Gilding Your Golden Years

Retirement planning is about more than just money

5 min read

Are you preparing for your retirement? Yes, you , at whatever stage of your engineering career you happen to be—not just those of you who are well into your careers and getting closer to that day of reckoning. All of us should be thinking regularly about what to do with the rest of our lives when we reach retirement—whether it’s choosing to put our feet up and become couch potatoes or, we hope, to continue a robust life full of interesting and rewarding activities. Make it happen—don’t just (maybe) let it happen.

The trick, of course, is how to make it happen. To be sure, a great deal of the enjoyment of your postwork days will depend on your finances. This article, however, is not focused on how to analyze the financial aspects of your retirement. There are plenty of places to get information on that all-important subject. See, for example, Retire on Less Than You Think: The New York Times Guide to Planning Your Financial Future , by Fred Brock (Times Books, 2004). Obviously, you need to understand what kind of retirement program your organization offers, as the traditional fixed-pension benefit programs gradually disappear and are replaced by 401(k)s, IRAs, and other offerings, supplemented by future yields of government retirement programs like the U.S. Social Security system. As you move along in your career, make sure you think about your financial future regularly, at least annually. A good time to assess your retirement situation and take action is tax time.

Our focus here is on the many nonfinancial matters regarding retirement that may not be apparent to you. If you’re just starting out in our profession—from entry level to emerging project manager—retirement may be very far from your thoughts, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But talk to anyone with gray hair, and you’ll hear how time just melts away. So even when you’re younger—and because you’re still young—you have a marvelous opportunity to start doing some smart things that will both help your career now and pay real dividends when it does come time to retire.

As your career progresses, perhaps the most important thing you need to focus on is your physical health

As your career progresses, perhaps the most important thing you need to focus on is your physical health. It may be more important than your financial health as you get older. You know this—that you need to watch your weight and eat right and get exercise—but, yeah, try doing that when your workload is unending and unrelenting. Hey, don’t complain to me! You are the one who needs to find the time to take care of yourself. Get exercise—even if it means making appointments for workouts and then keeping them. And work on learning how to better set your priorities and manage your time so that you can really accomplish the important things on your plate—not everything that someone throws in front of you to handle.

The other day I met my engineering school classmate Al in his office. Al has become a partner at a small, growing consulting engineering firm, but his responsibilities and workload have been increasing even as he turns 60 years old, and he says he’s very tired. He needs to learn more about delegating and finding more qualified engineers to handle the workload, and he needs to figure out how to manage his firm and his career without harming his health. (I know this is easier said than done.)

For all you engineers, it is critical to prepare for your retirement by developing the lifetime professional skills that will not only help your engineering career but will also be valuable in your postwork life. Here are a few of the skills I’m talking about and the kind of activities they will support:

Learn to speak effectively. Offer to be a guest speaker at engineering schools and IEEE sections. Talk about your career, your projects, anything that you’re good at and that might be of interest to others. If you’ve always wanted to teach, ask schools in your area if they’re looking for an adjunct instructor. Help out at career fairs.

Write more. Think of the interesting experiences in your career and life—the funny incidents, the challenging moments, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Write a couple of pages on each, give the piece a title, and assemble them into a collection of personal essays. Hey, you might even stitch them together into a memoir (like I’m doing). This can be valuable to your family and friends, and possibly to younger engineers still working through their careers, so they can learn from your experiences.

Get involved. There are so many opportunities. See what you can do in your professional societies, like the IEEE’s two speaker programs, S-PAC (Student Professional Awareness Conference) and, for older members, M-PAC (Member Professional Awareness Conference), where IEEE members can hear about nontechnical issues that affect their careers. Boundless community activities beckon—join the boards of nonprofit organizations or volunteer for any number of valuable programs at hospitals, libraries, and recreation programs. They need your help, and you will get tremendous personal satisfaction and, yes, ”giveback.”

Organize and lead activities. Think how valuable your leadership skills can be to other groups. Help the groups get organized, focus on tasks, deal with finances, identify critical-path items, delegate authority, keep to deadlines. Of course, you should be learning how to do all these things in your own working life.

Share your expertise. Keep up with your field, maintain your professional contacts, and offer to help organizations or individuals on a pro bono basis—or even get a fee plus expenses. Don’t be shy.

Network. Whether you read this as a verb (as in ”get out and meet people”) or as a noun (”the sum total of all your business friends and relatives”), keep meeting new people and discovering those who interest you and can be of value, both during your career and later, when it’s time to go on to something else.

Try something new or something that you always wanted to do. Go to any local adult school catalog and scroll through the pages, noting all the neat things you maybe never had time to study before. But maybe you think that everyone at some point (like that old dog) gets too old to learn new things. Well, I recall a true story about a woman in her 80s who was graduating from law school; when she was asked why she had sought to get her degree at such an advanced age, she replied, ”So I’ll be a lawyer for the rest of my life!”

The message here is to start preparing for the retirement that you want. If you’re stressed about something right now, ask yourself how important it will be in five or 10 years or when your career’s over. Hey, if no one has told you this yet: ”Life’s too short.” Or as John Mellencamp opines in the song ”Jack and Diane,” ”�life goes on, / Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone�” So go have a long and thrilling engineering career—and carry it right on into an even more satisfying retirement. Most of how your retirement plays out is up to you.


Contributing Editor CARL SELINGER, an aviation and transportation engineering consultant in Bloomfield, N.J., has given his seminar on the soft, nontechnical skills, ”Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School,” throughout the United States and Canada. His book of the same title has been published by Wiley/IEEE Press. For more information, go to

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