Author Archives: Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

A community relations director in higher education and mother of two adult sons, Amy Gage spent the first 20 years of her career as a journalist and public speaker in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The issues addressed in her award-winning newspaper column, "On Balance: Issues That Affect Work and Home," remain relevant today. In "The Middle Stages," she continues the vital conversation about women's work and lives, with a focus on the challenges and contradictions of aging, the mixed blessings of forsaking family time for the more immediate rewards of a career, and how middle-aged women can continue to forge full lives even as their priorities and sensibilities change.

How will you know when it is time to retire?

I am thinking about retirement. I am not yet ready to retire. As a committed careerist and the longtime breadwinner for my family, I never expected to find myself stuck in this state of limbo.

Ads for retirement planning now pop up routinely on my digital feeds, as though Mark Zuckerberg is reading my mind or listening in on my private conversations. Some web Wizard of Oz behind the curtain knows I am only 15 months from the magic age of 65.

Recent online ads include:

  • “Women’s Retirement Roadmap,” sponsored by an insurance agency
  • “The New Reality in Our Retirement,” put on by Retirement Wealth Academy
  • The provocative clickbait Take This Quiz to See if You Can Retire Comfortably.

A year ago, I bit. I took a two-part “Retirement Planning Today” workshop with a colleague only nine months older than me who is now happily three months into her retirement — assuring me that the pricey, self-funded health insurance prior to turning 65 is worth being done with the pains and politics of work.

Shortly after the workshop, I queried my recently retired friends: What had to be in place financially for you to leave full-time employment? What financial decisions or sacrifices did you have to make?

Many months after gathering their responses — and a year into a pandemic that made planning all but impossible — I find that my questions about retirement are less practical than existential.

  • Who will I be when I no longer am working?
  • How will I know when the time is right?
  • How much notice would be fair to my employer without putting me in a position where I have to leave before I’m ready?
Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Turns out, I fit the mold of late-stage middle-agers, almost to the point of cliché. “Pre-retirement” leads the five stages of retirement, the years when your focus shifts from career growth to financial security. “For many, this stage is a time of excitement and anticipation. But it can also be a time for worry and doubt, especially in the year or two before retirement,” writes Eric Paquette, a blogger whose helpful insights appear on the website for a Canadian retirement community.

Here are some takeaways from what I suspect will be ongoing conversations with my friends and siblings who have crossed this bridge.

What I love best is never having to be anywhere at any time with anyone I don’t choose.

Former journalist and communications director

Money changes everything

“It’s a real privilege to be able to afford to retire and have your health,” says my oldest sister, Debbie, who retired at 65 — from a career that mattered — because an experimental cancer treatment had improbably saved her husband’s life. They wanted time together while they both had time.

Every other woman I interviewed likewise had the financial ability to retire, but not before meticulous planning with a financial advisor. Despite advice to the contrary from business websites that cater to the lifestyles of the professional class, these workaday women proved the ability to live on less once you leave a full-time job.

Prior to COVID, Peggy, now 70, was camping and taking road trips rather than traveling internationally, as she long had dreamed. A divorced woman who lives alone, she completed a budgeting worksheet with her financial planner six months before she retired.

Up for evaluation were her subscriptions and charitable donations, how often she could visit her hairdresser, the level of her internet and cable service, even whether she could afford another cat. “I was a bit flipped out when I discovered my expenses would take just about every dime of my Social Security,” says Peggy, a former journalist who also relies on a “small but critical” union pension.

Nan, now 67, is among several women I know whose employers retired them earlier than they otherwise would have left. She began drawing Social Security as soon as she qualified but is saving it in a high-interest money market account. “I was prepared to find a part-time job that I would not bring home with me,” she says. Ultimately she chose to spend time with her father in his final years and with her growing grandsons.

“My advice?” she says. “Take stock of what you want to do in this next chapter, and you can figure out how to make it work.”

When you leave, no one will remember who you are.

