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?
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.