Privilege Blog

Retirement Is (Often) Not A Vacation, Or, Saturday Morning at 10:02am

You might think this post unnecessary. We work, we retire. What’s to deconstruct? And yet in the last couple of months I’ve had some pretty deep conversations with thoughtful women about how hard this can be. They’ve all had demanding careers, been successful by most measures, yet all have been surprised by retirement.

I think of how society portrays this time as equivalent to commercial about child-rearing. I remember raging at those Gerber babies sitting happily in a crib, in a room, by themselves, having apparently just slept peacefully for 3 hours. Such was not my experience.

Same for retirement. In the mythic old days, men, for it was of course largely men, worked for decades, were recognized, got a gold watch, then played golf. Went on cruises. I’m not sure how often that really happened but in any case that’s not been the experience of the women I’ve talked to.

Nor mine.

So I made a chart. I claim absolutely zero brilliant insight, I hope only to offer a few flashes of Oh Yeah Me Too. Also a Get Out Of Jail Free card if you’re finding this hard.




And here’s what I mean by those rectangles – imply logic though they might, I’m getting at something more creative and intuitive. When you’ve worked for decades, at a job that takes you to the edge of your capabilities – emotional, cognitive, physical – you may be surprised by your self and your life when you retire. And that in itself is not surprising – you were otherwise engaged.

What got me was how much I wanted to retrace my path. Also, how much of who I thought I was in fact came from the work I did, and how much did not. Try, for example, retaking the Myers-Briggs test a year or two after you get home. Extroverted Lisa, perhaps you were a strategy, not a requirement. Big Project Lisa, you, however, seem to want to stick around.

Have a good weekend. The meaning of that phrase may change or not.

29 Responses

  1. I can only speak from my own experience, but it really helped to have something to retire TO (my blog, travel) rather than just retiring FROM (a job that no longer inspired me). That said, finding a new balance between structure/a fluid schedule, or commitments/lack thereof is still a work in progress. I recently came to the conclusion that after so many years of having to play by someone else’s rules, that I can now play by my own, and that there’s less Right and Wrong and more What Feels Right Right Now.

    1. @Susan B., I think you did this very well. And huzzah for playing by your own rules, as you are not someone to invent rules that are cruel or unreasonable.

    1. @Marna, So although I did not spell it out in the post above, let me reiterate.

      Privilege:). At least for me. Some of women with whom I have had this discussion have made their careers without family privilege per se.

      However, I have come to believe that everyone who tries to do some good in society has the right to feel how they feel. Trying to approach these issues by telling yourself, “I don’t have the right to feel distress in the midst of privilege,” rarely does anything either to alleviate the distress or to justify the privilege. I find the two efforts to be separate, although they overlap.

      This post falls into the the “alleviate distress” category. Post on canvassing, gardening without toxic chemicals, and volunteering with children in an underserved school district fall into “justifying the privilege.”

  2. Been there, am there, done that, doing that. My retirement, long planned, and anticipated by both my husband and me, was derailed the first day after my good-bye party when my husband was diagnosed with heart disease (a big surprise for us all even his doctor.) My big adjustment was made even bigger because now all our plans were derailed. And I did get very tired of everyone saying how lucky I was to be retired when Stu became ill. I also felt quite isolated to be at home with one ill person as opposed to at school with numerous students, my department members, admin, and parents all clamouring for my attention. But I eventually adjusted and he got well, and now things are good.
    In response, at least in part, to Marna, I soon came to understand that when someone asks you how retirement is going, they don’t really want to hear how it’s really going unless the response lives up to their preconceived ideas. Example, a close friend who is still working asked this question, and I assumed because she IS a close friend that she wanted to know the real deal, and replied “To be honest, at times it’s been a struggle. I’ve had to reinvent myself, and at the same time, I’ve had to work through some major guilt that I’m able to retire unlike so many family members who are not so lucky.” Her response was that she could do with problems like that in her life. Ha. Lesson learned. But I do wonder how people who respond with the classic “maybe you should just go back to work” would feel if, when they complained about work they love, I replied airily, “Well, just quit then.”
    P.S. Like Susan B. my blog fills the creative gap which opened up when I stopped teaching. And I looove that I can make my own schedule. Only those who have had to live by the bell, and scheduled on the job bathroom breaks accordingly, can truly realize how big that is. :)

    1. @Sue Burpee, You bring up two really good points – one I’d thought of, the other I had not.

      I was so sorry Stu got sick, and so glad he’s now well enough and you are well enough that you guys can travel. We often retire just as people in our family are having serious health issues, mothers, fathers, husbands, sisters, brothers, and as the person without a job, and usually without small children, guess who takes it all on. Not easy.

      But I hadn’t even though about the particular characteristics of jobs, and what we all might appreciate most. For you, not being on a clock. Of course. Makes total sense. For me, being able to minimize the number of fights I have to have with bullies….Others probably have other great reliefs.

  3. Long time reader, first time commenting. Thanks for this — almost 4 years on into retirement, am finally seeing more than intermittent glimpses of who I am now and who I want to be. Partly because settling into a view of a self and a constellation of activities that is aligned with my interests and my core self (introvert to the max) is waaaay different than pulling on latent extrovert qualities to drive projects and lead teams. And there’s a bit about accepting that it’s ‘ok’ to be that aligned self (lessons learned over years in corporate life are hard to step out of, as has so often been noted here).