Tim, a happily retired insurance executive

Caring less need not equal apathy

I called a woman recently who turned 66 in February and is planning to retire in June. The work she does “seems to matter less,” both to her employer and to her. “I just don’t care as much anymore,” she said, and that’s a foreign feeling.

Similarly, a male insurance executive who earned a national profile in his field and whose income afforded him both a family home and a lakeside retreat says the shift to digital marketing in his company spelled the end of his career — but so did a gradual shift in his attitude, his ambition. “My heart wasn’t in it anymore,” he says.

Tim went through his LinkedIn account and broke ties with anyone he did not consider an actual friend, a person whose hand he would shake or with whom he’d share a meal. (That makes me wonder how many of my 1,918 LinkedIn connections I even know.)

Many retired people say they miss some things about working. I like having a purpose and a place to go, even as I recognize that I no longer care about climbing the career ladder (and struggle not to judge that as apathetic or disloyal).

My friend David, an attorney and human resources consultant who fully retired at 70, offered some advice last fall that continues to stick with me: “You’re going to be offended by this,” he said, “but I think you need to learn to coast. You don’t have anything to prove anymore.”

The time since leaving my day job has been richer, fuller and busier than my pre-realignment time.

Attorney who retired at 66

Retire is a fraught, misleading word

“I know you,” my older sister Penny likes to say. “You’re going to be busier than ever in retirement,” and I suspect she’s right. Upping my commitments to causes such as women’s healthcare and hunger relief, volunteering to dog walk at the Animal Humane Society, teaching fitness classes for older women, writing and editing more, working what I call a job-job to pay for extras and essentials. That is how I envision my post-professional years to be.

When my friend and former colleague Mary left our place of employment at age 60, back in 2017, she didn’t call it retirement. “I just said I was going to take time to figure out what came next,” she says. “I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be another full-time professional job, but who knew? These days, I’m comfortable using the word retirement.”

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Realignment is the word my friend Helene insists on using. It describes the life she has crafted, from deep engagement with progressive political and social justice causes to earning a second advanced degree. “My job was OK, and the benefits were good, but I also really wanted to leave with time to do work I care about,” she says. “I’ve watched too many folks my age or younger get sick or die to keep believing I had unlimited time for all this.”

Boredom and Barcaloungers, restlessness and rocking chairs, depression and the demise of useful days: Stereotypes about retirement are so inaccurate and outdated that it may be time to retire the word itself.

Why privileged people must keep talking in troubled times

White people are talking to one another these days. Eagerly reading books. Earnestly participating in whites-only discussion groups — a type of racial segregation with an entirely different feel and meaning from the power-hording exclusions of the past.

This is our work, to face up to and come to terms with what feminist and white anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh calls the “unearned entitlements” that society bestows on white people. (See the list that McIntosh laid out more than 30 years ago in her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and notice how full that knapsack remains today.)

As I have worked through (in order) the books White Fragility, and Between the World and Me, and There There, and How to Be an Antiracist, I have been thinking about language:

  • How white names have erased other cultures.
  • How shifts in capitalization initially confused me.
  • How hard I tried, as a young feminist, to incorporate gender-neutral language into my writing and daily speech.

And because I made such an effort to replace generic male pronouns with the admittedly awkward “he or she,” I have become more aware of when unconscious bias — the privileges of race, class and sexual orientation that I take for granted — still trips me up with how I use and view language.

Here’s what I am learning:

Lesson 1: Do your homework.

During the uncivil tug of war over whether to call Minneapolis’ largest lake by its original Dakota name or the one that honored racist politician John C. Calhoun, I never bothered to investigate how to pronounce Bde Maka Ska. Instead, wanting to look “woke,” I simply used it.

A friend who lives near the former Lake Calhoun gently corrected me when I referenced ba-DAY-mah-kah-SKA, putting the primary emphasis on the final syllable. The correct pronunciation of what translates into English as White Earth Lake has a flow, emphasizing the second syllable of the second word. Ba-day-mah-KAH-ska.

