A New Start or the End? - The Retirement Syndrome

Retirement generally conjures up images of golf courses and swimming pools, card games and cocktails. But for many people, particularly top-level executives and CEOs, these images are nothing short of a nightmare. In this new Working Paper, Professor Kets de Vries looks at the dark side of retirement, and outlines how individuals and organizations can help ease the process of letting go.

by Manfred Kets de Vries
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

The retirement party: a catered dinner, a commemorative watch, a pat on the back, and a sharp slam of the door. So what’s wrong with this picture? A lot, says Manfred Kets de Vries, the Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Clinical Professor in Leadership Development. Pushing people out the door without planning can have serious implications for both the departing leader and the organization.

In this Working Paper Kets de Vries calls on his observations of leaders in the retirement process. Loss of status, recognition, and income, along with physical aging and emotional stress can make letting go an overwhelmingly negative experience. He points out that the numerous physical and psychological effects of aging often propel leaders to want to cling to power, a direct defense against the fear of nothingness that comes with giving up that which one has devoted their entire life to.

While most people see planning for retirement as an individual’s responsibility, Kets de Vries believes it needs to be addressed at the organizational level. People on the verge of retirement are all too often abandoned to sink or swim, with no help or preparation from the organization, he says. And many of them sink; they plunge down into bitterness, resentment, and depression through their own inability (or unwillingness) to face up to reality and let go.

This is a dangerously shortsighted policy, says Kets de Vries. In addition to creating critical shortages of experienced personnel, the loss of senior people may affect the organizational “memory,” which in turn can have negative effects on morale and performance. Organizations that fail to deal effectively with retirement issues need to face up to several major issues: how to recognize and maximize the value and quality of experienced executives, how to anticipate and contain the emotional and psychological costs of retirement and redundancy, and how to balance the psychological needs of executives with good policy for the company. The development of strategies to meet these issues can greatly ease the stresses of the retirement syndrome.

One such policy is phased retirement, whereby individuals can control their own gradual reduction in working time. Phased retirement can have the additional benefit to the organization of encouraging experienced personnel to remain in an increasingly part-time capacity. The cost of retaining older executives on a part-time basis is far less than recruiting, selecting, training, and motivating younger people with less work experience.

No one can avoid aging, but most folks can opt to age <i>productively,</i> concludes Kets de Vries.

INSEAD 2003

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