Stanley Bing

How to retire while still working

Do we need a middle ground? Something between the grind of executive life and the quiet burble of the nap that precedes the long sleep?

By Stanley Bing

(Fortune Magazine) -- Ah me, what to do. On the one hand, I'm getting too old for this stuff. The daily battle entices me less and less. I dream of beaches, palm trees waving in the wind. I gravitate to books about space travel and biographies of people who gave it all up for an existence in the South of France, say, or the South Sea Islands. In meetings, I find I can't listen to meaningless drivel anymore without wanting to get up and leave. That's a significant liability. PowerPoint presentations in particular put me into a sleep so deep it involves drooling. The smallest things irritate me way too much, also. I'm up every night at 3 A.M. wondering why I'm up every night at 3 A.M. No matter how small the potential snafu or fubar situation, it rears up and seizes my imagination like a golem. I need some relief. I've been at this 25 years. I may need to retire.

On the other hand, I see people who have retired before they were physically unable to work anymore, and frankly, they give me the willies. All those healthy, fit men with suntans and golf clubs and white, toothy grins that you will see elsewhere in this issue, I am sure. Brrrr. Who are those guys? I see them in the places I eat. They're in the back by the potted plants. They're talking about mashies and niblicks and great lies on the 15th fairway. When you ask them what it's like to be retired, they talk about golf, and they talk about all the organized travel they are doing, and in my mind's eye the void opens up like a cosmic space that only Stephen Hawking could understand, a place where people mall-walk in fugue states. I'm scared to retire. That way lies senescence, superfluity, and too much thought about organic vegetables.

Some middle ground is called for. Something between the grinding labor of executive life and the quiet burble of the nap that precedes the long sleep. The good news is that I believe, after cogitating for some time on the subject, that I have discovered the answer: retirement while employed. Anyone who has achieved a certain ripeness of years and is still in harness is eligible.

The key, I believe, is to use the digital capabilities, global reach, and executive lifestyle as we now live it to in a sense achieve all the best things about retirement without actually having to suffer its dangers and indignities. Let's imagine a typical day in the life of the employed retiree:

Rise with the sun

We get up early, as do seemingly all who have quit the daily rat race. It's like when we were kids. It was impossible to wake on school days, but on Saturdays we were up with the worms to watch cartoons. That's what we can do again. As the sun peeps over the rooftops for the first time, we hop out of bed, full of pep and vinegar. Do a few stretches, lope into the kitchen for that first glass of grapefruit juice and handful of medications that are now required to keep us vertical, mobile, and tranquil. We're ready for a new, nonstressful, productively retiring day!

Be 'at breakfast' until at least 10 A.M.

We can do this because we're executives and have attained a certain ability to be in no particular place whatsoever. In fact, this is an asset in the eyes of most senior management structures. "Where's Horst?" somebody will say, and will be told, "At a breakfast with a client or something." My, what a hardworking mogul is Horst!

This elasticity of space and time is one of the great benefits of late-stage employment. The development of digital ubiquity, while in general being a massive pain in the sphincter, also allows the seasoned BlackBerry aficionado to be nowhere and everywhere at the same time. This stretches and blurs the requirements formerly associated with being a responsible corporate citizen.

As all who have shuffled off the corporate coil find it advisable to do, we walk to a leisurely breakfast at our local diner, bagel place, or coffee shop. There we enjoy a massive cup of joe while reading the daily newspaper with some care, saving the obituaries for last, since they are the most enjoyable for people of our experience and years. Yes, we glance at our BlackBerry every now and then just to make sure no explosions are happening - and this is the best part of all. Real retired people must look forward to a total day of nugatory impact. We have some action to look forward to!

Not too much. But some. And if there's a crisis to deal with that halts our morning ritual, so much the better. It will be all the sweeter tomorrow.

After having dealt with crucial phone calls and e-mails on our daily constitutional to the office, we arrive at our desk to find a number of vital issues awaiting. Our retirement project is in danger, since many of these questions have teeth and little barbed tails that can whip around and take your eye out.

Delegate all odious tasks

Fortunately, we have prepared for our status well and have long ago implemented a strategy by which we foist objectionable duties onto other people. This is the keystone of our program and must be highly effective if our pseudo-retirement is not to falter. There's a huge difference between being a happily employed and perked-up retiree of high standing and a washed-out, lazy has-been who doesn't get his work done.

The good news is that we have Ted, Ned, Betty, and Fred to do all the heavy lifting. Ted does the numbers stuff. Ned is really good at internal communications and heavy, process-related e-mailing. Betty, of course, takes all the long meetings, the ones that lock us up, make us feel like a prisoner in the gulag, negate any of the retirement benefits we have been gathering. And Fred? Well, Fred does everything. God bless Fred. One day he will be us. And good luck to him then, because he will need it.