“But that’s not what the spelling suggests!” I told my friend. No matter. Not my language, not my place. Instead of embarrassing myself further, I found a video online that helped me pronounce the name correctly, and then I practiced. By now, the pronunciation is second nature.

Lesson 2: Fake it till you make it.

The first time I was asked to introduce myself with my pronoun preferences was when I began volunteering for a feminist health organization in January 2018. “Hi, I’m Amy, she/her/hers” sounded awkward at first. Eventually, like “he or she,” it just seemed natural. The practice has also helped me be more cognizant of non-binary people, those who identify as neither female nor male.

I had witnessed the pronoun challenges of my transgender first cousin, who spent some long, hard years transitioning from male to female and who later grew impatient when people made pronoun mistakes — as her parents, my aunt and uncle, sometimes did. My husband once referred to Renae as “he” at a family gathering, watched her stiffen and felt himself want to melt into the floor. Instead he apologized and moved on, acknowledging Renae’s feelings before his own by staying with the conversation. By remaining present, both literally and emotionally.

Lesson 3: Find safe spaces to work things out.

I recently joined a “Dismantling Whiteness” group at work. I seek out people I trust with whom to discuss issues of race and inequity, of power and privilege, of unconscious bias and changing language patterns. Like me, they are white; like me, they are trying. Like me, they sometimes are confused.

As a former editor, I closely followed the decision by prominent media outlets last summer to start capitalizing the word Black again, in the wake of the social upheaval that followed the police killing of George Floyd. Was this a gesture meant to reverse centuries of horrific treatment? Was it intended to help Black people earn some overdue respect? Or was it time to remind whites of our complicity?

A commentary last July in the Washington Post argued a different point of view. If we capitalize only Black, said author and historian Nell Irvin Painter — who herself is Black — then we fail to acknowledge that whiteness is a race, a social construction that for centuries has elevated some people at the expense of others.

I choose, here and elsewhere, not to capitalize white. Not yet. I fear leaving any impression of allegiance to white nationalism or of appearing antagonistic toward social change or of differing with Black people’s right to claim their own identity. I’m just not sure it is my choice to make.

This is why white people are talking. We must figure it out among ourselves. “I feel like such a stumbling white person,” I told a Black colleague last year at a pre-COVID work meeting. She laughed and touched my arm. “Keep on stumbling,” she declared.

Our turn, finally, to have a reckoning with race.

Three ways to wring some good from the grief of 2020

It was the year we couldn’t wait to see end, even though most of my siblings and friends and I are so deeply into middle age that we’re not sure we can call it that anymore. We’re supposed to savor time, at this stage of life, not wish it away.

But this was 2020, the year of Trump. Of COVID-19. Of a nearly recalled election. Of George Floyd getting murdered and Twin Cities businesses getting burned. Of debates about policing as armed car-jackers were targeting and terrorizing women. Of we white people talking earnestly among ourselves about privilege and our overdue awakening to racial inequities. A year when food lines, tent encampments and rising unemployment brought those inequities to public consciousness and squarely to our doors.

“What will you miss about 2020?” someone asked me on (of course) a Zoom call just as the year was about to turn. “Is there anything you’ll want to take with you?”

Outside Fireroast Coffee and Wine in south Minneapolis

My facility for thinking on my feet failed me (“COVID brain”). I couldn’t come up with an answer. And so, as experience has taught me, I turned to the wisdom of trusted friends. Since we’re all going to be masked and socially distanced for a while, their insights can apply equally to 2021.

1. Isolation can also yield peace

“Everyone’s narrative is so negative with COVID,” one friend told me. Instead, consider how working from home, enforced isolation from family and friends, watching movies on Netflix and concerts on our computers have “slowed things down,” he pointed out. During a recent medical appointment, a nurse told him she had gone sledding with her daughter, that COVID restrictions helped her be a more present mom. “We’re not rushing,” she explained.

