When I’m 64

Sounds sort of musical doesn’t it?

Our view of the future often includes dates for events and achieving goals. These dates are arbitrary, calculated, or out of our control. We may retire because we’re “supposed to”, not for any well-thought out reason. The more we focus on a particular date, the more it takes on a life of its own, and sometimes the rationale for and consequences of selecting a date get lost.

I was recently talking with a dentist who said he planned to retire at age 67 and 7 months. Turns out that was December 31. Of course the specificity of the age and date piqued my interest, and I was told that he and his financial planner had calculated that was when his financial picture was fulfilled and he no longer needed earned income. The practice sale and contract would be complete. He would walk away.

My next question was, “What will you do?”  The following discussion characterized the common paradigm surrounding retirement. That is, we work or we don’t work. Little thought is given to what retirement really is, which is Freedom; freedom to do what we want, when we want, where we want, and with whom we want. If we love dentistry, it could include dentistry.

Our mindsets about retiring influence how we exit our profession, and we’re finding that it is not black and white, work or don’t work. It is about happily finding and pursuing a passion. Some of us walk away from practice to pursue a vision, some cautiously tip toe away doing progressively less dentistry while exploring new possibilities, and some run away slamming the door behind them before looking to see what’s next.

True stories of two other dentists come to mind. One retired with very comfortable retirement savings. Those savings virtually disappeared during the dot com bubble burst in the early 2000’s and, as he had allowed his dental license to lapse, had limited opportunity to rebuild his lost finances. He became suicidal and fortunately with counseling was able to overcome his mental anguish. I met the other dentist as he was retaking his licensing exam at age 70. His license also had lapsed, and he wanted to practice again. Taking the Boards again speaks to his strong motivation for practicing dentistry. Perhaps he retired when he really wasn’t ready, and retirement wasn’t what he had envisioned.

There is another reason not to focus on a specific date for retiring. Circumstances beyond our control can change everything. Changes in finances, markets, health of ourselves and family, broken transition agreements, and accidents may require us retiring earlier or later. We’re finding that the happiest people seem to be those who, in addition to having goals, have a mindset of flexibility and the resilience to adjust their sails to accommodate storms and changes of wind direction.

As has often been said, joy is in the journey, not the destination. Those who are counting on retirement to make them happy are setting themselves up for disappointment. Retirement doesn’t make anyone happy. It is what we do in retirement that makes us happy. Planning can bring it to life.


Neil Hiltunen, D.M.D., F.A.G.D., F.I.C.D.


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