Retirement inspiration from Winston Churchill

Can you imagine being laid off from a job you really liked at age 54, followed by 10 years of career stagnation, only to get the job you had really wanted at age 65? Suppose further being laid off again at 70 after five years of outstanding performance. Then imagine being rehired one more time for the same job at 76. Wouldn't that take a lot of patience, strength and resilience?

These very events are all part of the remarkable story of Sir Winston Churchill. At age 65, his best years were still in front of him -- that's when he took over as England's Prime Minister (in May 1940) to lead Britain's war effort against Nazi Germany. He was at an age when most people today hope to hang up their hat and enjoy their remaining years in leisure.

If Churchill had retired at 65, he might have been remembered by the British of his era as one of their notable leaders but not for much more. Instead, he went on to become one of the 20th century's greatest statesmen, known globally by people of all ages. And the world might be a very different place today had he retired for good when he was 65.

But Churchill's inspiring example goes beyond just continuing to give it all you've got well after "retirement age." Churchill and his fellow Britons faced tremendous challenges and made significant sacrifices during World War II. I got to see their efforts in a recent visit to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in London, the wartime bunker that sheltered Churchill and his government in those years.

For 37 weeks, the German war machine pounded London and other English cities in what became known as the Blitz, strategically bombing civilian and military targets to soften up resistance for a planned invasion. Starting in September 1940, Germany's Luftwaffe bombed London from the air for 57 straight nights.

And we think we face significant challenges in our retirement years. Well, if the British could bravely face up to the Germans when the prospects looked so dismal, we should be able to figure out how to make ends meet in our retirement.

During World War II, Churchill worked virtually around the clock, seven days a week for almost five years, managing a complex wartime effort. Younger military and civilian men and women had trouble keeping up.

Churchill also provides us with great examples of resilience and how to bounce back from defeats. By his mid-50s, he had held several important civilian and military positions, and he had experienced enough career victories and setbacks to satisfy -- and exhaust -- most people.

But that's when his life got really interesting.

For 10 years, from 1929 to 1939, Churchill was denied a government office, although he remained a member of Parliament. These were called his wilderness years. He rejoined the government in 1939 as First Lord of the Admiralty and became Prime Minister in 1940, leading Britain through the dark days of the war through victory in Europe.

But soon after the Allies defeated the Germans in 1945, his political party was voted out of power, delivering a disappointing blow to Churchill after he had worked so hard and so well during the war.

When he lost this job, did he retire into the sunset, a bitter man? Nope! Because he was nearly broke, he threw himself into writing and speaking to support himself. Talk about reinvention -- he was a prolific painter and writer, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his historical books.

He again became Prime Minister in 1951 when he was almost 77. He held that office until age 80 and remained active in public life throughout his 80s. Maybe we can take inspiration from him for reinventing ourselves and figuring out how to continue working in our retirement years.

Churchill had one quality that was absolutely necessary in a crisis: He stepped up to make a difference, no matter how unfair the situation might have been. If all Churchill did was blame Hitler for the war, Britain wouldn't have been any safer. Instead, he took action in the face of adversity.

Today, you can place blame for our retirement challenges on anybody you like, the government, the Democrats, the Republicans, your employer, yourself and so on. But if you don't take any action to make things better, all you'll have is a pile of blame with no improvement in your situation.

Another aspect of Churchill's illustrious life presents a different kind of inspiration. Although he smoked cigars, drank and was overweight, he still lived to the ripe old age of 90. Some people see this as a good excuse for not taking care of their health. After all, if he did, why can't everybody?

A closer look reveals that he most likely had very good genes and that he didn't actually abuse his body as much as the reputation he evoked. Here's an another possibility that's emerging from the most recent research on longevity: People who continue working into their 70s and 80s and remain engaged with a meaningful life are more likely to keep their health and their wits about them longer than those who stop working early on.

I don't mean to diminish the challenges we all face in our retirement years. Many boomers are approaching this time with meager financial resources, high costs for health care and long-term care, and an often uphill battle finding necessary and meaningful employment. We need all the inspiration and strength we can find. As Churchill so famously said: "Never, never, never give up."

  • Steve Vernon On Twitter»

    View all articles by Steve Vernon on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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