For many people who live in modern economies, “retirement” is a stage they take for granted. It represents the payoff of a long career and a time they can finally set aside work and enjoy life, doing the things they have always wanted to do, such as travelling or spending more time with loved ones.

But times are changing. While the notion of retirement itself is not yet being challenged, there is a growing debate on the right retirement age and whether people should work longer before retiring in many developed societies. This is because people are living longer while birth rates are falling, and workforces are getting older and shrinking too.

Many of these older employees are knowledge workers who, unlike manual workers, can continue to stay productive till late in their lives.

The “knowledge worker”, a term coined by management guru Peter Drucker, is someone who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace.

For him, retirement is industrial age thinking. It made sense for blue-collar work as it put a limit on a person’s ability to do physically demanding tasks.

But why put an age limit on a knowledge worker who might want to stay productive and is able to contribute his experience in a job without physical constraints? With companies cutting back on pension plans and competing for talent, there is a good argument for retaining workers past the traditional retirement age.

It is likely that debates on retirement and the hiring of older workers will rage on — perhaps even leading one day to the abolition of retirement. There are some who think of this scenario as depressing and alarming, picturing old men or women working till the very end. But, for those looking to maximise their potential, these are exciting times to live in.

If you want to take charge of your life, what action plan should you have? Here are few suggestions based on personal experience and reflection:

* Celebrate the chance to live multiple lives. The chance to have 50 or 60 years of a productive work life can be liberating. You can discover and celebrate your multiple passions over the course of a lifetime.

So, you want to be a part of an NGO working on primary education but also want to experience the thrill of corporate life and travel the world while pursuing your passion for photography and golf. No problem — start planning!

* Decide which “lives” you want to live among the many on offer. Figuring out who you want to be is a life-long journey. A plan gives you direction and as you progress, you can review your choices and carry on along the same road or take a different route if necessary.

* In your 20s, prepare for your 50s. Lay the foundations of your “other” careers early. No matter how high you aim to go in a particular profession, learn the fundamentals of a new discipline. Maximise the early years of your working life when you have a high capacity to learn and fewer responsibilities.

* Prioritise, sequence and phase out. Do you know what specific action you can take today to achieve your goals 20 years down the line? In my experience, not being able to convert long-term goals into specific short-term actions is one of the biggest barriers to personal growth. Author David Allen asks two key questions in his book, Getting Things Done: “What is my goal?” and “What is my specific next step to get moving towards that goal?” That helps to connect vision with reality.

* Dreams are hard work. No matter how romantic and fascinating any job sounds, anyone good at it can tell you about the countless hours spent gaining expertise in it. Whether it is the amazing polyglot who speaks five languages, the creative chef or the best-selling artist, there would have been sweat and tears in the background. If you work hard to achieve success in your main career, why should it be any different for your second one?

Stumbling blocks

Why don’t more people proactively plan for a longer work life? This is because they are more likely to give time and resources to the immediate demands of “today” than to “tomorrow”. Put simply, their jobs place immediate and concrete demands on them on a daily basis. Driven by deadlines and immediate pressures, it is difficult to think about cultivating skills for passions or alternate careers 10 or 20 years down the line.

My advice is to just start. Even if you are really tired after a hectic day at work, read that book on online businesses that you said you would. Sign up for the language or management course you are interested in even if it means tying up a weekday evening. That is the moment of reckoning. It is going against your immediate impulses for some future, uncertain payoff.

So while the changing definitions of “retirement” and “career” are inevitable, your response is not. You need not view change as a threat to be resisted. You can welcome it as an exhilarating opportunity instead and start preparing for it sooner rather than later.