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Quit cold turkey or phase into retirement?

Freddi Dogterom is a career coach in Lethbridge, Alta.

Larry MacDougal/The Globe and Mail

Freddi Dogterom is a career coach who's done some self-coaching.

After 33 years working for various government organizations in employment and career planning, Ms. Dogterom faced an important, sometimes difficult option for many approaching retirement. And for many others, it's a hard necessity.

Phasing in retirement, rather than abruptly ending a career, is a choice for those wanting to continue the fulfillment of work, as did Ms. Dogterom. Yet for others still carrying debt or a mortgage or any number of financial burdens, there may be no choice but to keep working.

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Phasing in requires a plan: "One of the things that is part of my core belief – one of the things that I teach – is that you always have to have a plan," Ms. Dogterom said from her home in Lethbridge, Alta. "Plan for the transition. Going from full out to absolutely nothing is really hard on a person."

After a working life in career training, "I thought, I'm not going to sit in the corner and knit until I die. I was looking at doing a transition from one employment activity to another," she said.

Ms. Dogterom, who is 60, has always looked long term. "I've always had a rolling 10-year plan. I teach in career planning to always be looking 10 years down the road. Because it's easier to adjust … than if you're looking at one year."

Here's how she did it: Toward the end of her 30-plus years in the work force, she worked for what is now Alberta Human Services. Yet, near the end of that job, she had also been running her own corporate-training and keynote-speaking business on the side. So while still holding a full-time job, she was getting her own business up and running, "making some of my early business mistakes in a safe environment," she said.

Ms. Dogterom then gave herself a two-year window to switch from full-time office work to self employment. Within that window, after leaving her government career, she took a short-term contract job, helping to set up a company's training division.

"I though, 'Yeah, that's something I'd like to get my teeth into.' But I didn't want a job, just to take on this contract for a period of time," she said.

Her new life running her own business though is the opposite of slowing down and kicking up her feet. "Oh heavens, no. I'm locked and loaded and ready to go!"

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Her keynote speeches and workshops keep her on the road constantly. "But that's my choice," she said.

"Some months, I may only be home five or six or seven days. But then I take all of August off, and I'm taking off all of December. It's really being in control of what you're doing, and when you're doing it." That for her is the definition of phasing-in.

The financial transition was also key.

She and her husband, who is an accountant and financial planner, had been living for the past decade on only one of their salaries and banking the other.

"When you start doing it, it is really doable, because you just make little adjustments. So when my government salary stopped, it wasn't a big thing."

Nell Smith, a retirement coach in Calgary, says so many people approaching retirement undervalue how attractive they are to employers.

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Life experience and maturity are prime assets for contract jobs and mentoring work that trade on years of expertise. And maturity can also be a plus for work that requires less experience such as retail.

She pointed to retiredworker.ca, for instance, a website that specifically advertises jobs for older applicants.

In fact, many older workers phasing in their retirement find that they suddenly have more similarities with much younger workers. They may find themselves employed on a contract or freelance basis, doing business over a latte and laptop. "More and more [older] people are self-employed, working from home, meeting people in coffee shops. That is the trend," Ms. Smith said.

"It's a whole new world for a lot of people. There are a lot of people still mired in that traditional retirement sense, especially the ones who get the defined-benefit pension" with a guaranteed payout, Ms. Smith said.

Some employers also see a clear value to their company in phasing out their retiring talent, rather than just watching them walk out the door. Auditing and consulting firm Deloitte sees it as preparing employees for retirement and preparing the organization for their departure. (Equity partners still have mandatory retirement, other employees don't.)

Many gear into retirement with more flexible vacation and work schedules. It depends on each employee's circumstances.

"We had one individual who took three months off in the summer to prepare for retirement," said Jason Winkler, managing partner of talent, who heads all of Deloitte Canada's human resources operations. "So he started getting himself used to having three or four months off in the summer, also using that to have his team and his clients getting used to him being away."

Another professional in the firm worked with her successor eight months before she retired, allowing her to gradually work less over time, down to working just two days a week during her last three months.

"Certainly for key roles where there is huge organizational knowledge and skills, we want to make sure we have sufficient time to transfer that. Because you can't do that in a week," Mr. Winkler said.

"That's kind of been a win-win for both sides."

Ultimately, a rewarding, phased-in retirement isn't a gradual fadeaway. It's a process, ideally a dialogue between retirees and their employers. Mostly it takes planning.

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