The dilemma of letting go


Cambridge historian Peter Laslett first gave it the name “third age” to distinguish it from the first age (of growing up) and the second age (of full-time work).

It creeps upon us so gradually that we ignore it. Many of us aren’t looking forward to it. It is a thought that we’d like to push to the back of our minds. We are telling ourselves: “hang in there; you’ve got years to go yet”.

Sooner or later, we approach retirement age and have to let go.

For many people in full-time employment, retirement comes as an unexpected shock, an eventuality for which they are ill-prepared.

Suddenly, they find themselves exposed to the vagaries of the “third age”. Letting go can be a positive or devastating experience depending on the individual and their particular circumstances.

Why do people refuse to accept that their time on the job is coming to a close? Why do we hear of CEOs who extend their tenure one or more years beyond their retirement date?

There are several reasons. This article seeks to review the physical, psychological, financial and social barriers to a graceful retirement.

Humans are mortal and death is inevitable. Surprisingly, many people experience shock when evidence of physical decline starts dawning on them.

As years go by, a number of bodily changes begin to manifest. dental problems, wrinkles, graying hair, balding, the need for (stronger) glasses, hearing loss, diminished bladder control, sagging breasts, loss of physical fitness, the list is endless.

In his memoirs, former French president Valéry Giscard d’Éstaing candidly portrays the fear and despair that awareness of his aging brought him:

“I never look at myself in a mirror, except to shave, and even then, I make sure that the light is as dim as possible. When I walk along the street, I take care never to look into the shop windows which might reflect my image.”

These physical effects of aging go together with a flurry of emotional reactions, such as fear, anxiety, grief, depression and anger.

Facing retirement, most people prefer to cling to their jobs rather than face up to these painful realities.

They do anything and everything within their realm to postpone the day of reckoning. Perhaps Malcolm Forbes was right when he quipped that “retirement kills more people than hard work ever did”.

In psychology, there is what is termed the “edifice complex”. This is the desire by the leader to leave behind a legacy.

Leaders who suffer from the edifice complex fail to make a clean break from working life to retirement.

Afraid that their legacy will be destroyed, they cling on to power for as long as they can. They become monarchs.

The monarch’s pursuit of an immortal legacy can also destroy the enterprise that he has built. Monarchs believe that they are indispensable.

They can fuel destructive rivalries or undermine their potential heirs and divide their boards.

They methodically hamstring the progress of the candidate that they have even chosen to succeed them.

Whoever said that the key task of a CEO is to find his or her predecessor and kill the person had a point! The spiteful tactics of world-weary top managers are normally subtle but potentially destructive.

Out of generational envy, they don’t see the reason why they should hand over the baton to some business school graduate with a silly haircut!

Monarchs may act irresponsibly and selfishly. Their influence only comes to an end after they are forcibly removed by a palace coup or death. The famous words of Louis XIV “après moi deluge” (after me the flood /downpour) come to mind, old men can be dangerous; they often care little about what happens to the world once they no longer run it!

Our fear of nothingness is another factor. No one likes to feel completely useless.

The prospect of climbing down from the top of the heap to becoming a nobody overnight, generates an enormous amount of apprehension among those in higher echelons of organisations.

It holds little attraction for them. It is a hostile act.

Retirement suddenly robs them of their links to institutions of great power, influence over individuals, policies, finances, and the community.

Shortly after leaving office, former US President Harry Truman depicted this sense of powerlessness:

“Two hours ago I could have said five words and been quoted in every capital of the world. Now, I could talk for two hours and nobody would give a damn.”

No wonder why, when faced with the eventuality of having to let go, many leaders try, by hook and crook, to find ways of staying a day longer in the office.

Another factor which makes retirement look unattractive is the talion principle. This derives from the early Babylonian law of an eye-for-an-eye justice. What does this mean for retirement?

During their term of office, leaders may exercise their authority by making certain decisions that rub some people the wrong way.

The fear of the prospect of retaliation by their victims haunts some leaders to the point of paranoia.

As an adaptive mechanism, they have to be vigilant in the face of perceived or real threats from their victims and aspirants to the throne.

Hanging on to power becomes protective armour for them.

People facing retirement also have to contend with financial and social concerns. Retirement benefits are obviously lower than full-time employment income, and the sooner one leaves employment, the lower the benefits.

Moreso, having been accustomed to socialising with the “who’s whos” of their communities, many people feel the pressure to remain in their jobs.

This pressure to stay put may come from spouses and children, who cannot fathom losing the perks and glory that come with dad or mum’s job.

Companies have a duty to ensure a smooth exit of the men and women who work for them.

Sadly, most companies are notoriously negligent on this aspect.

Those on the verge of retirement are too often abandoned to sink or swim on their own.

Most companies view retirement planning as largely a personal issue. Many retirees indeed sink; they plunge down into bitterness, resentment and depression when faced with the reality of letting go.

Companies can formulate policies that allow old employees to retire gracefully.

A phased retirement approach, whereby individuals can be engaged in a part-time capacity is one such policy.

Retirees can be given the opportunity to serve for some time as consultants to their companies.

This makes the retirement process less stressful and helps cushion the retirees from the shock that might otherwise be induced by an abrupt departure from work.

Retirees should be helped to plan their future because ordinarily they leave it until the last minute. Old employees must be assisted to move on, not just out.

For those retiring at 55 or at 60 years, organisations can continue to pay a percentage of their salaries until their 65th birthday.

At a personal level, retirees need to diversify their options instead of putting all their eggs in one basket.

If you are a CEO, consider stepping into a non-executive director position or some other part-time work.

This provides a chance to make some extra money, socialise and maintain contacts, and so on.

You also need to invest in meaningful relationships early.

In fact, most of us sacrifice our relationships with our spouses, children and friends on our way up.

But the irony is that if we want to live to the fullest in our later life, we have to give up, much earlier, our single-minded dedication to work and invest in matters beyond work.

In so doing, we will create fond memories with people close to us who will sustain us in hard times. It would also be better if you bolster your occupational pension with some personal savings or real estate.

For society, people in their “third age”, mature, rich in experience, independent and energetic, could be a valuable resource to the community.

But unless this group of people is self-supporting, they will remain a burden to the next generation.

The “third age” is real. We cannot ignore it. We need to see it as part of life and prepare for it adequately.

For those who prepare for it, retirement will be a golden sunset for them.

For the unprepared, retirement becomes a longer and more treacherous downward slope.

Isaac Mazanhi is a labour analyst. He writes in his own capacity. He can be contacted on e-mail: or cell: 0773 063 653