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Downshifting the Daily Grind

How to negotiate a phased retirement

Hannon: Phased Retirement

Martin Barraud/Getty Images

A gradual transition from full-time employment to retirement allows you to pursue other hobbies.

En español | You get up every morning from your alarm clock's warning

Take the 8:15 into the city … to get to work by 9.

That's what the rock band Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang in their 1970s hit song, "Takin' Care of Business," and you might shudder to think it's all about you and how there's no end in sight.

Yes, working well into your 60s and even 70s is a pillar of many retirement plans these days. But you can often find ways to scale back and gradually step away from your job.

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Clocking in at a reduced schedule allows freedom to focus on the other parts of life, such as family, travel and volunteering, while still earning a paycheck and employer benefits to keep your financial safety net in place.

"As people live longer and in good health, retirement is becoming a more active life stage, with more people looking for the opportunity to combine work and leisure," says Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. "Many workers have retired the notion of fully retiring at age 60 or 65."

The hitch is that employers have been slow to adopt phased-in retirement in a formal way.

According to a survey by the Transamerica Center, "The New Flexible Retirement," 61 percent of workers in the U.S. envision a "flexible transition" to retirement. But only 25 percent of workers 55 and older said their employers actually offer the opportunity to shift from full-time to part-time arrangements. And just 4 percent of that age group say that they have employers that offer skills retraining to help them carry out this transition.

Why the foot-dragging by employers? "They simply don't want another benefit that may be subject to laws and regulations, as a formal program probably would," says Sara E. Rix, an employment consultant and former senior adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute.

"The companies that do offer their employees phased retirement typically worry about losing too much skill too fast," adds Chris Farrell, author of Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life.

But some companies are making the leap. Take Herman Miller Inc., a Zeeland, Mich.–based furniture manufacturer where about a quarter of the workforce is 55+. The company has a program that allows employees to take 6 to 12 consecutive weeks off during the year. They aren't paid during that time, but they keep their benefits and length of service.

Herman Miller also has a "flex-retirement" plan that allows for an exit stretched out from six months to two years. "The retirement decision is irreversible, and in return for the planned reduction in hours, employees put together a knowledge transfer plan to teach the ropes of the job to their replacement," Farrell explains.

Bon Secours Virginia Health System, a nonprofit organization based in Richmond, with more than 13,000 employees, allows employees to gradually work fewer hours or step down to less demanding positions, says James C. Godwin Jr., vice president of human resources. That typically results in a drop in salary, but employees can start drawing their retirement benefits, too. Employees can also keep their employer-provided health insurance benefits as long as they're working at least 16 hours a week.

The federal government has had a phased retirement plan in place since November 2014. But the program is not mandatory at the agency level and has found little support there.

If the idea of easing into retirement appeals to you but your employer doesn't have a formal program, you'll have to become your own advocate. "You need to convince your employer that an ad hoc arrangement will be to his or her benefit," says Rix. "Employers want to keep certain workers, but they don't want to offer a new benefit to everybody, and, in fact, they probably couldn't. It can be expensive from both an administrative and benefits perspective."

So here are nine steps to help you win the right to downshift:

1. Talk to coworkers. See if you can find someone at your workplace who is phasing into retirement, or someone who did so recently, Rix advises. "Ask them how they negotiated, what their experiences have been and what advice they can offer you."

2. Be clear about your vision. Do you want part-time rather than full-time work for a fixed period, say, scaling back to a four-day week, then maybe to a three-day week? What's your time frame? "Having an idea of when your phased retirement will likely end helps your employer to plan for your replacement and might make him or her more receptive to considering phased retirement for you," Rix points out.

3. Outline your exact duties in the new arrangement. Which of your job responsibilities would you continue to meet? Who would handle the other tasks? Think it through, from your employer's perspective, so you can identify advantages for the firm, says Rix: "Is there a promising subordinate or junior staffer who [with training from you] could fill your shoes eventually? This is another reason to have a departure date in mind — your successor needs to plan, too."

4. Set a salary expectation. What would you be comfortable with in terms of salary and benefits? Knowing what you're aiming for helps frame the discussion. But you can be pretty sure you'll have to take a haircut on pay.

5. Expand your definition of "phased retirement." Decide what matters to you. Do you want to work from home or come into the office? Do you want firm hours or a looser structure of just getting the job done?

6. Solve special problems. Cali Williams Yost, founder of Flex+Strategy Group, suggests that you ask yourself: "What's something my employer struggles with consistently, and how could retaining my talents through a phased retirement solve that issue?" You might, for instance, be assigned only to special projects that no one else has the time for.

7. Use mentoring as a bargaining chip. "We live in an era where managers are increasingly concerned about mentoring younger employees [or new employees] in the business," says Farrell. "Training budgets have typically been cut back in recent years. Every organization — nonprofit and for-profit — is running pretty hard, trying to do more with less."

That makes mentoring an incredibly prized commodity. You're an experienced employee. You know the industry and how to get the job done. That can be a powerful tool to an employer to train replacements or welcome millennial employees into the department.

8. Start the conversation. Once you have your blueprint, schedule a meeting with your boss. Do this a year or more ahead of time, particularly if this is new territory at your workplace. But you don't want to raise any alarms. You don't want to give off the vibe that you're not fully engaged in your work and are pondering an exit.

You need to assure your boss that you're not looking to abruptly jump ship, but rather trying to develop a smooth transition that will benefit the company in the long run.

9. Create regular checkpoints. Pitch your proposal on a trial basis with built-in periodic reviews to see whether it's working for the manager and working for you.

"A regular conversation can help minimize any doubts and head off potential conflicts while maximizing the odds that you'll enjoy your phased retirement," Farrell says. "The phased retirement needs to work for you not just financially, but also keep you engaged with the work you're doing and around colleagues you like."

After all, as the Bachman-Turner rockers sang, you don't want "to work at nothing all day."

Kerry Hannon, AARP's jobs expert, is an award-winning author and nationally recognized authority on career transitions and retirement. Her latest book is Getting the Job You Want After 50 for Dummies. She has also written Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness and Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy… and Pays the Bills. Hannon has spent more than 25 years covering all aspects of personal finance for national media outlets. Find more from Kerry at Kerryhannon.com.

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