How to find your calling and construct an ideal retirement

By Bev O’Shea

Shape your retirement according to your own ideas

This article is reprinted with permission from

Retiring with care — reducing work hours, mentoring, and generally ensuring institutional knowledge is shared before you leave — can benefit both workers and employers. It sounds like an easy sale. Everyone wins.

Many older workers would like to phase out their retirement, but few US employers have policies that specifically allow this. The federal government does it, and so do many universities.

Curiously, the federal government is responsible for the notion that 65 is the age to retire; this age was chosen as the age at which American workers were eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits. Many companies encourage this with pensions. Pensions are gone for many of us, but the notion that 65 is the time to retire isn’t.

What is pension today?

Not only is there little consensus on when retirement should begin, there is little consensus on what retirement is. More than two-thirds of US adults surveyed last fall by OnePoll for Human Interest, a market research firm, said they think retirement is a gradual transition from full-time employment; 11% believe you can work up to 11 hours a week and still be retired.

Eric Phillips, senior director of partnerships and strategic insights at Human Interest, calls this slow withdrawal from the workforce “early retirement.” Maybe that’s what I wanted when I asked my employer about switching to part-time.

When I first started thinking about working fewer hours, I was a full-time writer and occasional editor. I wasn’t bored with my job or career, and I didn’t want to retire—I just wanted to work less.

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Select and select tasks

Now I work when I want – typically between 12 and 25 hours a week – and politely decline assignments I know I won’t like. In the last few weeks of full-time employment, I made notes of which tasks I look forward to and which I would like to give up. It is useful for evaluating potential assignments.

Being sort of retired—but not really—is an unpredictable workflow that broadens the topics I write and think about. I rarely skip gym classes now, I’m not hopelessly busy, and I have the bandwidth to be a better friend. I started knitting. And I didn’t panic (much) when the markets crashed right after I quit because I was confident I could make enough to avoid tapping into my dwindling 401(k).

Admittedly, this comes from a privileged place. I’m educated, have the equipment I need, and could afford to fail. I had my financial planner’s blessing—I had reached full retirement age and had Social Security income to back me up. These are luxury items.

Another benefit of self-created early retirement: I’m not locked into a program where I have to agree to fully retire or work a certain number of hours in a certain number of years. The downside is that I no longer have access to benefits or a 401(k).

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Questions to ask yourself

If you’re thinking about creating your own “early retirement,” according to Jordan Grumet of Evanston, Illinois, author of “Taking Stock: A Hospice Doctor’s Advice on Financial Independence, Building Wealth, and Living with No Regrets, you should.”

Grumet, 49, advises peeling off the elements of your job that cause the most stress first. For him, that was treating patients as a resident doctor. While he now describes himself as a podcaster and author, he continues to do hospice work — the part of his job he has found most fulfilling.

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Once you strip away the parts of your job or life that you don’t enjoy (or don’t need to survive), you can add things that bring you joy or a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Keep a calendar handy and create a schedule, Grumet advises. When creating your own job, an anchor of a few predictable meetings or tasks will help.

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How to find your calling

Paul Dillon, 77, now an associate professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, retired in 2006, shortly before his 61st birthday, as a consultant for an accounting firm in Chicago. Initially, he offered project management and business development services.

Dillon found his calling five years later when a client asked him to look for Chicago businesses that hired veterans. He did a lot more research than they asked for or expected.

He eventually created the concept of a Veterans Incubator. This led to the development of a non-credit college course on veterans and eventually a credits course at Duke, where he relocated to be closer to his grandchildren.

His advice? Be flexible. At the traditional retirement age, he found and pursued a passion. Now this Army Reserve veteran, who also served in Vietnam as a first lieutenant, occasionally teaches a course he created and is wanted as a subject matter expert.

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part-time pension

Is Dillon retired? He says he works 10 to 15 hours a week teaching, about two hours a week otherwise.

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The mentoring piece of a DIY retirement catwalk isn’t as hard to find as you might think, although it’s not the kind of mentoring you would do if you stayed on the job.

Mine has largely helped other writers and editors figure out how to handle the financial part of freelancing, something I began to learn while moderating a panel on the subject.

Dillon believes that opportunities to help can come from just keeping your eyes and ears open and willing to explore new ideas and take small risks.

Not all rewards are financial, he adds. Dillon believes there is an obligation to keep doing good things, citing St. Luke’s admonition that much is given to whom much is expected, and Tikkun Olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world.

“You have a lot of talent out there,” he says, “… use it for the benefit of others.”

Bev O’Shea is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance topics. She is a mother of two adult children and lives in Georgia with her husband, Cockapoo and Calico. Read more about her work at

This article is part of Lessons from Leaders, an initiative by Next Avenue made possible by the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and EIX, the Entrepreneur Innovation Exchange. This article is reprinted with permission from, (c)2023 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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-Bev O’Shea

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently of Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


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03/17/23 0501ET

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