Category Archives: Career

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.

Women’s worldview at work shifts with age

Maybe it’s my status as the oldest person in my graduate school class — not by years, mind you, but by decades.

Maybe it was my conscious career choice at 56 to walk away from a well-compensated director-level position rather than risk a late-50s layoff in that organization’s uncertain, chaotic culture.

My current job provides a lower salary but far less stress — and that has allowed me to branch out and explore at a time of life when I finally have the freedom to do so.Worldview

Research and anecdotal evidence show that some professional women are leaving the work force deep into middle age for reasons that include disillusionment, early retirement and elder-care duties. Other career-oriented women in their 50s and early 60s are scaling back their careers, as I did, shedding their intense, single-minded focus as they would a wool blazer on a warm spring day.

  • “I find myself less ambitious by workplace standards — wanting to climb the corporate ladder — and more interested in doing work that is truly meaningful to me,” says a journalist, 64, whose children are older than some of her colleagues.
  • “I have definitely shifted gears in the last seven or eight years,” says a nonprofit manager, 55, who would like to write. “Now that my sons are mostly off on their own, I don’t feel the pressure to provide for them like I used to, which meant going for the more demanding, higher accountability positions. I like having time to do other things I enjoy.”
  • “Age both gives and limits options,” says a project manager who just turned 59. “As an empty nester whose step-kids have graduated from college and are married, I find that my husband’s and my significant expenses are behind us. There’s some freedom in that. At the same time, ageism is real. I would not want to be looking for a new job at my age.”

Do you consciously try to look younger?

My hair is finally turning gray, and I’m not sure I like either the expense or the ethic of maintaining “artificial auburn.”

Most respondents told me they do color their hair in order to appear younger at work. Others emphasized the importance of maintaining a wardrobe that defies stereotypes about their age. “I don’t wear things like flower-print shirts or tops with cats,” one woman says dryly.

“Looking younger is a tricky proposition, especially with women,” explains my 62-year-old neighbor, a well-coiffed Frenchwoman whose accent alone is elegant. “I dress to reflect that I have style but that I am not interested in looking 30.”

“I do worry about my looks,” says a friend and colleague, 57. “I feel young, but when I catch myself in the mirror on a day when I’m tired, I see an older woman, and I freak out. I fear others are judging me as not being in the flow of what is happening now.”

Seeking the perspectives of younger people helps some Baby Boomers stay current.

“I try to really listen to what younger generations do, say, think,” says a 55-year-old IT manager who oversees a young staff. “I like to know what they do for fun, how they’ve solved a problem, what they’re worried about. I think that keeps my thinking young.”

“Since I am somewhat slim and flat-chested, I don’t feel as if I am trying hard to appear young,” says a Chicago librarian, 54. “But because I have three youngish children, I have the vernacular of the young. That, more than my dressing, I think, makes me appear youthful.”

One 57-year-old entrepreneur maintains her vibrancy with daily meditation, healthful food and exercise. “I walk in a strong and confident manner,” she says.

Personally, I consider exercise the fountain of youth, and I am proud at 58 of being among the fittest people in my office.

How does aging benefit your career?

I inherited my work ethic — and perfectionism and sense of duty — from my father, a retired attorney and state senator who is now a relatively robust 90. I remember my dad’s exasperation in his 50s that his mind was less sharp, just as my own mental lapses now embarrass me.

Here is the key, the upside, the benefit to growing older: His younger law partners were turning to him for wisdom.

In a youth-obsessed culture, it is tempting to see middle age as an inevitably downhill slide, to experience it as a period of retrenchment and regret rather than of passion and possibilities. Regrets weigh on me in graduate school: Why didn’t I do this when I was younger?

Then I notice how I am relishing the endeavor — my desire to dig in and learn. My 30-something classmates with corporate jobs and small children are in school to get it done. The degree is a steppingstone in their careers.

“‘A’ is for anxiety, ‘B’ is for balance,’” a classmate told me recently, observing my meticulous note-taking and obvious efforts to earn the highest grade. A manager at 3M and the mother of a 2-year-old girl, she barrels through two classes a semester and contents herself with B’s.Fork in the Road

I want a more holistic experience, a theme I hear repeatedly in midlife women’s approach to life and work.

  • “I feel like I have a lot of information and expertise to share regarding aging, which is part of my career, and I am living the journey,” says an elder-care expert, 63, who is easing toward retirement by working part time.
  • “Work has become much less important in my life as I age, while at the same time, I moved into a position where that is OK,” says a former journalist, 56, who now works in communications for county government. “I am bringing skills to my current position that I gathered throughout my career, which are appreciated by those in my organization.”
  • “The 50s are a great age of coming into one’s own,” says an industrial psychologist who earned her master’s and Ph.D. while in her 20s. “I’m hitting my stride in so many ways. I’m doing work now that I could not have done even five years ago as a result of my cumulative knowledge, experience and expertise.”

Do you reveal your age at work?

Tellingly, out of 10 women who responded to my questions, the psychologist is the only one who willingly volunteers her age to colleagues and clients; unlike the others, she is self-employed and in a field where years of experience is highly valued.

Most said they wouldn’t lie if asked outright, but they don’t advertise their ages either. Being seen as overqualified or out of step with technology or “set in your ways,” as one woman put it, is too great a risk.

Then there’s the question of whether employers will invest in older workers: “Just recently I realized that there was probably no opportunity for a raise or promotion because they figure, accurately, that I’m unlikely to go to another job at this stage of my life,” says an academic editor, 62.

I consciously took a risk that my new employer would invest in me when I left the director-level job to return to school, launch a blog and care for my mother as she was dying. The pay cut was a blow to both my pocketbook and ego; the promise of my position growing into something larger is still a dream.

But here I am. I made the leap, and all I can do is move forward, keep learning, be present — and be grateful for knowing courageous women who refuse to let society define what “prime of life” means.