The Golden Years: Feet Up or Nose to the Grindstone?
By Kinley Levack
February 1, 2006
Welcome to retirement 21st century-style—and it's not your grandparents' retirement. "Given what life expectancy is today, if you make it to 60 or 65 and that's when you expect to retire, you still have 30 years to live. What if someone told you at 30 you had to sit around and do nothing for the next 30 years?" asks Dorothy Cantor, a Westfield, NJ-based psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Chances are, it wouldn't sit well with the get-up-and-go, self-starting sort that gravitates toward meeting planning.
Instead of early bedtimes and endless free time, be ready for a few decades of activity, travel, and personal development—oh, and work. Whether for financial reasons or out of sheer enjoyment, most people who are technically of retirement age choose to continue to work.
According to a 2005 study of nearly 3,500 baby boomers in the United States, 77 percent plan to work in some capacity during retirement, and more than half of those anticipate exploring a new line of work. The study, called "The New Retirement Survey," was completed by Harris Interactive and gerontologist and psychologist Ken Dychtwald on behalf of Merrill Lynch. Boomers were asked why they would continue to work and, although inability to afford health insurance ranked as their number-one fear for retirement, most indicated that staying mentally active was their primary reason for continuing to work. In fact, health insurance benefits ranked fourth on the list, also falling behind keeping physically active and keeping connected with others; "the money" ranked sixth.
The meetings industry has only recently begun forming standard career paths and educational requirements, and so has not yet developed clear exit strategies and retirement norms. But with retirement changing across all professions as the baby boomers blaze yet another trail, the time may be right to think about the next phase. Here are some key issues to consider as you prepare for your post-career life.
The Age of Un-Enlightenment
A significant obstacle to pursuing a new or modified career later in life is the perception of age in American culture. "Our workforce is profoundly ageist," says Dychtwald, who is also president of Age Wave, an advisory and consulting firm in San Francisco, CA. "Most HR managers are looking for the next great 25-year-old."
Joan Eisenstodt of Washington D.C.-based Eisenstodt Associates, LLC, concurs that age is a problem for meeting planners: "It's really salary discrimination, but it's based on age and time on the job," she says. "We're seeing that people who are older are being laid off. We're seeing organizations finding reasons to lay off people in their 40s and 50s and hire younger, less expensive employees."
Rick Weaver, vice president of communications and board member of the WestField (Westchester County, NY and Fairfield County, CT) chapter of MPI, adds that he has noticed "organizations being more willing to downsize their in-house meeting planning departments and moving toward outsourcing." As a result, planners are being let go, then hired back as independents, a phenomenon he attributes to the cost of benefits for full-time employees.
Even Eisenstodt, a veteran who has built a devout following within the industry, questions what comes next. "I wonder if I'll have trouble getting clients. You hope your maturity and experience help, but you never know," she says.
Although she has no plans for retirement—"I have no role models for that; I don't think anyone in my family has ever retired"— Eisenstodt does think that "most of us will probably close our doors at some point and say, 'Okay, we're done now, it's been a great ride.' "
While many planners expect to shift into a job that is somewhat related to planning, still others long to explore something entirely new. The trick is to figure out what. Children yearn to become seemingly outlandish and impractical things, be they baseball players or famous artists or President, and those dreams fall by the wayside over time.
But according to the experts, as planners near the end of their primary career, those long-forgotten dreams should be explored once again to help determine what comes next. "I see it all the time: execs who want to open a B&B or become a dancer or whatever," says Stephanie Kay, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Delray Beach, FL, and co-president of TransitionWorks, which helps people manage change. "They dream the dream."
"The last time most people did this kind of soul-searching was as teenagers. Now people can look at it from a far more thoughtful and experienced vantage point," says Dychtwald. "I also think it's helpful to talk to people who have been down this trail before. Talk to people who are struggling [with a transition] and find out why. Similarly, talk to people who seem to be having a blast and find out why. Get some outside input—be it from a spouse, a professional counselor, a class, a next-stage-of-my-life task force."
