Rowan Siskens about agile living and the boomerang retirement
Work till you’re 67 and then enjoy your retirement. Or could it be different? A search for Plan P: innovative ideas and alternative scenarios for organizing your life, work and retirement. Rethinking for and by young and old.
Rowan Siskens: “After every three to five years of working, take a few months of unpaid leave.”
Retirement at age 27
Rowan Siskens had only been working for his first employer for two years when, during his evaluation meeting, he said he wanted to take a leave of absence without pay. His managers were surprised, but also positive. Six months later he had a retirement party where everyone dressed up as an old geezer or crone, and then he had five months off. Siskens (27 at the time) went surfing in Bali, traveled around Mexico with his girlfriend and wrote a book: Agile leven. In that book he explained the philosophy behind his lifestyle: after every three to five years of working, take a few months of unpaid leave. Siskens feels that the term sabbatical doesn’t quite cut it; he prefers to call it interim or recurring retirement. A kind of boomerang retirement, instead of a long rest period at the end of our career.
Short-cycle learning, working and resting
In his book, Siskens – IT worker by trade – draws a parallel with agile working: splitting projects up into “sprints” with interim goals. After every sprint, you look at what could use improvement and adapt your working method if need be. This way you are more agile and you can respond to change more easily. Life is really just such a project, Siskens says. That project is still being managed in the old-fashioned linear way: first you learn for 20 years, then you work for 40 years and then, if you’re lucky, you get 20 years of retirement. Education, CAOs and pension systems follow a fixed pattern where we go through three phases of life successively and crossovers are difficult or impossible. “It has just developed this way, even though we actually could organize our lives in a much smarter and more agile way,” Siskens argues: with short-cycle sprints of working for a few years, alternated with a period of rest, reflection and possibly further education to shift the direction of your career. Sounds sensible, but how would we do this and who would pay for it?
Why retire in the interim?
Before his first job, Siskens took a world trip. He didn’t want to wait to experience that ultimate sense of freedom again until he was 67. “Because I might not even make it. I had examples in my immediate vicinity of people that died shortly after they retired.” In addition, we are running into retirement stalemate in terms of time, resources and energy, especially now that life expectancy is increasing and the age of retirement has been pushed back. Young people have time and energy to do fun things, but they don’t have the money. Working adults have money, but no time and their energy is spent on their job and a young family. Older people have time and money, but often no energy left for climbing Mount Everest or chasing some other dream. According to Siskens, interim retirement can break through that stalemate. It makes dreams come true, creates happiness at work, and could allow people to keep working longer. “If you’re happy with what you’re doing, the age of retirement becomes just a number and completely irrelevant.” Recurring retirement also fits in well with trends like working with more flexibility, digitalization and life-long learning.
Who’s going to pay for that?
Siskens had saved up 5,000 Euros for his first retirement period. That was not really enough, but he managed to get by with it, because he was able to stay with friends and relatives during his travels. His girlfriend payed for the fixed expenses. He is currently saving up for his next retirement. If you want to live an agile life, you will have to make some sacrifices: don’t drive a big car or don’t drive a car at all, and don’t buy crap you don’t need just because it’s on sale. Then, you invest those savings, for example through (index) investments. “It’s easier to save 10% than to you tell your boss you want to earn an extra 10%,” Siskens believes. The boss can contribute in a different way. For example, he could give you the option to save part of your salary and buy days with that. Or by continuing to pay your pension premium during your unpaid leave to prevent a pension gap later.
Will there be anything left for the future?
Don’t serial retirements use up everything, so that there won’t be much left for when you permanently retire? No, on the contrary, Siskens argues. “For many millennials, retirement is nowhere on their radar. By taking a retirement period once in a while now, you bring the concept closer to home. You become more conscious of the importance of good financial planning so that you will be able to do things you enjoy in the future. An advance from the pension pot to finance the interim retirement doesn’t sound like a good idea to me, for example. Then you won’t have enough later.” Siskens is also the co-host of the “pension season” of the Spaarpodcast (Saving podcast).
“We explain the pension system in an accessible way and we try to make young people pension-wise. Maybe APG could also work on more pension consciousness among young people in an innovative way. Right now, emails and letters about pension and retirement usually go straight into the recycle bin, I’ve noticed.” Meanwhile, Siskens is working again, as an Application Engineer at the software company Mendix in Rotterdam. He wants to get promoted, but he also wants another time-out in about four years, although it is his girlfriend’s turn first. His goal for his second pension: a pop-up restaurant on the water, or building a houseboat. “Those are both on my Dream list and I also have many other plans.”
What do employers think of it?
Siskens also sees benefits of agile living for employers: the work of the interim retiree can be done by coworkers temporarily. This will create job shifts and role rotation, people’s employability will become broader and understanding for each other’s work will increase. What does Sisken’s own boss think of his intention to retire again in a few years? We asked Radjesh Ramautar, Siskens’ immediate supervisor at Mendix, a fast-growing Dutch company with global ambitions, which was taken over by Siemens in 2018. “We have to compete with billion-dollar companies over scarce talent,” Ramautar tells us.
“To be of interest to the best people and get them committed, it is important for them to get the opportunity to grow, both in their work and outside of it. As a company you need to keep investing in that, but it also benefits us. During their leave, people can travel, get to know other cultures, experience new things and broaden their horizon. That will give them energy, a sense of perspective and new insights. They always come back richer than they were before and that is good for the company too.”
But can you still get promoted if you often take a leave of absence?
Ramautar: ‘Rowan is talented, driven and social; he has it in him to become a good manager. He would be able to take that next step sooner if he waited five to seven years to take his temporary retirement. But that is some ways in the future. Our company has a start-up mentality and is growing enormously. Even planning a few months in advance is difficult sometimes, never mind a few years.” Siskens’s pop-up restaurant may have to wait a bit longer; time for a sprint first.