounting to do the work I do at the level that I perform. College was a placeholder for me. It was what I was supposed to do to get ahead. And while I enjoyed my four years of college and learned many other valuable life lessons, I am convinced it was just one of many paths that could have led me to where I am today.

I want to be clear that I am not anti-college – I am against how strongly many people feel that it is the only option to live a good life. We have brainwashed a generation to view a college education as the Holy Grail, only to be mired in a mountain of debt and no further ahead to pursuing their true purpose. It is a limiting belief, and look at what it has created – shortages in the labor force and a huge waste of time, energy, and resources that could have been used in more productive ways.

Even if a young person is interested in college and it is right for that person, we’ve created the achievement model that compels that student to attend immediately upon graduating from high school – which, again, is limiting and often counter-productive – especially if the student is unsure of future goals.

These are just two items that we need to think again and again about. We need to challenge these outdated societal beliefs that seem to be contributing to the many challenges our society is grappling with now, in the 21st century.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. We have discussed this many times and I believe both to be absolutely accurate assessments. I cannot agree more strongly with your characterization of ‘retirement’ and playing the infinite game. I especially appreciate the references to Simon Sinek and Adam Grant, both admired thought leaders in organizational psychology. Cheers to you and the next season, however it may unfold.

  2. As I have circumnavigated the sun nearly 73 times, I have encountered the same questions regarding retirement many times. My response is unwavering – I love what I do and part of that comes from continually learning and sharing what I have learned with others who haven’t been on the same paths that I have.

    I also agree with you on the college issue. Your thoughts should be shared with high school guidance counselors who continually push college rather than letting students look at some pretty interesting and rewarding trades that are not being filled.

  3. Hi Ralph,
    I am 68 and worked fulltime for the past 50 years, We had several sessions together for leadership principles.
    I can’t stand it when people ask me when I will retire. For many, they hate what they do. I love my new career and made it happen by affecting change in the workplace.
    It’s not a money issue with me, it’s a worth issue. I enjoy helping people in our plant and join many teams. If you feel good about yourself, you will live longer.

    When I do change from a full time position to something less, it will still be working, just less hours. This is not retirement, just a change in what we do.
    I am fortunate to have these skill sets that you helped develop.

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