The key is exploration and curiosity. "If you watch children, they try different things and figure out what they like and what they don't like. We expect that of children, but we get to a certain age and we expect that we'll only do things we do well and avoid things we'll be duds at. Give yourself permission to be childlike in that respect and try new areas to see if they are a good fit," says Cantor.
One of the challenges for planners is that they tend to tie their identity to their profession, without realizing that there is already much more to what defines them as a person.
"Most of us have multiple identities," explains Cantor. "If someone asks who you are, I don't know what order you will put it in, but you may also be a wife, mother, bridge player, reader," and any number of other identifiers in addition to being a meeting planner.
Even if planners slide into something ideal, the transition can take time. "You've had the identity of a meeting planner and that's who you are," says Nancy K. Schlossberg, author of Retire Smart, Retire Happy (APA, 2003), and co-president of TransitionWorks with Kay. "If you move to something new it will take time to see yourself as something new. You need to become comfortable with a new label. Be prepared that any big change will change your relationships. You have a whole set of relationships as a meeting planner and you are going to leave behind some of those relationships. As a planner you have a sense of mission and purpose and commitment to the field; it is important when you shift gears to find something that is as meaningful to you as what you were doing before."
And you can't go back. As much as some veteran planners may say that they would prefer to downshift and return to the basics of planning meetings, that is often more difficult than it sounds. "It's very difficult to drop back," says Dawn Penfold, president of New York City-based executive search service The Meeting Candidate Network, Inc. "It's like having four or five kids and now you have grandchildren and you say, 'Oh, I'd love to have kids for a few days,' but you really wouldn't. You forget what it's like to pack boxes and do all of that physical work. The skill sets are completely different now also; it would involve relearning the skill sets that [veteran planners] had given up 10 or 15 years ago."
Penfold sees many planners moving into trip director roles instead. "I haven't really met a lot of people who have done the traditional retirement-at-65 thing. I've seen and heard of more people who have taken retirement packages from their companies and maybe they retired earlier than they wanted to but the package was good or they didn't have a choice," she explains. "Those people who have taken packages have not retired completely; most have done consulting or become trip directors."
Another option is to work on a project basis, which allows for periods of work followed by periods of downtime. "There's so much flexibility possible today, partially because so much work is modular now and, with the Internet, there are so many ways to cut up a job," says Dychtwald. "It's a little bit like the Hollywood movie model: Spielberg assembles a team with the right skills and backgrounds, they work together on this project, and when the movie is completed they break apart."
Blazing a Trail
"The big variable here is need," says Dychtwald. "If we have a booming job bank and retirees want flex time and other concessions and there is an estimated five-million-person talent shortage over the next decade," retirees will be in an excellent position in the job market. "This is the first time we've seen that. We'll have all of these really talented 60- to 65-year-olds who want to work and you're going to have huge numbers of employers needing their talent. In that coming together there will be a greater likelihood for the transformation of work." Dychtwald likens this potential revolution to what women went through during the 1970s. Women wanted flex time and certain benefits to accommodate motherhood; employers first balked "and said simply that it's not the way things are done, but those women were forceful and talented, and they reshaped the work force. I think older workers are about to do the same thing," says Dychtwald.
Dychtwald also believes that the potential to craft and shape a job is within the realm of possibility, without a revolution. The options for planners are many and varied, particularly because most planners of retirement age never formally studied meeting planning at the beginning of their careers; they have forged new paths and job descriptions along the way, which sets them up well for developing a new look for retirement. The suite of skills necessary to be a career planner could transition well into jobs in consulting, travel and tourism, teaching, marketing, or moving into event or wedding planning.
Bear in mind that additional training and financial resources may be required when making a career transition. "Teaching may mean retraining and getting some kind of credential, but why not?" asks Cantor. "I think a lot of us are going to go into teaching," adds Eisenstodt. "If you look at the incredible shortage of teachers in the public school system . . . It's different, and going back to get our certification is something we can do."
"I knew I still wanted to be involved in professional organizations and consult. I wanted to continue learning and I wanted to stay in touch with the industry," explains Sara R. Torrence, CMP, president of Sara Torrence & Associates in Gaithersburg, MD. Torrence, who spent 39 years with the U.S. Department of Commerce, served as a government meeting planner for the bulk of those years and has chosen to consult, write, and train since retiring. "I feel every bit as in touch with the industry now as I did when I was working. But I think it's incumbent upon the person retiring to decide whether they want to."
