‘I hate the word retired,” says my friend Sandy (a pseudonym) as we settle in at our favorite coffeehouse on East Lake Street in Minneapolis to discuss our lives since leaving full-time employment.
She is 69, volunteering and still working part time after a departmental restructuring a few years ago eliminated a job she loved and nurtured. In early September, I left a well-compensated position two months after turning 65. I wasn’t pushed out. In fact, they were sorry to see me go.
Like Sandy, I transitioned immediately into part-time work, with two job contracts that total about 26 hours per week. Nothing close to my former full-on pace, but certainly not retired. And yet that is what many people — former business associates, one of my sisters, even a few close friends — insist on calling this period of my life.
“Congratulations on your retirement,” reads a card from a well-meaning former colleague, who softens the blow with a handwritten note: I know you will never officially be retired with all of your passions & energy.
Still. The R word bothers me enough (I literally cringe when people say it) that I reluctantly opt to poke at the bruise, look under the rock, examine the visceral impact that being called “retired” has on me. My friend Sandy nails it: It feels like an accusation, she declares, “like I sit in a recliner all day.”
Words matter, especially to a writer. And so, I believe I am being neither defensive nor in denial when I correct people — repeatedly — who say I am retiring.
True, I left my full-time job of eight-plus years on September 7. Yes, I acknowledge that I likely will never have a career, as I once defined it, again: a title, a stack of business cards, an office that overlooks historic Summit Avenue in St. Paul, name recognition among the constituents I served. I closed the door on all that, feeling like Mary Richards when she gave one last, wistful glance to the WJM newsroom on March 12, 1977.
And yet: Here are three reasons why I refuse to use the R word for the next, and likely last, phase of my working journey.
- Social Security: The government declares my “full retirement age ” as 66 years and 6 months, when my benefits will be higher. Several of my peers are waiting to claim Social Security until they’re 70, which many financial advisors encourage. All I can promise is that I’m not going to claim benefits for a while.
- Continued employment: I have two income streams from part-time jobs, as managing editor of Streets.mn, a transportation and environmental community blog, and as executive director of a re-emerging nonprofit dedicated to urban parks and trails.
- I like working: Absent pressure from my retired husband, I would have stayed at my university job for another academic year. But two part-time jobs landed in my lap last spring, and that softened the hard decision to quit full-time work before I felt ready, either emotionally or intellectually.
If I’ve learned anything in recent years from the movement to declare pronouns when introducing yourself (“she/her”), it is that individuals have a right to describe themselves in words that feel affirming and true. The people who know me well will tell you, I am not retiring, in any sense of that word. My younger son’s partner suggested that I am “downsizing” my career. I can live with that.
Last Friday was the first time in four decades that a biweekly paycheck didn’t drop into my checking account, a tidy sum of money that helped me feel sheltered and secure, like a double bolt on the front door when I’m home alone. I now have three paychecks instead of one — the two part-time jobs and a pension from the Newspaper Guild, which I laughed off as “grocery money” when I was working full time. Soon, I know, it will come to feel essential.
These first few weeks of “gig work,” as my Millennial son calls it, were cushioned by a final, fat paycheck from my former employer that included an extra 40 hours of vacation pay. The reality of living on a smaller, less predictable income has yet to hit home, though I passed on ordering a $4 cup of coffee when I went out for Sunday breakfast (I’d just made coffee at home) and have given up membership in my pricey yoga studio because Medicare will pay for the unfortunately named Silver Sneakers classes at other gyms nearby.
Up to 40 percent of retired Americans live mainly on Social Security. I recognize the privilege in my easy choices and see the middle-class safety net strung securely beneath me. I was taught to save money, advised to take advantage of employer retirement plans, which I did starting at age 27, educated to understand the risks and rewards of buying stocks.
I talk with friends who are farther down the road on this journey, loping toward what we all hope will be a fulfilling and financially solvent old age:
- “When I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” says Diane, who rebounded from a company downsizing with a consulting contract that calls on her accrued wisdom and expertise. Lately, however, elder-care duties have pulled her out of state.
- “You have to get used to taking money out rather than putting money in,” says Mary, a former colleague who retired at 60 and is living on her husband’s Social Security draw and full-time paycheck — and doing significant volunteer work at her church.
- “I had to learn to look at income from a monthly point of view,” says another friend whose post-career consulting allowed him to hold off drawing Social Security until he turned 70, the age at which benefits max out. “Give yourself time to adjust.”
Patience is not my strong suit. Moments of panic wash over me as my Health Savings Account dwindles, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average freefalls with Putin’s torturous and ego-driven war, as my sleep grows increasingly fitful. What have I given away?
One thing I miss already about full-time employment is having an office, a place to go to every morning, a space where I knew my purpose and who I am. Or who I was. I changed my profile on LinkedIn a few days after leaving the career position and realized I would be lost without a title. That’s what the two part-time jobs afford me, in addition to the ability to delay Social Security for at least a year.
A 22-item “Checklist for Retirement” — the type of document I’ve been filing away for the past few years — asks predictable questions about how I’ll spend my time once I quit work altogether, whether I have an emergency fund and a strong network of friends, whether I am comfortable with the level of risk in my investments.
The final question, framed as a statement, is the one that stumps me: “I am ready for this next chapter of my life.” Despite months of planning and preparation, I think I’m not. I watch the retirements, or semi-retirements, that I admire: people who stay physically active and civically engaged, who volunteer in both minor and meaningful ways, who consciously keep up their relationships, who hold jobs more for satisfaction than identity.
None of that fits the Barcalounger stereotype of retirement, the all-or-nothing notion that you’re either working, or you’re not. An article in the AARP Bulletin last June, “Why You Should Keep Working After Retirement,” argues for the very life that I am trying to construct and craft. Among its eight reasons, “a sense of purpose” and “a cushion for your savings” appeal to me most.
But there’s a ninth reason, which AARP does not address: I want work that allows me more space in my life — for my husband and sons, for the friends I have neglected, for the causes I yearn to support and for myself.
Financial journalist Chris Farrell coined the term “unretirement” in a book of the same name published in 2016. In one of those coincidences that seems meant to be, I stumbled upon a “Retire with Purpose” podcast episode the other day featuring another financial journalist discussing the same “unretirement” concept.
“I’m still in the game,” explained Richard Eisenberg, 66, who recently left a full-time job as managing editor at Next Avenue to teach, write and podcast. “I’m just not doing it all day, every day.” Instead, Eisenberg has time to “volunteer, mentor, travel, see my kids.”
One week before my last day at the office, I texted my two sons about establishing a tradition of monthly homecooked family meals. “Your dad and I acknowledge your busy lives and would like to be more intentional about finding time with you,” I said. To my delight, they responded immediately and affirmatively.
My breadwinning career took me away from my family. A lot. I can’t change that, but I can make different decisions now. Unretirement — working less, living more, cherishing time as well as money — grants me that freedom and opportunity. That second chance.