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Redefining Retirement

By Deborah M. DeBernard, AIA, NCARB, LEED

As architects approach their 60s, many are looking at retirement options and choosing to work beyond age 65. A survey by the Associated Press (AP) found that most baby boomers (Americans born between 1946 and 1964) expect to retire around age 63. However, 66 percent of the respondents expect to work for pay after retiring. Of those, 43 percent will do so because they want to stay busy, 27 percent to make ends meet and another 19 percent will work so that they can afford "extras." A survey conducted by Merrill Lynch finds that the majority of workers will stop working for pay and retire in the traditional sense but that phase will not begin until they approach 70 years old.

Conventional wisdom holds that retirement security is comprised of three essential components; Social Security, IRA/pensions and personal savings. With changes in the economy, doubt about the long-term viability of social security, and diminishing personal saving, most retirees are realizing that a fourth pillar deserves consideration–earnings from continued employment.

According to ABC News writers Lisa Stark and Megan Carpenter, baby boomers, “compared with their parents are healthier, better educated and expected to live well into their 80s and beyond. The increasing lifespan has given boomers the chance to reinvent themselves and pursue their passions at any age.” The ideal retirement arrangement described by most boomers is reoccurring cycles of work and leisure, part-time work, or owning their own business, according to the Merrill Lynch survey. The definition of retirement for all fields, including architecture, is being reinvented.

Retirement Employment Options

Self-Employment: One in 5 architects is self-employed, so the deck is already stacked to give architects easier options for continued earnings beyond retirement age. Being the boss means that retirement can occur at any age. “I love what I do and can’t imagine feeling like I’ve had enough” says Michael Winstanley of Michael Winstanley Architects Planners in Alexandria, Virginia. “My idea of retirement is choosing what I design, talking with clients, watching my staff excel and enjoying all the benefits of the profession.” Being self-employed and owning a firm allows a lot of independence and sense of achievement.

While the rewards can be compelling, preparing for self-employment requires some thought, time and money. Bob Skladany, writer for American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) advises that:

• Some jurisdictions require registration, licensing or incorporation of oneself or the firm. Talk to an attorney with experience in self-employment and small business.

• Self-employed individuals must pay federal self-employment tax on net income. Consult the IRS or a tax consultant for limitations and reporting requirements.

• Self-employed individuals must prepare additional tax forms declaring revenue and expenses related to their work including estimated quarterly payments to federal and state tax agencies.

• Self-employed individuals must provide their own benefits unless there is lingering coverage from a previous employer or Medicare.

• The firm may require financing from personal savings or a loan.

Consultancy: A variant of self-employment is working as a consultant. Consultants are often great problem solvers with a desire to help another firm improve its business and usually work on an hourly basis. To be successful, consultants need to be self-disciplined and able to balance the need to complete the current assignments while continuing to market themselves for new business and make collections from their existing clients. While hourly rates for consultancy are generally higher than for steady employment, there is often variable income associated with the changing workload. If an architect has something special to offer clients that will keep a consultant’s services in demand, this avenue can bring flexibility to many retirees.

However, this work style is not for everyone looking to ease into retirement and may in fact pose problems for people intending to change their employment status with their current employer from ‘employee’ to ‘consultant’ overnight. Review current IRS regulation to see if there are issues with a change in status.

Getting started as a consultant involves appreciating the true value of one’s services, developing a clear, concrete value proposition and networking. John C. Decker, an Executive Vice President with TMI Executive Resources offers the following advice to those looking to establish a consultancy business:

• Think specifically about a marketing strategy.

• Join and become active in industry and professional associations.

• Consider writing a book or lecturing to gain a reputation.

• Develop a referral network.

• Consider recruiting advisors to identify partners and alliances for marketing leads and cross referrals.

• Set and stick with a specific amount of time devoted to business development activities, sales and collections.

• Make sure computer skills are current.

• Create a Web site.

• Prepare a one page consulting capabilities statement with a vision, a few related selected accomplishments and a brief biography.

• For each project, set clear expectations and avoid project creep.

• Do a great job and ask for referrals.

Board Positions: Many larger organizations rely on a small group of individuals to provide leadership and guidance to their organizations. This small group is called the Board of Directors, Trustees, or Advisors. These groups are accountable to the owners and work collaboratively with hired staff to oversee the performance of the organizations and its compliance with governing statutes and regulations. While many high profile Board positions are filled through business and social networks, there are other positions for small and medium sized enterprises–some paid–that are filled through internet postings, executive searches and professional recommendations.

Members of boards typically are paid to meet 6 to 12 times per year, working a total of 15 to 30 days. To qualify for consideration, candidates should have experience in the organization’s area of interest, proven management experience, technical expertise, and broad business and social networks. Mature architectural leaders who have been active in their communities or other areas of interest can find themselves in a strong position for these openings.

Volunteering: By definition volunteering does not include monetary compensation; however, it can sometimes yield benefits that are more valued than money. Leading tours at a museum, answering the phones at a crisis center, visiting elementary schools to discuss an architectural career, serving on zoning boards or reading books to children at the local libraries can unleash a passion that has not had time to be fully expressed during a busy career. National Geographic, the Smithsonian and the National Parks Service all have programs where volunteers can gain access to the wealth of resources in these organizations. Older Americans are much sought after by the Peace Corps, as they offer a lifetime of experience, maturity, and a demonstrated ability that is highly valued in the countries where the Peace Corps serves. Community outreach programs, places of worship and schools all present vast opportunities to fulfill any retiree’s needs.

Whether following in the footsteps of Philip Johnson, FAIA, retiring at 98 after 6 decades of architectural practice, or Edward A. Feiner, FAIA. who retired as Chief Architect in the General Services Administration only to join private practice, or other architects who have thrown themselves into community service after many years in successful practices, most architects should be able to find a path to a fulfilling and enjoyable retirement.


Keywords: Leadership, Issues, Social issues, Public outreach, Community assistance, Public service, Design disciplines, Architectural disciplines, Career counseling, Consultants, Related Disciplines, Employment, Personal benefits, Retirement benefits, Flexible work schedules, Article


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