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Tim Brennan is among many retirement-age Canadians making the decision to ease into retirement.Hans Peter Beinert

In 2019, Tim Brennan began thinking about what his post-retirement life would look like.

The 60-year-old Halifax entrepreneur had spent 21 years with the company he co-founded, Fit First Technologies, which produces software tools for human resources and recruiting. That December, he sat down with his partners and began talking about how he might wind down his involvement.

Then came the pandemic lockdowns weeks later, which put his plans into perspective.

“I started walking in a city park every Wednesday afternoon during the first lockdown with a group of four or five guys I knew from a lawn-bowling club,” he recalls. “And I’d ask, ‘What do you do as a retired person?’

The biggest takeaway from those walks, he says, was to “find out what’s important to you, and focus on that in retirement.”

For Mr. Brennan – whose identity, sense of purpose and social life was still substantially tied to work – that meant not retiring: At least not all the way.

He’s among many retirement-age Canadians making similar choices, says James Norris, a London, Ont.-based sales manager with human-resources firm Express Employment Professionals (EEP).

A 2021 EEP survey found 70 per cent of respondents wanted the option to ease into a more flexible work schedule; 62 per cent wanted the option of a consulting role with their current employer and 52 per cent simply wanted flexible and reduced hours.

“There are a lot of people out there who’ve made an investment in their career, and they don’t want to see it just evaporate so quickly,” Mr. Norris says. “They enjoy what they do; they still have something to contribute. They want to transition into retirement at their own pace.”

Mr. Norris believes semi-retirement is good for employees who seek it and employers looking to keep talent in today’s tight labour market. Some companies are catching on, albeit slowly, he says, driven in part by demand from employees.

Still, there are important considerations for people looking to wean off work and into retirement.

Find your role

People looking into semi-retirement need to think about how they want to spend their working hours. It can be consulting, entrepreneurship, moving into a part-time job with your current employer or finding new work altogether.

For many employees, it may be easiest to approach a current employer and see if they’re open to a semi-retirement arrangement.

While few respondents to the EEP poll said their employer offered formal semi-retirement, 34 per cent said their employer has brought retired workers back as either knowledge experts, mentors to younger employees, or to help handle important client relationships.

As a company co-founder and senior leader at his company, Mr. Brennan says he was fortunate to be able to define his semi-retirement role. For him, it meant spending more time with customers and involving himself in the social aspects of the business – and less time on everything else.

“When you’re in your 20, 30, 40s, you say ‘yes’ to a lot of things to build your career,” Mr. Brennan says. “When you’re older, your time and energy are finite. I say, figure out what’s important to you, and learn to say, ‘I don’t wanna.’”

Divide your time

Whether you plan to work indefinitely or wean off of work and into full retirement, finding the right division of work time and personal time is crucial.

Bill VanGorder, chief operating officer with the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, says that striking this balance is one of the most common challenges with the semi-retired.

“Most of the people I talk to find that if they could work 60 per cent of the time and have 40 per cent for themselves, that’s about right,” he says. “Somewhere between 60 and 75 per cent. Less than that and it’s hard for a business to make it worthwhile to keep them. Much more than that and the company will often just try to squeeze 100 per cent work out for less money.”

Consider how your work time will be structured: Do you simply want a work-life balanced tilted more towards part-time work? Or is it important to be more flexible, with large blocks of time off for travel and other pursuits?

The latter could mean working on a more full-time basis for part of the year, with months-long blocks of time off. That likely wouldn’t work well for a new entrepreneur who needs to dedicate time to growing a business. It may not work for every employer either – making it all the more important to outline expectations and possibilities with employers in advance.

“Approaching them early to put that bug in their ear can be very beneficial,” Mr. Norris says. “It’s important to ensure the employer is open to it, but if you can have that honest conversation and begin laying out mutual expectations, it can give both parties the chance to make the arrangement work for them.”

Don’t forget to retire

Most people will wean into retirement at some point – whether due to health, other commitments or a change in preferences. It’s important to structure your semi-retirement to prepare.

“I was talking to an individual the other day, and he said he was mentally depressed after six months of retirement because he had nothing to do,” Mr. VanGorder says. “What I recommend is that people plan ahead by thinking about what their life looks like after not working.”

Mr. Brennan’s plan is already underway. While he has no five-year or 10-year plan to go into full retirement, he’s already actively seeking ways to fill his non-working days.

“It’s easy for work to be your whole life,” he says. “When I was younger and my kids were playing sports, the other parents were my social network. Then as I got older, it became the people I worked around. Now I’m looking at building that again, but in the community.”

For example, he’s now vice-president of the same lawn-bowling club whose members gave him retirement advice during the first flush of the pandemic.

“It’s something to take year by year,” he says, “recognizing that every year you’ve got to be more focused on making sure you’re putting your finite energy into the right places.”

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