Scaling Down – The Road To Retirement

– By Mareo Bekker


Sunél asked me to jot down a few thoughts on how I understand and experience “semi-retirement”. Before I address the subject, I have to provide some background and context to my story.

After starting my working career, my wife Lizel and I were blessed with four sons. It changed the dynamics of our household. As they grew up and each had his own activities, I realised that my work had to be afforded its appropriate place, and that the activities of and with the children, had to provide the balance. My sport was substituted by the attendance of coaching sessions, matches and tournaments. Friendships forged on the side-lines with other parents led, in our case, to hiking ventures with the families. As a result of the demands on our lives by our sons and their activities, Lizel and I inevitably had less time for ourselves on our own.

I met prof Johann Coetzee about 15 years ago. He introduced me to the concept of “work/life balance”. It resonated with me as we had intuitively seemed to have practised something very similar over the years. The concept of a “sabbatical” was not yet in vogue in all professions at the time. We however took a sabbatical after I left the corporate world in 2003. Lizel and I walked the Camino Francés (800 kilometres in 35 days) with backpacks from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in North Western Spain. Camino means “the way”. “The Way is an excellent metaphor of life – not just as a goal, but also for the joy of the journey in all its fascination and fullness.” (The Road to Santiago, Edilesa Guides, p3) The hike made me review life and assess which things were really important to us.

In 2006 we changed our religious community to one in another geographical area. It was a challenging, but ultimately hugely satisfying experience resulting in growth on another level. We made a host of new friends. We had to work hard to maintain old friendships.

As knees started buckling, our old friends gradually started acquiring 4×4 vehicles. At the time I thought a 4×4 was an unnecessary luxury item. Coincidentally our new friends were already 4×4 people. After being invited to accompany them to places that we would not have been able to reach by foot, I was convinced that certain wonderful places were only accessible by a 4×4. We initially rented such a vehicle. In 2008 we acquired a second-hand 4×4 and had it kitted out so that we could be self-sufficient in the bush for a few days.

We toured through Botswana and Namibia a number of times. In 2013 we joined a group to Dar es Salaam and Serengeti. We went to Damaraland, Kaokoland, Etosha and Chobe last year. We re-visited Kgalagadi recently. These were all unforgettable experiences. We agree with the saying that experiences are more valuable than things.

Why do we go on trips like these? Since I turned 60, I saw the traditional retirement age of 65 drawing inexorably closer. I gave “retirement” a lot of thought, and started reading books and articles on the subject. I was afraid that the dreaded day would arrive and that I would not be mentally ready for it – especially as I had no hobbies outside my career. I do however have a wide field of interest.

I got the distinct impression that many people in my age group prefer not to think about retirement. Some are too busy and do not see the sense in retiring. Others are probably not financially able to cease working in the traditional way and to “retire”. My wife and I therefore discussed the issue regularly and drafted a timeframe for my scaling down into semi-retirement – which obviously depends on our health from time to time, and grace from above.

I realise that 65 is only a number. It could just as well have been 70 or some other number. In 2015, when I turned 65, I felt that it was the appropriate time for me to make a few visible moves to indicate that I am in fact scaling down. The process to full scale retirement will probably be completed by 70 or a few years thereafter.

Why scale down now? I felt that it was time not to be the leader any more, but more of a mentor and even, at times, the follower. I have lots of knowledge and experience to impart. (I am the cleverest that I have ever been!) I also wanted to reduce my responsibilities, obligations and risks. My energy levels are decreasing. I wanted to place my health higher on my list of priorities. I commenced with Pilates classes three times a week. I realised that I will not be able to clamber onto my roof rack after 75 to sleep in the roof tent – chalets are just too comfortable by comparison! I therefore had less than 10 years left for more strenuous physical activities. Thereafter we would probably scale down or terminate such activities.

What happened to my work? I have very accommodating partners. I agreed with them that I would commence selling my interest in the firm to them over a period of three years. I changed to a 10 month work year. I still work daily from 7 to 15:30. In effect nothing has changed, save that I have much more leave time. I informed my colleagues of the new arrangement on 1 July 2015 and motivated it as follows:

“Why do I want to do this?

  • I want more time to do 4×4 tours to wilderness areas while I am still physically able to do so.
  • I want more time to be available for my grandchild and his parents.
  • I want to spend more time at our seaside cottage to read and reflect. Maybe the TED talk below will give you some insight into my thinking.


The arrangement is reviewed annually. If both parties are satisfied, we re-commit.

How has it worked out to date? What do I do with my increased “leisure” time?

  • I have more time to spend with my wife: she has her own programme filled with music, orchestra, church affairs, bible study, gardening, charitable projects and looking after our grandsons from time to time;
  • I have more time available for my grandchildren. Unfortunately they are moving to Cape Town soon. The extra time will now be diverted into plotting and planning how and where to spend more time in the Cape, in order to see them regularly; we would not want to miss out on their development;
  • My other sons have different careers and sometimes ask me for advice. It is a privilege to be asked, and to have the time to assist.
  • Family and friends sometimes also require assistance, and it is very satisfying to assist.
  • Organisations in which I was involved previously, sometimes ask me to assist with advice or small projects. The writer Paul Tournier saw the benefit of giving inputs without expecting or receiving anything in return. It is hugely satisfying.
  • I have more time for spiritual matters. Marsha Burns said: “This is a time when you can take whatever steps are necessary to leave the past behind in ways that are deliberate and decisive. You must do this before you can step into the next phase of progression. Be done with things that are no longer useful and not relevant to who you are and where you are going.”
  • We go on a 4×4 tour with different groups of friends once or twice a year. I hope to be able to take my grandsons along on some trips in future.
  • We spend more time than previously at our sea cottage, either on our own or with friends or family. We do not have a TV there. There I rediscovered the pleasure of reading novels and biographies and listening to music.
  • Back at home, we make a point of going to music concerts, especially at the Linder Auditorium and those of the Rand Symphony Orchestra.
  • My old friends and I meet regularly to watch some rugby games, this is inevitably followed by a hearty feast. We also manage to fit in a lunch on certain Fridays – during the course of which we solve the world’s problems.
  • And: We never miss an opportunity to celebrate!
  • I still have to find time for the cinema!

I was involved in the financial services sector for most of my working life. I however never had time to properly study the markets and individual companies. I always thought that, after retirement, I would spend my time reading about these matters and buying and selling shares. It is quite ironic that I have lost my appetite for it. Thanks to FFW’s regular reviews and the trust which I have developed in them over the years, I now leave these matters to them. I really do not want to be bothered about whether I should buy or sell Naspers! I am however still interested in macro trends and asset allocation, and am concerned about increasing costs, capital gains tax, income tax and the amended regulations in respect of trusts.

I hope that my story may be of use even if only to one person. May your scaling down be enjoyable!

Mareo Bekker


PS: Here is a list of books, reports and articles that I found useful over the years:

Bob Buford: Half Time: Changing your game plan from success to significance

Bob Buford: Finishing well

Bruce Cameron: Retire right

Johann Coetzee: It’s about time

Alan Maguire: Retirement and getting old are not the same.

Merrill Lynch: Leisure in Retirement: Beyond the Bucket List (2016).

Lynda Smith: 12 Powerful Questions to navigate your future; Coaching Program of Refirement Network

Paul Tournier: Learning to grow old

Vaugh, Bataille, Sargent & Lee: Managing yourself: Next-Gen Retirement: Harvard Business Review: June 2016

Ernie J Zelinski: The joy of not working

Ernie J Zelinski: How to retire happy, wild, and free



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