Retire? No way! 'Rewire' is the new buzzword

The idea of retirement has been transformed, with many treading new paths, pursuing passions, learning new skills, and living fulfilling lives

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 5 May 2022, 9:34 PM

One day you have all the power and perks of a job considered ‘heaven-born’; the next day, all that is gone. Retirement day at the age of 60 comes as a shock to many officers of the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS), one of the many legacies of the British raj in south Asia. It continues to be held in high social esteem, and to make it as an IAS officer — through a rigorous selection process — is to be sorted for life. Besides the power that comes with the job, officers are entitled to generous perks, including accommodation (many in plush bungalows built during the colonial era), a retinue of servants, aides, vehicles, and allowances. Your wish is everyone’s command.

From those commanding heights, the world suddenly changes on retirement day; all that just drops away. Many cannot reconcile to the new situation, become depressed and wither away; but some like AK Mandlekar prepare for it… and make a new start.

A retired IAS officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre, Mandlekar is among a large number of professionals across the globe who have successfully reinvented themselves after retiring: such as a CEO taking to organic farming, an IT professional taking up falconry, a pilot excelling at baking, a solicitor picking up the paintbrush and finally graduating with a fine arts degree at the age of 92, a soldier finding his station in life as a priest, a banker taking up cooking and winning MasterChef, an architect becoming a trapeze artist at 65, a pharmacist moving to writing novels, or a nursing academic creating her own clothing brand at 71.

The stories are so many that the milestone of retirement no longer seems the beginning of the end, but the start of another, more joyful phase in life. There are those who discover they are good at running marathons or a foreign language late in life, and revel in the experience while they can, while others who reach financial security may be driven by the urge to give back to society and volunteer in charity organisations.

Earlier, the opportunities to reinvent were not as easily available as they are now, and many are taking them with both hands, some driven by the words of Confucius that “we have two lives and the second begins when you realise you only have one”. It may just be the time to retire outdated ideas about retirement; after all, we are not here for a long time, we are here to try and have a good time.

Says Mandlekar, who held several top bureaucratic positions: “You should be prepared to change, be prepared for the shock that comes with retirement, but many of my colleagues cannot deal with the shock to the ego built over decades of salutes and subordinate officers obeying every command or request. I was preparing for life after 60 much before that age. In my family, there is no history of anyone in business, but I began only with the passion to travel. I started from scratch, learnt the basics of the travel industry, and opened a travel agency in Bhopal. It has now become the city’s leading travel agency for international and domestic travel and holiday packages. We recently opened a resort nearby, which has also become a success. If one is prepared to change, retirement is not a shock, it can be very fulfilling and great fun.”

Life’s second innings

Working past normal retirement age is one of the fastest growing trends in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Many don’t want to slow down, others can’t afford to; they all want meaningful work that fuels their passion, suits their personality, and fills their pockets. Call it ‘daring second acts’, or life’s ‘second innings’, the idea of a new role after retirement is akin to ‘rewiring’ your worldview. Coined by American executive search consultants Jeri Sadlar and Rick Miners in their book, Don’t Retire, Rewire!, the term has been widely used to refer to the new fulfilling roles found by professionals who either plan to retire early or at around 60.

Rewiring, according to them, is a process over five steps that covers “seeing the opportunity: retiring is a going from, and rewiring is a going to; identifying your ‘drivers’; linking the drivers to your activities; creating your rewired vision; and developing your action plan”.

Sadlar and Miners write: “In our research, we interviewed many people, both retirees and pre-retirees, who were dissatisfied with the concept of traditional retirement with its focus on leisure. We met others who were not only satisfied but had created a new kind of retirement for themselves…Our research showed that most people hate the word retirement, so we decided to rename this highly satisfying alternative to traditional retirement, rewirement, and the alternative to retiring, rewiring. To rewire is to reroute personal energy you spent on full-time work into deeply satisfying, personally customised work activities (full-time, part-time, flex-time, phased, sabbatical, seasonal, paid, personal and/or volunteer) that can transform your next act into the most fulfilling time of your life. The satisfied people who chose the alternative to traditional retirement are rewirees”.

The new start after 60 need not be only for work, even if it is very satisfying. Some rewire themselves by learning a new sport or skill, like 78-year-old astrophysicist Richard Epstein in New Mexico, who learnt to skate in his 70s, even though he has stage four prostate cancer. A video of Epstein performing an ice-skating routine that took him months to learn went viral after his daughter Rebekah Bastian posted it on Twitter, watched by nearly 3 million people.