More time for family was a theme of my friends’ responses. “One thing I will miss when it is all over is time with my kids,” said a member of my weekly women’s group. “I would not want this to go on forever — it would not be good for any of us. But I am very aware that I will never spend this much time with them again.”

Stay-at-home orders “brought a forced simplicity due to isolation,” said a woman who was widowed last year. Another woman, mother to 4- and 5-year-old girls, has enjoyed being released from the pressure “to do-do-do: swimming lessons, gymnastics, dance, soccer, birthday parties, church.”

My most culturally connected friend filled the empty space with reading. “I will miss the luxury of being able to spend time with authors I love and ones I’ve just met,” he said. “I have never read so many books in one year in my entire life!”

Dogs and being outside in nature are even more important than I had thought (and I had already thought they were very important).

Northfield, Minnesota, volunteer and civic activist

2. You get to reframe your own world

A woman who describes herself as an “extreme introvert” would like the less chaotic version of Christmas 2020 to continue. “There was so much less commercial onslaught,” she explained. “I didn’t go to stores with cheesy music, nasty people and buy-buy-buy messages, did not have to navigate the food and drink and noise at parties, and could just be with my little family.” This year’s downsized Christmas reminded her of Chanukah, celebrated by her husband’s side of the family.

The “low-key social life” that comes with COVID restrictions were a blessing to a friend who gave up alcohol more than a year ago after some months of struggling to stay sober. “No pressure to fit in and no drinks to turn down,” she said. “Instead of feeling left out for not being invited to the bar or the club for drinks, I feel like everybody else.”

One woman described “an emotional flash of thankfulness” every time her furnace clicks on. It reminds her of the creature comforts she can enjoy while she cocoons. “I hope I can keep that visceral association with that sound,” she said.

As for me: Aside from running shoes and Smartwool gloves, I haven’t updated my wardrobe in nearly a year. Dresses and dress pants gather dust in the closet. I maintain a skincare routine but rarely wear makeup. I am now so accustomed to dressing for warmth and movement first that I can’t imagine reverting to dressing for professional appearance, for someone else’s notion of what women are supposed to wear. I want that liberation to continue.

I’m feeling connected to the world in a scary but important way.

Minneapolis writer, mother and naturalist

3. Getting rested but staying woke

One friend answered my email query on January 6, the afternoon of the armed insurrection — the revolting revolt — at the U.S. Capitol. “We’re so ready to move on from 2020 that it would be easy to leave behind what we can learn,” she said.

Here are her lessons:

  • “What I do impacts others and they impact me. COVID has brought that message home. Who knew as simple an action as wearing a mask could literally save someone’s life? Or livelihood?”
  • “I’ve learned that a significant part of the population sees the world very differently than I do,” said this woman who, like me, was raised in a white, middle-class neighborhood with quiet streets and good schools and assumed safety. “It’s more than having differing political persuasions or religious beliefs. They are working with a different fact set and underlying assumptions about the nature of our society.”
The author, distracting herself in nature before the election last November

Another woman, a former politician who remains civically engaged, said that George Floyd’s “public, brutal, coldly cruel and unnecessary” killing makes her want to work harder for civil rights in 2021.

My strongest memories from 2020 relate to the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder on May 25: seeing billowing smoke from a torched Walgreen’s less than a mile from my house during the civil unrest, walking through the Floyd memorial at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis on my birthday, biking past the destruction on East Lake Street in Minneapolis and the Midway business district of St. Paul, alerting neighbors to wheel out their hoses and put their garbage bins away after a Speedway in my neighborhood got firebombed.

I finished a book in December about historic and contemporary racism in Minnesota, my home state, the place I have always lauded as progressive. I’ve been donating more money to more diverse causes, watching as the neighborhoods around me reboot and rebuild.

“What I want to take with me is the awareness of how the year demonstrated both the fragility and the resilience of human beings,” a friend said. For me, 2020 threatened to upend everything I once believed in. I guess that’s how a more enlightened perspective starts.