Category Archives: Career

‘Glidepath’: a bridge between work and retirement

Catherine Spaeth lives in an 1894-era house with a wraparound front porch, carved oak banisters, an abundance of natural light and a high-ceilinged kitchen that suits her latest adventure — a pastry and baking certificate from Saint Paul College that she hopes to parlay into a part-time job or a small catering business.

In addition to the chance to perfect her baking skills, she likes the certificate’s emphasis on classes like “Food Safety and Sanitation” and “Culinary Nutrition Theory.” Her recently resurrected blog, The Butter Chronicles, features posts about how food choices affect our brains, the rise in U.S. sugar consumption and why professional cooks never wipe their hands on their aprons.

At 63, Spaeth (below) has run study abroad programs in private higher ed, taught American history and literature, and co-owned a company that designed college cultural immersion programs. She speaks English, French and Italian and holds advanced degrees in American studies. She and her husband, an athletic outdoorsman, took a six-month pilgrimage walk through Europe in 2022.

With a life that expansive, why go back to community college now, cramming to relearn algebra for the admissions exam only to sweat alongside students young enough to be her kids? The why is simple: Because she can. “It’s been really fun,” says Spaeth, over hot tea and homemade scones.

“Going back to school is an incredible luxury,” she acknowledges, though Spaeth balks at the assumption that she “doesn’t have to work.”

“What that conjures up for women is way different than what it conjures up for men,” she explains. “It’s saying, ‘You don’t have to do anything.’ You can stay at home and everything you do at home is not work” — a stereotype and societal perception that drove me, 40 years ago, to pursue a paid career.

Both Spaeth and her husband, a retired lawyer, plan to forego drawing Social Security until they’re 70. “We’re not big spenders,” she notes, “and our mortgage is paid off.” So, her goal in returning to college is less to earn money than to find purpose after decades of full-time work. “I don’t want a life with no commitments,” Spaeth says.

What happens after 60?

Like many professionals in their 60s, including me, Spaeth is on a glidepath toward retirement. Not ready to quit work entirely but situated financially to have options, we have left full-time careers for a variety of reasons:

  • We earned and saved enough over the course of our working lives that we could afford this choice.
  • Medicare gives us reasonably priced healthcare coverage at age 65 without having to rely on employer-provided benefits.
  • We watched as our peers, deemed irrelevant or overpriced, were laid off or restructured out (yes, it happens to people over age 60, despite the legal risks).
  • We opted to do something different — volunteer, travel more widely, pursue a passion — when the careers became less relevant to us.
  • We have spouses who may be older or are retired themselves.

Glidepath is a financial planning term that references the portfolio rebalancing typically recommended as people get closer to retirement. But it applies to the path that Spaeth and I are pursuing, too: more schooling, in her case; two part-time jobs, in mine.

As a self-described workaholic, I found myself ready to slow down at 65 but not to step away from work entirely. My career has meant too much to me — in identity and intellectual stimulation, in the pride and purpose of supporting a family — to simply flip a switch and say: “I’m done.” Plus, I also want to delay drawing Social Security.

“I love the term glidepath,” says Spaeth, whose study-abroad business ground to a halt once COVID struck. “It was a rough year and a half trying to stay afloat with no revenue coming in.” She calls the pastry and baking certificate her “next project,” one that allows her to look ahead rather than wallowing in the business loss.

That sense of optimism is particularly important as women age. “Part of wanting commitment and engagement is related to an identity,” Spaeth says. “As older women, we’re already invisible in lots of ways, and I don’t want to be out of the world, out of the working world — where, for better or worse, you get your respect or recognition.”

Endings and beginnings

Six months into my own glidepath a term I prefer to “semi-retirement” — I am learning firsthand about the challenges and benefits of leaving full-time work. The upside of two part-time jobs is apparent in the schedule I have crafted: more volunteering for Planned Parenthood, where I had to operate under the radar while employed by a Catholic university; more opportunities to cook and have people over; more reading and yoga; more coffee and meal dates with my friends and sons.

Still, the expanses of time that I expected to emerge have not materialized. “Busier than I’d like to be” is my standard response when people ask how my new life is going. That’s due in part to my tendency to overbook my calendar.

‘Retired’ is an old word, for men who are leaving manual labor.

Kathy Kelso, St. Paul-based advocate on healthful aging

But it’s also because professional occupations, which my two roles are — managing editor of a Twin Cities–based community blog and executive director of a small, environmentally focused nonprofit — do not lend themselves to hourly contract work.

  • Do you charge only for the time you’re at the computer or in meetings? Or is it legitimate to bill for travel time or for processing and “think time,” as another nonprofit executive director encouraged me to do?
  • Who pays for networking and professional development, for the outreach that yields relationships more than direct, measurable impact on a given project?
  • Most challenging, how do you right-size your ego — your past practice of operating as a doer and decision-maker — so it fits into the box that contract work constructs? When the board differs with your recommendations or does not consult you on a key decision, do you fight it, or recognize that you are not in charge?

The financial definition of glidepath fails to address that emotional turbulence. I am traveling toward a different future, but I lug along my baggage from the past — the habits and ways of working, the belief that my career defined me. I rarely called in sick. I was always pushing for new solutions. I reveled in the résumé-building accomplishments that my career allowed.

None of that matters anymore, because the glidepath leads downhill, to a door labeled “retirement,” which traditionally has meant: That’s it! You’re finished.

Retirement: define your terms

Jim McCartney, 69, a former business reporter and colleague of mine at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is wary about the term glidepath, given its implication that his career is slowing to a stop. “I’m not necessarily wanting to land,” he says, “if landing means I have to stop writing.”

After leaving journalism for a lucrative career in public relations, McCartney faced a layoff three years ago, at the start of the pandemic. He was 66 and immediately began promoting himself as a writer for hire, even though his wife brings in a full-time income.

“I love writing,” he says. “It’s kind of my identity. I can’t imagine ever stopping writing.”

Unlike me — working at two jobs I enjoy but for significantly less than my full-time compensation, once you factor in benefits — McCartney takes pride in having earned more as a freelancer during the first year after he was laid off. “I don’t necessarily place my self-worth on what I can make, but it’s nice to know that someone is willing to pay well for my services,” he explains. “As long as I like the work, it’s a validation that you’re worth X amount per hour.”

McCartney is now doing business under the moniker JSM Communications LLC, specializing in science, medical and healthcare writing. He will wait until he turns 70 to draw Social Security, subscribing to the common wisdom that “unless you’re really sick and don’t think you’re going to live very long,” it makes sense to maximize the monthly payout from the government.

Two of his close friends from the Pioneer Press are retired and involved in volunteer work at nonprofits, their reporting days behind them. But McCartney, who began his career as a city reporter at the New Ulm Journal (above), likes the word retired even less than he likes glidepath.

“I don’t want someone to think, ‘Oh, I wish Jim were still writing, but he’s retired.’ I don’t want people to think I’m out of the game,” he says, “because I’m not out of the game. I’m still writing, but I’m doing it on my own terms.”

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, 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.