I was at a 60th birthday party the other night. It was the first to celebrate among my friends and no doubt won’t be the last as we hurtle headlong towards our seventh decade.

Most of the faces were familiar, some more than others. Indeed, the party’s hosts met each other at my own 16th bash decades ago, and despite my sage advice warning they clearly weren’t suited have managed to stay together ever since.

Looking around the room, there oozed an easy, comfortable sense of success. This was a room filled with high achievers, six-figure earners, people of power and position. CEOs, lawyers, company directors, property consultants, advertising gurus, all spending their Saturday night drinking fine wine and feasting on tempura prawns. Life was good.

But I wondered how deep this sense of ease really flowed. After all, these ambitious men and women were reaching the pointy ends of their careers, which meant change was on the horizon. Whereas in past years conversations were dominated by business success, children and overseas vacations, this year was a little different. Retirement was in the air.

Approaching 60, it’s no surprise to see more retirees and semi-retirees gathering over the cheese platter, and it’s fascinating to note how much their levels of satisfaction vary.

Definitely the most vocal are those who wonder how they ever had time to work. They’re having a blast at golf or Bridge, on holidays, or with the grandkids. They’re running clubs, practising yoga and tai chi and learning languages. Work is a distant, blurred memory while their future beckons bright and bold.

Then there is another, more moderate, crowd content just pottering, sharing a coffee with friends and dabbling in odd jobs. They’ve slipped easily into new routines, a new life and a future planned at their own slower pace.

It’s the ones who don’t say much at all who are the most intriguing. Retirement took them by surprise, opening a void they have no idea how to fill. They’re financially fit, that part of the retirement plan was detailed to perfection, but they neglected to look beyond the bank balance.

It was their PA who planned their lives, filling their diaries with dinners, meetings, and trips, while their private lives remained neglected, barren of friends and interests. It was the boardroom battles, the draining deadlines, the endless strategies which drove them to get out of bed every day to compete and succeed, and without that adrenalin rush, life is a bland tapestry of nothing. Retirement looms, long and lonely.

Fill your retirement with an agenda

In a climate where over 50s are discarded, more than retained, retirement often comes sooner than expected, leaving this incredibly capable group with no idea where to seek the gratification their career provided, let alone discover the identity which came with the job.

It’s not uncommon also for the most ambitious driven from a young age to climb their ladder of success to be the most affected by retirement. They rarely stopped along the way to take time out, to do something just for the heck of it, to travel, or work outside their comfort zone for pleasure rather than money or power. They never learned to just hang out and enjoy what life has to offer outside of work.

Looking at this room last Saturday night boasting a wealth of corporate and practical experience in multiple and extraordinary fields, I wondered how the scenario would play out in another ten years. I imagine most will be retired and many of them financial enough to enjoy a great escape from work. But I wonder how many will truly be satisfied with what their retirement has to offer.

Like any great escape there has to be multiple plans to fall back on. Plans A, B, C and D are all needed to fulfil a life which was once filled for you and they need to be contemplated now. Not the day you hand in your pass.

Trade the 14-hour day for just ten and spend the other four finding a hobby or group of like-minded people you can tap into when you retire. Get to know the family. An obvious one, yes, but the family is often the first sacrifice made at the altar of a demanding career.

Remember, isn’t all about money. If you don’t have a productive life after work, all the money in the world won’t buy you what you really need and that’s an agenda. Just like you have now at work.

CEO or tradie, retirement is a great leveller. Plan to live it now.

Talkback

How did you find retirement? Did you have a practical plan to fill your days or were you shocked and at a loss?

Next week Wendy will explore how corporate leaders can let go in retirement.