Joe Bow, CMP, past president of MPI and the co-founder of MPI's Potomac, MD, chapter, agrees, although his approach to retirement is a bit different from Torrence's. "I have retired completely except that I still keep on top of a few things," he says. "I'm a lifetime member of MPI and therefore they send me minutes of board meetings and I get lots of magazines and stay on top of things in the industry." He also writes for industry publications occasionally and shows up at board meetings now and then. But the bulk of this licensed U.S. Coast Guard merchant marine's time is spent fishing on his 25-foot boat in the Chesapeake Bay where "it's 24 steps between my bed and my boat."
"I keep my finger in the pie," Bow says, but he acknowledges that rapid changes in the industry can be difficult to stay on top of. "It's amazing to me how quickly the industry changes—once you're out of it for a year or so you get newsletters and you don't know the names of anyone anymore."
Tools and Tracks
Industry organizations are beginning to understand the need for specific information on career transition issues and the unique needs of planners at more advanced stages of their careers.
MPI's Member Services, an ambitious initiative rolling out this month, includes a Professional Pathways segment. MPI members fill out a detailed assessment, after which they are plugged into one of five levels: student, novice, intermediate, senior, or executive. General and anonymous results are also provided to local chapters so chapter leaders can determine the types of education and activities that would best suit their members.
The assessment tool "helps you to identify where you are today as well as a path to get you where you want to be," says Weaver, who has also served as a beta tester for the tool. "The real key is being willing to take action once you get that information," and he believes that "it will open doors for planners regardless of their level." Eventually one of the recommended resources for planners will be career coaches, according to Kelly Schulz, MPI's director of communications, a resource all experts agreed was worth exploring when people are unsure about their next career move.
The Convention Industry Council announced a CMP Emeritus designation that planners who meet certain standards may attain. Since December 2004, CIC has certified 12 emeritus-level CMPs. Although the title is, in part, simply an acknowledgement of previous accomplishments, most of the emeritus CMPs continue to make significant contributions to the industry through volunteer work, consulting, writing, and other activities. It is also encouraging that the industry is beginning to recognize the importance of its most senior members, as CIC introduced the emeritus designation right around the time many members of the first class of CMPs hit retirement age.
There is still a need for continuing education on making a transition from full-time planner to consultant, retirement planning for sole proprietors and small- business owners, and myriad other topics. Weaver believes that the biggest problem planners have when it comes to going out on their own is a lack of sales and marketing know-how. "Planners do not have the skills to market themselves," he says, "and they need direction when it comes to questions like: Do you incorporate or operate as a LLC (limited liability company) or act as sole proprietor? When do you need legal advice? When should you hire staff?"
In the meantime, planners are making headway alone and with the help of their peers, and continue to dream big. Eisenstodt has mulled over the idea of becoming an activities director at a Classic Residence by Hyatt or one of Marriott's Senior Living Services division's properties or, more facetiously, opening her own retirement community for meeting planners near the picturesque Sagamore Resort at Lake George in upstate New York.
As for Bow, the chilly waters of the Chesapeake Bay keep him from fishing in the winters, but he has found a secondary pastime for the off-season: "I read somewhere that everyone should learn how to throw a pot before they die, so I go to pottery classes during the wintertime and my poor friends have to take these damn pots that I throw."
Sara R. ToRrence 39 years with the U.S. Department of Commerce
Exit Plan: "I think there is a certain grace in knowing when it's time to go." Torrence wanted to keep a hand in the industry, so after retiring she opened Sara Torrence & Associates, through which she consults, writes, and takes on occasional projects.
Joe Bow Past president of MPI (1984-1985) and co-founder of the MPI Potomac chapter
Exit Plan: "I slowly phased out of working because my time had come and gone, and so I consulted on a few things here and there." Bow now spends most of his time taking friends, family, and former business associates on fishing excursions.
