Working in Reverse: A Radical Approach to Driving Greater Career Engagement

by David Zinger | Posted | Engagement

Working in Reverse: A Radical Approach to Driving Greater Career Engagement

You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go. ~ Dr Suess, Oh, The places you’ll go.

Most of us work hard for 30 or 40 years while dreaming of a distant retirement. And then, when it does happen, what surprises some is the drop in overall life satisfaction for the first 18 months of being retired.

As American poet and author Richard Armour once quipped: “Retired is being tired twice, I’ve thought, first tired of working, then tired of not.”

Do you ever feel like you’re stuck in what could easily turn into a 30- or 40-year career rut?

What if it were possible to retire first and then use what you learned as preparation for work? What if you turned things around by starting your adult career in retirement, progressed into semi-retirement, then into a full stage of work followed by a second retirement at 75? In other words, what if you could work in reverse?

How do you think this would impact your career engagement?

Although I have a sample size of only one, I believe my career points to the benefits and potential of engagement in this seemingly radical career path — work in reverse.

 Just to be clear, I am not advocating this for everyone. I offer it as an alternative way to either consider or navigate your career path.

Retire first, work later

The genesis of work in reverse occurred to me on a very hot summer evening in Winnipeg, Canada, in the late 1970s. I was stoop-sitting outside my apartment with Don — a loveable, albeit crusty, old veteran in his eighties. I was 25 years old and Don was lamenting his health and overall well-being. He looked at me and said, “Retirement is wasted on a guy my age, I am old and set in my ways. My health is failing and although I have lots of time, I have no energy or desire to travel.”

He looked me in the eye, pointed his index figure at me, and continued, “Retirement is wasted on me, a guy your age should be the one to retire. You are young, you have energy and your health, and you could enjoy the time so much more than me.”

I could have taken his comment as a wistful rant from an old veteran but I went up to my apartment and decided to retire at the ripe old age of 25.

Now, 34 years later, at 59 years of age, I can trace a pattern of working in reverse — from retirement to semi-retirement to full-time working and to my intention to retire again at 75.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. ~ Søren Aabye Kierkegaard

Let’s clear up some misconceptions about what it means to retire and what it means to work.

Retirement seldom means not working; it is more a matter of autonomy and options in how we spend our days and how we may choose to work or not to work. A healthy retirement often gives you a chance to act with more self-agency and to focus on what feels most important to you at the time. You no longer believe you have to make it, you feel you already have it made.

The work in reverse career path

Now, I’ll share with you my five-phase approach to work in reverse — and how it has been the secret to my career engagement.

the zinger work in reverse career path

Phase 1: Upon leaving high school, I worked on the railroad for a year and then mixed working on the railroad with going to university. I was dabbling at work and university yet felt this to be an okay state of affairs while I was young. I tried courses in Business Administration, Political Science, and Psychology and completed a B.A. in Psychology in seven years while taking time to travel and earn money working summers and short stints on the railroad.

Phase 2: My retirement began at 25 after the talk with Don. In many ways, my previous seven years had been a preparation for this retirement as, at 25, I embraced a dabbling lifestyle with university courses, time for travel, reading what I was interested in (not what I had to read for university), cashing in retirement savings, and the willingness to experience a kaleidoscope of different experiences. 

Retirement gave me license to follow a whimsical rather than a work-oriented career path. I refused to take a full-time job while tinkering at a second degree and trying out some part-time teaching in Educational Psychology.

Phase 3: Getting married and having three children within two years (twins) can quickly change career paths and plans. I initially thought I was out of retirement and into full-time work, but soon realized the benefits of the previous ‘early retirement’ and declared that I was now in semi-retirement.

I would never give a client or workplace more than 10 percent of my time, I turned down job offers that slotted me into a specific workplace, I worked from home (and have worked from home for thirty-four years), and most importantly I had the phenomenal opportunity to spend countless time with my children. Work was secondary to parenting and other things in my life.

Phase 4: When I turned 55 and my three children were firmly established in adulthood, I declared that I would embrace a strong focus on work and contribution for the next 20 years.

I declared my passion, field and focus for the 20 years as employee engagement, career engagement, and overall engagement. I do much more business travel and work, yet I feel fresh and spirited for work and contributions while bringing a lot of experience and insight that I gathered in my earlier times of semi-retirement and retirement. I eagerly anticipate the work and contributions I believe are possible for the next 16 years of my life.

Phase 5: At 75 years of age, I will enter a second phase of retirement. I plan to return to my work in counselling psychology and volunteer my services in individual or group counselling. I will also spend more time in leisure and hobby writing.

How about you?

Have you followed a traditional career path? Can you see yourself turning things around or at least altering some elements of your career to feel more engaged at work? To work in reverse requires flexibility, openness, trust in yourself and creativity.

The benefits have been phenomenal to me — from having so much free time as a young adult, to working at what interested and sustained me, to having time for my children that I would not have had with a full focus on work.

What are some of the other benefits?

I also have a youthful spirit towards my current work and business travel at 59, and letting have the undeniable advantage of letting work and life unfold rather than trying to force who I am and what I do into an unconscious traditional pattern that one is expected to follow.

My career engagement has been very sweet and, in closing, I want to remind you of this pithy little dictum about changing the order of events: Life is so uncertain don’t be afraid to eat the dessert first.

Your turn: Has any part of your career involved working in reverse?

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