Not the retiring sort

By Caro U. Rock

At the recent Wharton Economic Summit, stock guru Jeremy Siegel, Wharton's Russell E. Palmer Professor of Finance, noted that in the coming years the Baby Boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964—will be approaching retirement. This development will dramatically change the retirement landscape for a long time to come. With the average retirement age dropping to 62 today from 67 in 1950, this cohort will face a variety of issues, such as how to support themselves through an extended retirement period and, as Siegel posits, who will buy their goods and assets when they are ready to sell.

As the average retirement age has dropped, life expectancy has risen to an average of 77 years. Baby Boomers, many of whom are family business leaders, are beginning to ask what will give meaning to their lives in retirement. Many patriarchs are reluctant to let go of the reins until the last possible moment. They see themselves as irreplaceable and omnipotent. In addition to concerns about financial security, some are delaying retirement because they doubt the competency of the next generation.

But retirement does not have to be feared. It can be an exciting time to switch gears and develop new interests. When my father, Paul Uhlmann, and his brother, Pat, transferred control of the family flour and grocery products business to their children, my dad was in his mid-70s. “Retirement” was not in his vocabulary. He had long been involved civically, and he continued to stay active on committees and boards, while supporting the performing and visual arts. With more time on his hands, he was able to become involved with a quarterly publication, eventually becoming chairman of its advisory board. Now 86, he divides his time between Scottsdale and Kansas City, where he comes into the office every day, giving advice when asked (and sometimes when not asked), working on investments and helping to look for new business ventures.

At age 64, my father-in-law, Milton Rock, former managing director of the Hay Group, an international consulting firm, transferred leadership control of the family business to my husband, Bob. After setting aside funds to support his lifestyle, Milt sought to invest in and build intellectually challenging businesses that did not carry the same financial risk as he faced in previous executive positions. He, too, focused on the non-profit world, where he could impart his business expertise, meet interesting people and make a difference in the lives of Philadelphians. This was accomplished through his chairmanship at the Curtis Institute of Music, the Pennsylvania Ballet and Temple University Hospital. Now 86, Milt stays active in the business and cultural communities while spending part of the year in France.

As William Alexander, a professor of family business at Wharton, acknowledges, “It is better to retire to something rather than from something. And that something can’t be golf, the beach or travel. It must be stimulating and challenging, which will result in making a difference wherever you devote your time and energy.” In both sides of my family, a fine example has been set.