Mentor the young

But we digress, as all of us who are playing the back nine like to do. The reason that Ted, Ned, Betty and Fred are equipped to perform in this manner is because you have implemented the next part of your strategy: You continue, every day, in any way you can, to teach the young to pick up the mantle of those who have gone before. Which of us now chilling our jets in the cosmic Admirals' Club doesn't enjoy hanging with the next generation of leaders? That's what we do, sometime during our scaled-down day. We get with them. We give them wisdom. They seem a little bored with our war stories sometimes, sure. But there are nuggets that they pick up, both positive and negative, that will help smooth their way into the big, comfy chairs we've occupied for so long.

Avoid all odious people

In addition to providing us with a source of limitless, nonintensive work to smooth our day, our mentees enable us to accomplish the next phase of our task, avoiding the people we dislike. One of the big responsibilities of a business career in mid-stride is the requirement to see guys who laugh too much, shake our hands too hard, sell stuff we don't want or need, and otherwise get into our faces until they're about to fall off. Our faces, I mean. Not them. They never fall off. Being gainfully retired means never having to deal with these people unless we choose to.

Enjoy a long lunch

So while Ted and Ned and Betty and Fred deal with Mr. Roover, who is looking into outsourcing certain key corporate functions in which we have no interest, we're going to move to the next part of our day: a pleasant, prolonged lunch.

Genuinely retired people, of course, have as long a lunch as they want, but the experience is likely to be depressing. How are we, who have enjoyed tasty, elegant expense-account lunches for several decades, to get excited about a tuna fish on whole-wheat toast, taken sitting in our kitchen while looking at a small flat-screen television that is constantly tuned to CNBC? For a year, perhaps, it might be nice. After that? They shoot horses, don't they?

But just think of all the great things we can enjoy in our blessed state! Plump burgers with mountains of fries! Thick, juicy steaks! Sushi-quality tuna over leafy greens! After our main course, we stick around the table for a while, savoring our coffee and the little cookies that are one of our fondest indulgences. Then we perambulate back to the office for the central event in the day of any retired wage slave, actual or virtual: our afternoon nap.

Knit up the ravell'd sleave of care

The nap is a big responsibility, not to be shirked. We are not, as some may think, goofing off when we put our feet up on our desk or flop on our executive couch and close our eyes. We are refreshing and renewing ourselves for the rest of the day. As Macbeth noted, sleep is "sore labor's bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, chief nourisher in life's feast." Who wants to argue with Shakespeare? Not us. We need our nap if this working retirement is to be a success.

Ours is not the attenuated Q-sign with tongue sticking out of the corner of our open mouths that the guys in Happy Fairway enjoy. We're taking a bona fide power nap. Ten minutes. Fifteen, maybe. Twenty, tops. Then, when the phone rings, or there's a knock on the door, we're up on our feet and back behind our blotter, ready for Teddy, Neddy, Betty, and Freddy.

Miss no boondoggle

But what about that desk? That blotter? We didn't "retire" in order to stay cooped up in our offices all day, did we? Pas du tout! In fact, this is the very best part of the deal we're carving out for ourselves! We're active, engaged business executives, connected to our home ports by every digital gizmo known to humankind! On the off chance that we're actually needed for a meeting, there are teleconference capabilities everywhere on the planet! We're so elevated and successful we have no need for analog participation in quotidian existence whatsoever!

So as part of our plan, we're going to travel to lovely locations where the company has operations that can explain our presence, while at the same time making sure to miss no conference or offsite, no matter how remote its venue. Hey, I know guys who have been to Las Vegas six times already this year. In September a whole bunch of us are going to the South of France for an absolutely mandatory convention. Other destinations that would make perfect business sense include London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, and Denver, the latter only in the late winter or early spring.

Get the picture? What dynamic, bold executive with a hearty agenda doesn't need to get to where the sales department is having its annual motivational scrum? Or to the meeting of all industry vendors in Chicago? Or indeed to Pebble Beach now and then, where the CFO likes to have meetings about belt-tightening? How many golf courses are there in the world where business types are hanging around chinnin' and grinnin' right now? Are most of them retired in anything but spirit? I think not.

Take back the night

As our assistant plans our travel schedule and the afternoon wanes to dusk, we may want to call our spouse to set up our plans for the evening. Things have actually been going quite well for us as a couple these days. To begin with, we're a lot more relaxed than we used to be, almost as if the weight of the world had been lifted from our shoulders. This has made us more pleasant, emotionally available, and yes, amorous. Our late mornings have given us an extra hour or so to be together, so much nicer than in the days when we were up at 5:30 A.M. and out of the house at 6 with a muffin in our teeth.

Now, as the moon rises over the park, we stroll home and think about everything but business. Tonight, after perhaps a cocktail, we will be going out with some friends who just flew in from the coast. They're happily and virtually retired in Los Angeles, where guys in show business learned how to do this long ago.

In the end, friends, the success or failure of this enterprise resides with ourselves. We're as young as we feel and as old as we look. We've been doing things our way for quite some time. There's no reason to change the game that got us here, is there?

Stanley Bing's new book, Crazy Bosses (Collins), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com and on his Web site, stanleybing.com.  Top of page

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