The Middle Way to Retirement

When considering retirement, remember, you don't have to go all the way.

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Last year a Gallup poll revealed that over 70 percent of Americans are "not engaged" or else totally "disengaged" from their work. Obviously, people who spend 40 hours a week doing something they don't like report a lower level of overall well-being compared to people who are "actively engaged" in their jobs. The lower satisfaction not only affects their careers, but also the social, financial, and physical aspects of their lives.

Even people dedicated to their work admit they're often in a bad mood if they have to work extra long hours, are not able to take advantage of flextime, or feel shortchanged on vacation.

Working too much, or too hard, is not conducive to your sense of well-being, especially if you don't like your job. It's no wonder that a lot of people in their 50s and early 60s look forward to retirement, and try to figure out how they can leave behind the daily grind.

A few select people, through some combination of high income and economical living, achieve true financial independence at an early age. They have the option to retire early, no problem.

Maybe you, too, want to leave an unsatisfying job, or are just tired of the rat race. But you feel trapped because you need the income. Honestly, who can afford to retire these days when the economy is bad, interest rates on your savings are low, and Social Security is under attack? Financial independence may seem farther away than ever before.

But John Nelson, co-author of What Color Is Your Parachute for Retirement: Planning a Prosperous and Happy Future, looks at things a little differently. “When it comes to financial independence, we can get caught in ‘all-or-none’ thinking,” he says. “Especially for our jobs, we think that financial independence means not working at all. If our work is drudgery, then of course we’d like to have none of it.”

But retirement is not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition. And neither is financial independence.

Even retirees who are truly financially independent, the retirement experts tell us, should find something to do that engages their interests. Nobody can expect to be happy sitting in front of the TV for the rest of their lives. Retirees need activities that stimulate their imagination, connect them to other people, and help them develop a commitment to something more than their own self-interest.

For the financially independent this may mean doing volunteer work or pursuing a long-neglected hobby. For those of us who may have a reasonably solid financial foundation, but still need additional income, the pursuit of something meaningful to occupy our time can lead us to a middle ground—a period between career and retirement when we take a pay cut in favor of other benefits that are more important at this stage of life.

The kids are grown up and gone, and maybe the mortgage is paid off, so we can afford to work at something that’s easier and more fun than our old job. The result: Instead of suffering through work that no longer engages us, we can set forth on a new path that 's more fulfilling and more meaningful.

The best thing about retirement is that you are free from the daily obligations you've been shouldering for years. But even if you're not financially independent, when you no longer have to earn a living and support a family, you can still shed this burden and pursue long-deferred interests or develop some new interests.

Mid-career executives quit to become high-school teachers, lawyers abandon the courts to write a mystery novel, and high-powered salespeople give up incessant traveling to be a local real-estate agent. I know a business executive who took early retirement and now loves his new job running big machinery on a golf course.

One 63-year-old man left his mid-level job at a mid-size company almost a decade ago. He arranged for some consulting work at his old company, and picked up a few other projects from people he knew in his industry. He set up an office at home and now, 10 years later, still works about 20 hours a week. "As soon as I left my job my back problems went away. I started to eat better and do more exercise," he recalls. "I make half as much money, but I feel twice as good, and I'm twice as happy."

Does he have plans to retire anytime soon? "Why should I? I really retired 10 years ago. Now I love what I'm doing."

Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.