I recently came across an interesting article in The Atlantic in which the author summarises research which shows for many professionals their work peak is ten to twenty years before they retire. The article goes on:
“A few years ago, I saw a cartoon of a man on his deathbed saying, “I wish I’d bought more crap.” It has always amazed me that many wealthy people keep working to increase their wealth, amassing far more money than they could possibly spend or even usefully bequeath. One day I asked a wealthy friend why this is so. Many people who have gotten rich know how to measure their self-worth only in pecuniary terms, he explained, so they stay on the hamster wheel, year after year. They believe that at some point, they will finally accumulate enough to feel truly successful, happy, and therefore ready to die. This is a mistake, and not a benign one. Most Eastern philosophy warns that focusing on acquisition leads to attachment and vanity, which derail the search for happiness by obscuring one’s essential nature.”
Many people carry on trying to do the same thing and find themselves enjoying it less and less. The author learned that Hindu teaching suggests that there are four stages in life and that the third, Vanaprastha, usually starts around the age of fifty and occurs when people move from focusing on their external responsibilities (passing these on to the next generation) and rewards to focusing more inwards on spirituality, service and wisdom. Literally, Vanaprastha means retreating to the forest.
One of the challenges for society is that whilst this typical arc of life continues, life expectancy grows and as suggested by Gratton & Scott in their book The 100 year life, there is a need to plan for this process more effectively than ever before.
The author of The Atlantic article was prompted to make his own four part plan – jump, worship, serve and connect. He planned to make a start (jump) before the inevitable decline or plateauing occurred, to increase his spiritual life, help others and reinforce his relationships.
How we manage this transition is down to each of us individually and our own priorities but it is important to think about it consciously not just sticking to doing the same old things with diminishing returns. None of this means that we can’t go on achieving things but as the author Wendy Doniger observed “how beautiful it is when you still doing things but they don’t matter the way they did when you were in the thick of things… when you were growing up and trying to figure out who you were and what you want to accomplish in life and all of that”