Setting your retirement alarm clock

Dec. 1, 2003
Malcolm Muggeridge, a British journalist, once observed: "Few men of action have been able to make a graceful exit at the appropriate time."

Gary Schaub

Malcolm Muggeridge, a British journalist, once observed: "Few men of action have been able to make a graceful exit at the appropriate time."

How do you know when it's time to retire? Is there an internal body clock with a "retirement alarm" that suddenly goes off, alerting you that today is the day for this fateful event? During my talks and seminars around the country about practice transitions, I gather data from attendees about their retirement plans. Hundreds of data points predict an average retirement age of 60. However, the actual retirement age for my clients averages 62 years.

From the predicted retirement age data, I have been able to develop the following hypothesis: The attractiveness of retirement is inversely proportional to age. I recognized this interesting relationship by separating the sample group into age categories. Comparing the younger group (less than 35 years old) to the older group (55 to 66 years old) resulted in a predicted retirement age that was 10 years greater for the older group.

Why is it considered "normal" to retire at age 65? We can thank the Germans, specifically the 19th Century Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. In 1881, when he was inventing his pension system, he arbitrarily set the age for retirement at 65. At the time he did this, very few people lived that long. Today, age 65 still dictates our views about work and retirement, even though life expectancies have almost doubled since.

Robert J. Myers, one of the architects of Social Security, began his career in government service in 1934 as a member of the actuarial team for Social Security, and was the system's chief actuary from 1947 to 1970. He "did the math" that led to fixing Social Security's age of eligibility to receive full benefits at 65. That number, which has come to define "old age" for everyone now living in this country, had no previous biological, social, or legal significance to Americans. Sixty-five was selected because, as Myers explained, "Sixty was too young and 70 was too old. So, we split the difference."

What all this means is that longevity and retirement age have no correlation. Life expectancy has increased over 11 years since the Social Security Act originated in 1935. Today, using the same assumptions, retirement age would arbitrarily be 76.

So what is behind this emotional turmoil when retirement beckons? Many dentists have personality traits that make them good health-care givers, but also create barriers to change. What are some of these traits and why are they barriers to change?

1 Perfectionism — This can lead to an obsessive detail orientation and the need for absolute control. It is a positive trait when striving for excellence; but, striving for perfection will only get in the way of excellence.

2 Dominance and the need to be right — You can exhaust yourself trying to establish dominance and control. This can be fruitful when diagnosing patients, but it can be negative when directed towards others.

3 Workaholic — This may put you in control at work but not in control of your personal life. The urge is to always get more done.

4 Pride and ego — These traits can be a barrier to admitting problems and making the decision to change.

Get up from your stool and sit in the dental chair. Then look at your empty stool. Who is important here? You ... or the role that you play with patients when you sit on that stool?

The thought of retirement usually creates tension. Change is necessary to relieve tension. However, most changes result in taking something away from you, so the typical reaction is fear. Others approach retirement as the establishment of a sense of continuity in the later one-third of life. For them retirement is freedom.

Being a dentist is a high-status profession. To retire successfully, your identity must be secure. It is grounded in who you are, not what you are. The size of your retirement fund will not determine a successful retirement. It is what is in your heart.

There is a trick to the graceful exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over — and then letting it go. It means leaving what is over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry point; that we are moving on, rather than out.

Gary Schaub is the founder of HELP Appraisals & Sales Inc., a dental and medical appraisal and brokerage firm in Portland, Ore. He has done over 1,200 health care appraisals and more than 350 transitions. He is a member of American Dental Sales and can be reached at (503) 223 4357, or email him at [email protected]. See the ADS classified ads for names and phone numbers of ADS members in your area.

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