For decades human resources professionals have been concerned about Baby Boomers reaching retirement age, leaving the workforce in large volumes and destabilizing business. In November 2021, 90% of Americans who left the labor force were over the age of 55 (Morrow, 2021).
Retirement is often placed on a pedestal of great achievement after decades of working: a period when one can finally enjoy life. But is retirement the solution to one’s desire to live a better life? The loss of role and responsibility, and reduced social contact, following retirement can lead to depression (Maimaris, 2010). A review of multiple research studies demonstrates that working beyond retirement eligibility age improves mental health outcomes. Instead of trying to find the answers in retirement, a change in mindset may help workers facing a transition.
Ikigai: A Sense of Purpose to Life
In Japan, there is no word that translates to “retirement.” Okinawa, Japan, is listed as one of the blue zones of the world where people live the longest and are the healthiest. The locals use another word, ikigai, which means “that which makes life worth living” or “a sense of purpose to life” (Mitsuhashi, 2017). In another blue zone, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, this concept is referred to as plan de vida, - reason to live.
Examples of ikigai (pronounced ee-kee-guy) could be as simple as enjoying time with one’s family, contributing to social change, doing well on the job, or pursuing self-realization. The activities themselves are the ends, not the means. Japanese people believe that small joys collectively add to a fulfilling life (Mitsuhashi, 2017). As life changes, so can one’s purpose.
Helping Clients Discover Their Ikigai
The Westernized version of ikigai identifies four key components: what you love, what the world needs, what you can get paid for, and what you are good at (Garcia & Miralles, 2017). Each component is described below, along with suggestions for career practitioners to assist clients in exploring ikigai.
1. What you love
Finding one’s love and joy means identifying one’s passions: what one cares about. When a person spends hours being in the flow without realizing how much time has passed, the love and joy is obvious. Usually there is a natural instinct and pull, a continued curiosity. Some people may know their passions, while others may need coaching.
Career practitioners can help clients by collecting a history of their proudest career moments and unpacking the motivators, values, interests, and skills within those accomplishments. The activities one loves often show up repeatedly, as they bring pleasurable experiences.
A reflection exercise may also be helpful, in which clients answer questions such as:
2. What the world needs
The world can be defined as the community, the employer, or humankind, whichever is most applicable to the client. Centenarians living in the blue zones find joy in contributing to the greater good and they enjoy roles that make them feel useful (Buettner, 2022).
Understanding current and future labor market demands is paramount to identifying work that is in demand, as well as sustainable. Career practitioners can help their clients understand projected occupational growth in the United States on O*Net Online. The World Economic Forum publishes a Future Jobs Report on the labor market with emerging jobs and skills, while LinkedIn provides information on the fastest-growing jobs in the world. Career practitioners can also encourage clients to conduct informational interviews with professionals in their field(s) of interest.
3. What you can get paid for
Can clients be paid a sustainable wage for their passion work? Is there healthy competition in the industry and marketplace? To help clients determine if they can make a living on their talents and capabilities, career practitioners can suggest salary resources such as O*Net Online, salary.com, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to help them research potential wages balanced by cost of living.
4. What you are good at
How can workers understand, utilize, and hone their talents and skills? Career practitioners can help their clients understand their strengths through assessments like the StandOut Strengths assessment (Buckingham, 2015) or StrengthsFinder 2.0 (Rath, 2007). When people have the opportunity to use their strengths every day, they are more resilient (Beard, 2022). Career practitioners can brainstorm with their clients about different ways to continue the mastery of their strengths.
A Life Worth Living
By shifting the mindset from retirement as the end goal toward discovering one’s ikigai, workers can find greater purpose and enjoyment throughout their lives. While this article focuses on Baby Boomers and their pending retirement decisions, the concept of ikigai can apply to clients at any stage of their career.
It can be overwhelming for people to find their purpose and to take action. Career practitioners are well-positioned to help clients recognize what they love to do and what they do well. By providing support in the career journey, practitioners can help people lead purpose-driven lives and work happily, and potentially, well into the retirement years.
Beard, A. (Host). (2022, April 7). Marcus Buckingham [Audio podcast episode 849]. HBR IdeaCast. https://hbr.org/podcast/2022/04/find-joy-in-any-job-why-am-i-unhappy-at-work
Buckingham, M. (2015). StandOut 2.0: Assess your strengths, find your edge, win at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Buettner, D. (2016, December). Power 9: Reverse engineering longevity. https://www.bluezones.com/2016/11/power-9/
Garcia, H. & Miralles, F. (2017). Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Maimaris, W., Hogan, H. & Lock, K. (2010). The impact of working beyond traditional retirement ages on mental health: Implications for public health and welfare policy. Public Health Reviews, 32, 532–548. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03391615
Mitsuhashi, Y. (2017, August 8). Ikigai: A Japanese concept to improve work and life. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170807-ikigai-a-japanese-concept-to-improve-work-and-life
Morrow, A. (2021, December 12). The data shows that Boomers are to blame for the labor shortage. https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/18/business/labor-shortage-boomers-millennials-nightcap/index.html
Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0. New York, NY: Gallup Press.
Jocelyn Chan is a senior advisor of career planning and development at Southern California Edison. She received her M.A. in Organization & Leadership from Columbia University and is a certified career services provider. Her interest in understanding the impact of retirement started when she worked in career development for a financial services organization. She witnessed employees struggling to make the transition to retirement and how retirement affected their overall health. Jocelyn enjoys creating programs to help others live authentic, purpose-driven lives and can be reached at Jocelyn.Chan@sce.com.