BUSINESSWEEK Magazine: FEBRUARY 2006
Behind The Number
How nagging fears of a destitute retirement led this "downshifter" to rethink his life
By Lee Eisenberg
MOST OF US APPROACH retirement planning in one of two ways. Some of us, not many, make like the Little Red Hen: We run and rerun the numbers, weigh the myriad risks of inflation and projected market returns, and put contingencies in place to finance longer-than-expected lives. The rest of us play financial chicken. Procrastinators to the max, we plant precious little grain, even though we know the second half requires a great deal of bread.
Me, I was one of those procrastinators. Through my 20s, 30s, and 40s, I contributed to the retirement plan at work; that was pretty much it. My investment mix was tepid: heavy on bonds, light on stocks -- who could forget Black Monday? Not once did I seek systematic counsel from a financial adviser; I had no detailed road map to the future. Then, seven years ago, things took a turn. At the time my wife and I -- 46 and 52, respectively -- and our two kids (still in grade school) were leading the sort of life we'd convinced ourselves we wanted. We were downshifting, as it's trendily called these days. We lived in a nice enough house in Westchester County, just 30 minutes from Grand Central. Three days a week I rode the train into Manhattan, where I had a pleasant, if not especially remunerative, consulting deal at Time Inc. The other days I played bad golf with retirees who were a good 20 years my senior.
Could I afford this mellow middle passage? Who knew? Every now and then a pang hit, such as whenever I wrote out a fat property tax check. Or when the slightest intimation of mortality -- was that a flicker of heartburn or the onset of a full-fledged cardiac infarction? -- foretold the prospect of financial unraveling or worse. One Zantac and five minutes later, however, and I was downshifting again at the driving range. Those intermittent pangs melded into a giant Pang Attack one gray January afternoon. The phone rang. It was a job offer. The caller was the vice-chairman of Lands' End, then a $2 billion public company. Unaware that my ad hoc master plan called for three decades of semi- retirement, he asked if I'd have any interest in overseeing the company's creative and marketing operations -- report to the ceo, be a corporate big shot. A magazine fan, he explained that the Lands' End catalogs needed more sizzle, the kind of cover stories and features you'd more likely find in national magazines than a clothing catalog. The job, he said, carried a generous salary and bonus, plus stock options, the grain of choice in the late 1990s.
Lands' End, he said, was no flash in the pan. Unlike the eToys of the brave new e-world, the company had actual customers -- 10 million of them, all comfortable ordering by phone and soon, presumably, via computer. There was a powerful culture in place and a loyal workforce that delivered the goods with unfailing efficiency and friendliness. Finally, the vice-chairman said, trying to set my boxer briefs on fire, Lands' End was solidly profitable, with a squeaky clean balance sheet. I was already halfway hooked, no matter that it all sounded like a job and a half and that I couldn't just phone it in. Lands' End, he reminded me at the end of the conversation, was based in tiny Dodgeville, Wisc. The deal, non-negotiable, was that we'd have to drag kids, dog, and middle-aged bones all the way to Badgerland. On the train ride home that evening, I weighed the pros and cons. Actually, there were so many cons I never made it to the pros and nearly missed my stop. Downshifting? Forget about it. Aging parents? Friends? They'd be far, far away. Our kids? They were happily settled -- why mess with their heads? Wisconsin kids would all be hulking, fair-haired, hockey-playing Vikings. Our kids, on the other hand, displayed no incipient fondness for herring or dogsledding. Trudging up the hill from the station, I finally got to some pros. The job carried lots of responsibility. It was a chance to revitalize an admired brand. Then the pangs hit hot and heavy. The image of me, in a nursing home, no one to swab my chin. My wife, a destitute widow. The kids, scrounging for tuition. Could we possibly turn down a promise of grain, which, if planted diligently, would make all the difference 10, 20, 30 years from now when our geriatric chickens came home to roost?
WELCOME TO DODGEVILLE so we flew to Wisconsin for a look-see, goose-down parkas zipped to our chins. Without much fuss, I took the job. Upshifting furiously, we said goodbye to family and friends, collected our dental records, and found a house on the edge of Madison, a breezy commute across the tundra to Dodgeville (pop. 3,042, not counting cows). Aging parents? We did what we could, eventually relocating my wife's mother to Wisconsin. Friends? We got back to New York now and then. The kids? They met a few Vikings their own size, and all was fine. And the job? Rewarding in every sense. It was a revelation, an inspiration, to work side by side with hundreds of people, from farm wives in the call center to copywriters late of the big city, who were all tethered to a single value: take care of the customer, and everything else (revenues, profits, job satisfaction) would take care of itself. Everything clicked. The company enjoyed a couple of record-breaking years. Then Lands' End was bought by Sears. Financially, if not culturally, it was a great deal. But things were no longer the same -- endless meetings, paralysis by analysis. Five years into the adventure we decided it was time to move on. We'd keep the kids in school, stay in the Midwest, but open a new chapter. But what about those pangs? Would hey return? In search of a clue, my wife and I sat down with a financial adviser, who later brought back pie charts and gave us a qualified thumbs-up. There'd be no fractional jets or houses for every season. But he showed how we could live in relative security: healthcare and tuition costs covered, a sufficient standard of travel and leisure for the decades ahead.
WHAT'S YOUR NUMBER?
For a month or two I took it easy. Then the pangs returned, milder than before, but definitely back. Why? I decided to write a book about why. For a couple of years I toured the country, asking men and women in their 40s and 50s, Little Red Hens and procrastinators alike, about their own pangs. I asked if they knew what their Numbers were --how much would it take for them to feel confident. I asked what compromises or sacrifices they were prepared to make if those Numbers fell short. I asked if they had pie charts, or did they simply navigate by the moon and stars, hoping for the best, as I'd done all those years.
Most people had trouble talking about these things. It was complicated, we agreed. Eventually I came to realize -- duh -- that money, while central to the pangs we talked about, wasn't the whole story. We aren't just fretting over how much, we're likewise groping at what for. We all wanted more time, more money, but for what? Spreading mulch? Endless rounds of hooks and shanks? By the time the book was finished I had learned something that I should have known seven years ago: that I was kidding myself back in that New York suburb. While "downshifting" was a nice way to put it, I was really just coasting, committed neither to work nor to some personal passion. Those pangs? They were about money, yes, but they were also early warning signs of advancing uselessness. The move to Wisconsin was as much an engagement play as a financial one. Whenever I get busy, it turns out, those pangs are gone.