It is never too late to learn something new, he says, but is baffled by the response. Bastian says: “I just kept watching it [the video] over and over again. I just kept watching it and showing it to friends and my husband. I was tearing up in a happy way because it’s so beautiful on so many levels. What I shared is the fact that it’s never too late to try new things or to start something new. That sense of hope of, we can always learn new things, there’s always new starts. We could all use a little bit of optimism right now.”

‘Imagine you are remodeling a house’

Clinical psychologist Gary Bradt uses the analogy of rewiring a house to explain the new idea: “Imagine you are remodeling a house. The electrical system, the home’s source of power and light, needs to be rewired. To do so, you remove outdated systems and replace them with modern means of flowing energy throughout the home. As a bonus, the new system could take advantage of all the technical gains in energy distribution that have been made since the home was originally built. Rewiring your life when your working career ends is similar. It means taking your passions and energy and finding new mediums and pathways to bring power and light to your life. Your years of experience and maturity will inform new ways to infuse life with meaning and purpose.”

Medical research says there are many mental and physical benefits of rewiring and being active beyond normal retirement age, particularly in its ability to ward off Alzheimer’s and other ailments. A key benefit is what experts call cognitive fitness: a state of optimised ability to reason, remember, learn, plan, and adapt that is enhanced by certain attitudes, lifestyle choices and exercises.

According to Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts, brain-imaging studies indicate that acquired expertise in areas as diverse as playing a cello, juggling, speaking a foreign language and driving a taxicab expands and makes more communicative the neural systems in parts of the brain responsible for motor control and spatial navigation. They write in Harvard Business Review: “These advances in neuroscience suggest that there is no reason why your brain at 60 can’t be as it was at 25…Cognitive fitness will allow you to be more open to new ideas and alternative perspectives…Perhaps more important, you can delay senescence for years and even enjoy a second career.” Senescence is described as the process by which cells irreversibly stop dividing and enter a state of permanent growth arrest without undergoing cell death.

Taking up the challenge of learning something new is key. Many don’t wait to reach the normal retirement age of 60 to make the change and switch horses; they are already better placed to face the advancing years and all that comes with the inevitable phase in life. Sushil Sharma was a general manager of a major French international banking group, when an invitation to speak at an event of chartered accountants encouraged him to change course. Peppered with humour and anecdotes, the session went rather well and set him on the path of public speaking on issues related to banking.

He later set up a company to offer education, development and capacity building initiatives in banking, finance, and capital markets. To give back to the community, the company with 
several centres across India now also provides free training to rural youth on banking backend operations before placing them with international banks.

Sharma says: “The excitement and intellectual stimulation of studying and presenting 
cutting edge topics in banking and finance is vastly more rewarding than a regular corporate life. The philosophical goal of my firm is to document all the practices in banking, finance, and capital markets for posterity in content of different kinds. Today, top names in banking and finance come to us for their learning, 
development and capacity-building initiatives. Changing tracks in careers is tough. Working 
life is linear. After several years in one field, 
a career change requires learning a new paradigm and doing something differently to make up for your late start in a different field. It 
has been a great run so far. Meeting the challenge of change is the greatest way to stay young and sharp.”

Time millionaires

Another recent, related idea is becoming a 
‘time millionaire’, coined by author-editor Nilanjana S Roy in a 2016 column in Financial Times. Time millionaires — they need not be around 60, in fact many who have taken to the idea are much younger — measure their worth not in terms of financial capital, but according to the seconds, minutes and hours they claw back from employment for leisure and recreation. Roy says: “Wealth can bring comfort and security in its wake. But I wish we were taught to place as high a value on our time as we do on our bank accounts — because how you spend your hours and your days is how you spend your life.”

The idea appeals to many, but some realise that their identity is closely tied to their work identity, which feeds self-esteem and makes them feel relevant in some ways. Giving up that world completely, which also means no money reaching the bank account every month, is not easy, particularly in societies in which being in work is a matter of group esteem, where working overtime is considered a good thing, 
or where having much leisure time is not exactly celebrated.

Becoming a time millionaire is one of the ideas mulled seriously during the Covid-19 pandemic, when ruminating over life and its purpose became something of a global activity. For many, the period completely changed their relationship with money. There are several reports of the ‘Great Resignation’: people not returning to the jobs they held before the pandemic. Besides, official figures in the United States and Britain suggest that the pandemic may have added to the numbers of new ‘time millionaires’, with more unemployed people not actively looking for a job or many requesting to continue working from home, so that they can use the time previously spent on community on leisure, family, or activities of interest.

So, if you were in a position to be a time 
millionaire or rewire yourself, how would that play out?

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