Dawn Penfold President of The Meeting Candidate Network, Inc., an executive search service
Industry Observation: "It's very difficult to drop back . . . You forget what it's like to pack boxes and do all of that physical work. The skill sets are completely different now also; it would involve relearning the skill sets that [veteran planners] had given up 10 or 15 years ago."
Joan Eisenstodt Consultant, trainer, and facilitator with Eisenstodt Associates, LLC.
Exit Dream: Although she has no plans to retire, Eisenstodt has joked about opening a retirement home for meeting planners in upstate New York.
New Career Moves: Step by Step
How does someone begin to explore new career options? Ken Dychtwald outlines a step-by-step process in his book The Power Years: A User's Guide to the Rest of Your Life (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005), co-written with Daniel J. Kadlec. These exercises can be helpful when exploring new careers or new options in your existing career when you are stymied about where to begin.
1. Write down every job you've ever had and three things you enjoyed about each one.
2. Make a list of all volunteer work and leisure pursuits and three things you loved about each.
3. Document how you spend your discretionary income, as that can highlight where your interests lie.
4. Re-examine your childhood dreams and think about how you may continue to keep those dreams a part of your life.
5. Look back at your career for moments of greatness. Also, ask family and friends when they have seen you happiest.
Financial Planning for Planners
Two factors keep most people from thinking about retirement—it's overwhelming and it's nearly impossible to anticipate specifics for. During most folks' primary career, she likely saved for rainy days. And if she found herself out of work, how quickly did that stockpile disappear? Imagine years and years without income—but how many years? If you plan for 10 years of retirement and pass away after exactly 10 years, then you were just right, but what if you live for 20? Or 30? Or your spouse needs significant medical care? Or you think your kids can take care of you and then one of them loses a job? The questions and uncertainties can be frightening.
But there is much that can be done. "It's never too late to plan," says Greg Willsey, a Merrill Lynch financial advisor in St Petersburg, FL. "Wheth-er it starts at 55 or 35 or—preferably—25, planning is the key to a successful retirement." As luck would have it, this is precisely what you do best. So, planners, start your engines.
Financial advisors advocate a comprehensive financial plan, which "would include things beyond traditional investments that most of us think about," says Willsey. "In reality we want to look at your liabilities, such as loans in your business or mortgages on your house. It would also include estate planning," as well as insurance—life and disability because "it's more likely that people will become disabled at 50 than die, so that is important."
Seventy-one percent of respondents to the Merrill Lynch New Retirement Survey strongly or somewhat agree that "it costs too much today to truly 'retire' and never work again." Since most people plan to work with or without financial need, that income stands to play a major role in post-retirement financial stability.
"The longer we avoid touching retirement dollars, the bigger the pile in the future when you don't have any income at, say, 75," explains Willsey. He also encourages people to ask themselves, "What does it mean to just make $10,000 this year if I was making $50,000 before?," regarding part-time employment. Balance that by also exploring how that $10,000 will keep you from dipping too far into retirement savings—could the $10,000 actually keep you afloat when paired with Social Security and other forms of income?
Willsey believes that, while there is no universally appropriate strategy, IRAs are always worth exploring as a savings option. Both Willsey and Jenny Engle, spokesperson for Boston, MA-based Fidelity Investments, also described how valuable SEP (Simplified Employee Pension) and SIMPLE (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees) plans can be. "Both are retirement plans that allow you to put away percentages of your income without paying taxes on them," explains Willsey. "They allow you to save until retirement and then they allow you to take money out during retirement when you are presumably making less money so you are in a lower tax bracket than you would have been."
However, because strategies will vary from person to person, a financial advisor is worth considering, regardless of your income or net worth. Many offer certain services for free or a nominal charge and advisors can tailor an investment strategy to your needs, hopes, and financial situation.
"Contact your local office, speak to a manager, and give a brief description of yourself and your financial situation, and they will find the individual best suited to help you," says Willsey of how to go about finding a financial planner.
It's even as simple as going in to an investor center or office and saying, "Hi, I need some help saving for retirement," according to Engle, who says that it is also best to understand your own attitude about investing: Are you cautious? Are you self-directed? Do you do a lot of research? A bit of knowledge about yourself is what you need, and that you should have in abundance.
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