Category Archives: Career

Rejuvenated. Refreshed. And Resolute: I’m Not Retired

‘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.

Mary Richards, a feminist role model to girls of my generation, says goodbye to the WJM newsroom.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Never depend on a single income. Make an investment to create a second source.

Investment guru Warren Buffett

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?

When we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.

Poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry

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.”

Sam Studer (left) and Nate Studer and their proud parents on Thanksgiving 2021

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.

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.

Will COVID-19 democratize our view of work?

In the eight weeks since I have been working from home full time, the questions I ask myself — in the COVID diary that details the roiling emotions of living with a lurking, faceless menace — have ranged from Can I stand this? (boredom) . . . to Will I be furloughed for the summer? (fear) . . . to the current one: What is professionalism anymore, anyway?

What does it mean to be a team member, a productive human being, when the foundation of your work life is gone? When the human resources department judges you to be non-essential? When you have been banned from your workspace?

Still, I count myself lucky.

My brother, a marketing executive with an MBA from MIT, was furloughed only months before his older son begins college. My backyard neighbor, a public relations professional, lost his job — and his family’s health insurance — at 66. My younger son, who works behind the meat counter and in the sausage-making operation of Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis, has more job security than any professional I know. Yet, he seethes at being called essential. Even though he appreciates the federally funded $2-an-hour raise, he is cynical about the sidewalk chalk messages and other public displays of affection for nurses, bus drivers and grocery workers. “I was never considered essential before,” my son tells me.

(I recall, with some shame, how I’ve explained to friends whose kids have graduate degrees and corporate positions that my grown sons are a bartender and a grocery worker, respectively, that they’re hard workers but apparently lack my “career gene.”)

Another neighbor, age 63, who was let go from her position as a college bookstore manager, tells me she has lost her identity. She’d look for another job, but what would she find during a pandemic? (And what would she find at her age?)

I went through similar angst this spring as I waited to hear whether I would be furloughed for the summer. (I escaped, but no one’s safe at 62.) Work was all I could think about, even as it threatened to go away. The pragmatic — How will we manage financially? — intermingled with the existential, the philosophical: Who will I be without my job?

Be gentle with yourself and with everyone else around you. Everyone is experiencing this heightened anxiety, this uncertainty, all together.

Susan Jackson, news editor, LinkedIn

The confusion and uncertainty I felt when I began working from home is ever present. Here I sit, day after day, perched alone on a hard chair at a small wooden table nudged against a wall in my bedroom and reading room, less than a mile but a world away from my sunny, third-floor office overlooking Summit Avenue on a vibrant college campus.

  • What is it to be professional without the trappings of professionalism?
  • Will the coronavirus ultimately blur the class distinctions that smugly separate us at work?
  • When Randy, the janitor — the building engineer — is more essential than a college-educated, director-level, white-collar professional, where does that leave us careerists for whom work is both ego and identity?

With questions.

What does professionalism look like?

Laugh if you will, and my Millennial sons do, but when I started my first full-time job in 1982, I bought a blue suit, with a bow tie and an off-white blouse. My uniform today — two months into my COVID-imposed sentence of working from home — is old jeans, baggy yoga pants, running or walking shoes and athletic vests or sweatshirts. I haven’t worn earrings or makeup in weeks. My closet full of work clothes looks like costumes from another era, a time when “dressing for success” demonstrated loyalty and earnest intention. Will I ever dress that way again, in trim wool slacks and scarves and blazers and (only when I had to) modest heels?

Nowadays, advice for appearing professional borders on the ridiculous: Wear pants during a Zoom call. (Oh, and the obvious: Don’t day-drink.)

I wonder whether what I long have considered professionalism — dressing up, deference to authority, duty above everything — will change now that many of us are living and working in the same space, now that our personal lives are a stronger presence in our workdays. Yes, I am still working, and I’m grateful for that. But two months into officing from home — an arrangement that suits neither my personality nor my job as a community relations professional — I am seeing shifts in the role that work plays in my life, in what I value, in how I want to spend my time.

Cooking for my family, donating time and money to causes where I can, giving my son rides to work so he can avoid being enclosed on a public bus, staying physically active: These actions are now the cornerstones of my day, and what I wear or how I look has ceased to matter.

How can home feel like an office?

I started a Microsoft Word doc the first day I worked from home last March, and for the first couple of weeks I wrote down any little rule that came to me, from the obvious to the previously undiscovered.

Weeks later, in the face of record unemployment and furloughs among my friends, the self-help tips seem like a luxury not afforded to people equally:

  1. Get up and get dressed in the morning (easy for me, as an early riser).
  2. Call a colleague every day whom you otherwise might have run into on the job.
  3. Move your computer to a different room to combat Zoom fatigue when your calendar is overloaded with meetings. A new view can spark a better attitude.
  4. Recognize that almost no one sits at their desk for eight hours straight each day. Doing dishes or sweeping the floor or making a fresh pot of coffee are the home-based equivalent of wandering down the hall for inspiration.
  5. Don’t let “fear of firing” alter how you’ve always done your job.

Because I answer phone calls and texts and emails when they come in, which is often nights or weekends, I have never worked a standard weekday schedule. I remind myself that it’s OK to talk to a friend or take a walk or ride my bike midday. Microsoft Teams, with its colored buttons to indicate “available” (green) or “busy” (red) or “appear away” (yellow) need not tie me to a conventional schedule that doesn’t suit how my work works.

How can we value all employees?

I was raised by white, middle-class parents in an era of white, middle-class exceptionalism. Though I raised my own sons on the saying that “all work is honorable,” pointing out examples of postal workers or waitresses who did their jobs well, in truth I valued the professional class over any other. A career was freedom to me, a chance to support my family as my father had done, to have a life as different from my homemaker mother’s as society and my own ambitions would allow.

Now, the lingering coronavirus shows me anew the privilege inherent in that upbringing, in those beliefs. I had access to college and to interesting, well-paying jobs, just as I have access now to a decent income while working from a safe and well-appointed home.

COVID-19 “has become a disease of the vulnerable,” writes a critical care doctor in the New York Times. Minnesota has experienced more than 24,000 positive cases and topped 1,000 deaths, and yet the disease has not touched my family or circle of close friends. How is that possible?

  • I live in a modest, middle-class house with one other person that might squeeze in six people in a lower-income neighborhood.
  • I work for a university that responded to the virus swiftly, based on data, and reshaped its human resources policies to allow most of us to work from home.
  • I live among educated people who follow reputable news sources and who recognize the long-term gain of having their freedoms curtailed for now.
  • I have so many face masks that I keep one in my kitchen cupboard, one in my car, another in my purse, one in my bike bag.
  • I have employer-funded healthcare coverage.

Everyone wants answers: When will life return to normal? Will my career ever look or feel the same? Here’s what I know: Being professional doesn’t make me special. It makes me fortunate, born into circumstances I did not earn, with opportunities denied others because of race or class.

A dose of humility would do us good. It might also reconcile us to the radical uncertainty in which we are always living.

Dr. Mark Lilla, New York Times

Yes, I work hard. I always have. But the equality — and equity — for all workers that I claim to seek will happen only when folks like me do more than contribute money to good causes or deliver Meals on Wheels during a pandemic. It will begin when I ask my employer to reinstate my 5 percent COVID-19 pay cut toward the wages of an hourly employee and when I look my son the grocery worker in the eye and say: I’m proud.