Finding an identity after the workplace

By Kerry Hannon / New York Times News Service

When Guy Johnson retired from his tax management position at Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer products companies, he was sure that he was prepared. But he was fooling himself.

“I lost myself when my wife, Barbara, and I moved to Sarasota, Florida, from Bergen County, New Jersey,” Johnson said. “I planned my retirement financially, but I didn’t plan it otherwise.”

This summer, through weekly sessions with a retirement coach, Debbie Drinkard Grovum, the 68-year-old is working hard “to accomplish the goals in life that I’ve been putting off since I retired 10 years ago. She keeps me motivated.”

Retirement coaches such as Grovum are popular these days. The cadre has emerged in the crowded coaching field to cater to a growing number of boomers who are grappling with what’s next.

“Retirement is clearly no longer the destination that it used to be,” said Dorian Mintzer, a retirement coach and co-author of “The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Creating an Amazing New Life Together.” “Now, the likelihood is, you have 20, 30, maybe 40 more years ahead of you, and that’s a long time to not know what you want to do.”

New Directions, a coaching firm based in Boston, for instance, mainly focuses on coaching senior executives during their salaried years. But in the last five years, the number of people receiving retirement coaching at the company has probably tripled, Samuel Pease, a managing director and senior consultant at the firm, estimated.

“When someone retires, they tend to be literally levitating with excess productivity that can’t be channeled,” Pease said. “We help them slowly build a basket of activities.”

These undertakings can include part-time work, humanitarian endeavors, entrepreneurial adventures and artistic pursuits, and there’s usually a search for legacy and significance, he said. “The vast majority of our clients have some kind of ‘give back’ gene. They want to get involved with a charitable board, or find ways to be a teacher or tutor.”

The retirement coaching process usually starts with a self-assessment that examines values and strengths and clarifies goals, hopes and dreams for the future.

Retirees answer hard questions: “Do you need to have work be part of it?” Mintzer said. “If you’re in a couple, are you in sync in terms of retiring, or not working?” It’s not unusual for women, who may be younger than their spouses or have stepped out of the workforce for a time, to be at career peak while the partner is winding down, she said.

Pre-retirees are urged to run the numbers through retirement calculators to be sure they won’t outlive their savings. But it’s far harder to compute in advance how to best navigate intangibles such as building a new social network and finding value in how you spend your time in retirement. (Generally speaking, retirement coaches do not tackle financial planning, but do help clients identify their values about money.)

“I’ve definitely seen an upsurge in preplanning for people who want to think ahead and figure out what it is I want to do, how do I want to live my life, who will I be if I’m not working,” Mintzer said.

Esther Bay, a clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, started working with Mintzer about four years ago when she needed career coaching. Today, the 61-year-old resident of Howell, Michigan, is not quite ready to retire, but she thinks about it every day.

She and Mintzer, who lives in Boston, discuss Bay’s future during monthly telephone sessions. For example, how she could serve on different boards in health care organizations and use her professional nursing expertise by volunteering in free medical clinics.

In the meantime, Bay and her husband, Bruce, who has already retired, have a list of places that they might want to retire to. Mintzer has encouraged the couple to start visiting them now, so when Bay does throw in her hat in three or four years, the couple will be ready to take the next step.

Another segment of people who seek a retirement coach are those like Johnson, who retired without much of a plan and after a year, or two, or 10, have determined that the situation is not working for them, Grovum said. “They want to rethink their life.”

These retirees realize that something is missing, and they’ve spiraled into depression or anxiety, Mintzer said. That’s what happened to Wendy Fox, 66, when she retired after a 35-year career as a journalist and media liaison. “The retirement thing sounded great before I did it,” said Fox, who lives in Milton, Massachusetts, and whose husband, Al Larkin, was already retired. “The first year was wonderful. Then I realized that I missed the newsroom community. I’m an extrovert.”

In June, she began working with Mintzer. “I was basically acknowledging that I was incapable of figuring out the rest of my life,” Fox said. “One of the first things she told me is, ‘You are not alone.’ That was huge. I’m not crazy.”

For Fox, her goals are to find new, continuing social connections, “to have some purpose in life and not just take up space for the next 20 years,” she said. “I didn’t need a therapist; I just wanted to talk to someone about what to do.”

Mintzer has emboldened her to find new activities — in addition to deepening her existing volunteer duties — like joining or starting an activity group, taking regular hiking treks or asking fellow dog lovers for dates to walk with her and Lucy, her chocolate Labrador retriever.

Johnson’s challenge also is chiefly a social one. When he was working at Unilever, he had a routine and a very active life. But when he relocated to Florida, it vanished. “I was in trouble,” Johnson said. “I was spending too much time in the house watching the stock market and not getting out and meeting people.”

One change he has already made: reconnecting with bowling, one of his passions. “I was an avid bowler up North,” he said. “And I made a lot of friends as a member of the Unilever’s company bowling team.” He’s now practicing at the lanes near his home twice a week in preparation for joining a league.

He continues to dabble in work-related activities. After he retired, he took a course to earn the certification of enrolled agent for the IRS and works part time at H&R Block to prepare individual tax returns. He also volunteers for AARP Foundation’s free Tax-Aide service.

“I told Debbie to be harsh and make me accountable,” Johnson said. “I want to get this stuff done now.”

The cost and length of coaching sessions vary. At the top end, many of New Directions executive clients start coaching sessions 18 months before retirement. The package costs from $30,000 to $50,000, depending on the number of meetings with a personal coach over a particular time period. It includes a questionnaire to analyze the client’s personality, meetings with additional coaches — for different viewpoints — and a psychologist, plus access to regular skill-building workshops, networking opportunities and more.

Independent coaches, such as Grovum and Mintzer typically meet with clients for 30 to 45 minutes, weekly or biweekly, by phone, Skype or in person. Coaching rates range from $50 an hour to more than $250 an hour. Many coaches will offer a free initial session to determine whether the relationship is a good fit.

Career coaching is a self-regulated industry. Many coaches have been doing it for years without adding professional designations. The International Coach Federation awards a global credential. These coaches have met educational requirements, received specific coach training and achieved a certain number of experience hours. Many people find coaches by word of mouth from friends and colleagues, or have met one through workshops offered at community colleges. The Life Planning Network also offers a list of retirement coaches.

For someone working with a retirement coach, the No. 1 thing is having an open mind. “This is a fresh track adventure,” Pease, of New Directions, said. “Be patient. For the first time in your life, you need to be able to deal with white space. People get addicted to busyness. White space is the source of creativity and strategic thinking, so don’t fill up your dance card too fast.”