When Lee Iacocca retired from the auto industry in the mid 1990s, he thought he had it made. He had millions of dollars in the bank, plush homes in three countries, books on the best-seller list, a syndicated column and speaking engagements that brought in $60,000 per 30-minute appearance.
But Iacocca soon realized retirement wasn’t what he expected. "I wasn’t ready for it," he says. "Most people aren’t." He confessed his failure in a Fortune interview entitled, "How I Flunked Retirement." By this time, his marriage had dissolved. He realized he didn’t like traveling, and he woke up every morning with no sense of purpose.
"What do guys like me do who’ve had the world by the string?" he asked. "You can plan everything in life, and then the roof caves in on you, because you haven’t done enough thinking about who you are and what you should do with the rest of your life."
Baby boomers contemplating retirement may be facing these same issues.
Begin investing in an SRA
William Cox, 78, who retired 11 years ago as a United Methodist minister, has some helpful suggestions for anyone trying to envision what life will look like after retiring.
"Most of us are focused on the Individual Retirement Account (IRA)," he says, "because we seek financial security. But financial security should not be our only concern. I think our SRA, or spiritual retirement account, is just as important."
Iacocca’s own concerns have certainly made the case for an SRA, he adds. "As Iacocca realized, we need to think about who we are and what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives before retiring – not after."
In May, Cox conducted a workshop at the Benedictine Center called "Cultivating Elder Wisdom" where he helped participants understand the issues baby boomers and others face as they age and consider retirement. He also gave them tools for claiming – and ultimately sharing – the wisdom they’ve accumulated over decades of life experiences.
Cox has been ministering to the elderly since the early 1950s, shortly after his ordination. He focused on this demographic group for one reason – no one else wanted to. Since his own retirement, he has become a religious educator, life coach and certified leader on From Age-ing To Sage-ing: A New Vision of Growing Older.
Elder wisdom may heal the world
"They say our job is to master the outer world in the first half of our lives," Cox says. "In the second half, our job is to master the inner world. That mastery is the journey into elder wisdom, which represents everything we’ve learned from everything we’ve experienced. With this wisdom, we can help heal our troubled world."
He says the 21st century has been labeled "the information age," and he wonders what would happen if we change it to "the wisdom age."
"This shift in consciousness could transform our culture," Cox explains. "Right now, we are caught up in mindless consumption, environmental destruction and violence. Imagine a world where consciousness has been changed to a mindful use of resources, stewardship of the earth and an eagerness for dialog that will bring about justice and peace."
This is the gift elders can bring to the planet, he says. This is the passion and purpose they can find in retirement.
It’s what can happen when baby boomers dare to journey within to define who they are, what they value and how they want to spend the rest of their lives.
"What is the purpose of getting older? What are the possibilities in retirement? I think the purpose and possibilities go deeper than spending our days traveling and playing golf," Cox says. "Traveling and golf are fine. But what else can I do to enrich my spirit and leave behind a rich legacy?"
Start doing your "spirit work"
He cites Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, who wrote From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A profound New Vision of Growing Older. "The Rabbi asks us to ‘do our philosophical homework.’ I call it Spirit Work, which involves identifying your passion and living from soul rather than should."
Cox says the homework requires finding answers to three questions (which seem simple, but require thought and take time):
– What have I put aside (because it seemed impossible or impractical) that I may want to resurrect?
– What contribution do I want to make to family, community, nation, planet?
– How can I simplify my life so I have more time for my spirit quest?
It’s a good idea to start investing in an IRA at an early age, he adds. And the same holds true for an SRA. He quotes Fred Astaire who said, "Growing old is like anything else. If you’re going to do it well, you better start early."
"So the sooner we begin investing in our spiritual lives," Cox says, "the more wisdom and peace we’ll experience later on." He sites Carl Jung, who observed that people in midlife feel a need to focus on spiritual matters. "If we don’t resist this natural urge, and if we begin to ask those big questions, our souls will deepen and we’ll build a spiritual retirement account that will fill us with passion and joy."
What is an "elder"?
While many cultures honor elders and turn to them for wisdom and advice, our culture values youth and promotes the illusion that eternal youth is possible and is something worth pursuing.
In his workshops, Cox asks participants to free-associate the word "old." They usually respond with "tired," "over the hill," "useless." When he presents the word "elder," however, they say "wise," "mature," "gentle."
So he likes describing an elder as A person who deserves respect and honor and whose work it is to synthesize wisdom from long life experience and formulate this into a legacy for future generations.
"The great law of the Iroquois Confederacy said we must consider how our decisions today will affect the next seven generations," Cox says. "That certainly does not reflect today’s value of instant gratification, but it’s an approach that can help heal the nations of the world and the planet itself."
Interestingly, the word "senate" has the same root as "senior." "But the Senate has not been a wise group lately," he notes. "Just imagine if we brought together 20 grandparents from the United States and 20 from Middle East to work through the issues we face right now. Their combined wisdom and experience could change the world."
It’s one possibility baby boomers can consider as they seek a sense of purpose and satisfaction during their retirement years.
"There is a purpose to every stage of life," Cox says. "The more we plan ahead, the more meaningful those life stages will be. And the more we invest in our spiritual life, the more prepared we’ll be to experience a retirement that is rich with passion and deep satisfaction."
At the Benedictine Center, Cox urges retirees to share their wisdom in a way that enriches others. In his own retirement, he is practicing what he preaches. For example, he is on the community faculty at Metropolitan State University. He is also active in the Minnesota Coaches Association and International Transactional Analysis Association. In the past, he has consulted with agencies and corporations to help build healthier work environments for employees. He also served as executive director for The Men’s Center and provided counseling through Employee Assistance Programs. Go to www.william-cox.com for more information.