    And, echoing Susan B., helps to feel that you’re going TO something … although I left a bit earlier than I’d planned, driven by huge stress, public debacle of major project, etc., it was with relief and anticipation of travel and recovering ‘me’ — whoever that would be. The temptation to jump into volunteer work was something I put off for over a year — but even when I gave it a whirl, I found the dynamics of a volunteer board triggered all my executive brainstem reactions … so I backed out. Don’t want to live in that space anymore, and don’t need the constant cortisol surges.

    As for going back to work … sure. No matter how fortunate or privileged we are, I don’t know anyone who isn’t aware of possibility of things going sideways. It happens – and the world is pretty nuts right now. If that’s in the cards, then of course I’d do that — I’m grateful for my circumstances, and practicing the ‘not feeling guilty’ stance (also a challenge).

    Another ‘yes’ to Sue B.’s comment about people really wanting reassurance that their hopes/preconceived notions are ‘true’ when they ask how it’s been … I also expected a different kind of interaction with close friends. In part, they expected me to jump into another ‘big idea project’ and drive to success … as they’d seen me do before. So, it’s all been a learning experience.

    For a first comment, this got out of hand — but have so much appreciated the discussion here — and the humor — and the unflinching gaze at so many truths. Thank you!

    1. @Kathleen, Welcome, and thank you – not out of hand at all. Part of the issue is that people who are working hard in difficult jobs really don’t want to hear that retirement doesn’t solve everything right away – and I get it. But, I gather from my conversations, it has not been unusual for this process to take about 5 years.

      I had exactly that reaction to the kind of volunteering that would have been similar to my job, chairing committees, etc. That’s why I wound up with kids, a mostly different set of skills and temperament required. Then when all that stuff happened with my mom, her fall, the post-operative delirium, etc., and when a social worker told me I probably had mild PTSD, although I do not want to exaggerate what I went through I still understood I hadn’t really processed my work history either.

      Yes it’s a privilege to have the time and resources to retire. To me that brings a responsibility to do it as well as I can. Sounds as though you are working through this. All the best.

  4. Personally I love being retired. I love not having to dress a certain way(hello jeans), act a certain way( my grumpy days are mine alone), be a certain place at a certain time. When I do get dressed to go out for volunteer work, shopping, lunch etc it is my choice. I think its the luxury of choice I enjoy so much.

    Happy weekend.

  5. For a number of years I struggled with what I should be doing. I should volunteer, go out to lunch with girlfriends, enjoy gardening, bask in my grandchildren (so far there are none). Yet, it turns out none of activities provided me with real enjoyment. Others are not options at this time.
    I think I quietly moved toward trying to develop who I am and figure out how I could bring some happiness to others while still meeting my own needs. I am now trying to utilize resources to lift myself from my difficult upbringing. I study French, go to therapy, enjoy biking and yoga. I do try to help those who are less fortunate and some of those activities have been successful but others not so much. Because I’m more comfortable with myself and interests I think I am more genuinely available for others.
    Lisa, you wake up my thoughts with your blog.

    1. @luci, This seems like a self-aware and nuanced look at what you’ve experienced. I am sorry you had a difficult upbringing but I love that you find your increasing comfort with yourself extends to being genuinely available for others.

  6. I have always loved your blog! This is so good and so sensible. I am 71 and somewhat depressive. I retired in ( I cannot remember) 2004. For me two things are key:

    1) Volunteer – do for others.

    2) As a gerontologist I know that as we age – any change, even very positive changes that are a pleasure are very difficult to accept. Needless to say, not too many of us retire at 15 or 40.

    My husband is looking at retirement, he is a bit younger and I am really afraid of him retiring. Needless to say one cannot stave that off. It like life happens.

    Your chart – Fab!

    1. @Liz, Thank you very much. I love the way you say “somewhat depressive.” One of the good things about aging is being able to calmly acknowledge the issues we might have struggled with when we were younger, right? Change does get harder, and yet I find I’m still up for some now.

  7. I had a conversation on this topic last summer with an acquaintance who is the CEO of a major company. He certainly has the financial wherewithal to retire, and I think his wife would like nothing more. “The problem is,” he said, “that I don’t know what I want to retire to.”

    I’m on my ‘third act’ – I began a brand new career as a university lecturer at 54. It’s tough work, but I am proud of it and what I have accomplished in my now 5-year old tenure at the university. However, I am only going to work until 65, so my husband and I can have inexpensive benefits. And I already know what I am going to retire to – since I was a housewife for many years, I’ll return to the baking, gardening, sewing, and creative activities that used to fill my ‘work’ day.

    At least right now I don’t think I’ll have a need to replicate my current crazy pace after retirement. I do derive much of my identity from my current work, but I expect to be able to slip back into my former self without too much angst. We shall see. You’ve certainly given me some food for thought with this lovely blog post.

    1. @Debra, Thank you. I am so curious as to how you went from housewife to university lecturer, and about how you have liked both jobs, which seem quite different to me. Congratulations!

  8. My experience with retirement was a bit unusual in that I retired at age 40. I worked in high tech and experienced the boom and bust. I rode the wave, invested well, wisely timed the sale of stock options and was ultimately bought out (aka, golden parachute). Happily. Career wise, at age 40, I felt I had experienced a full and mostly satisfying career. I took the view, “been there, done that” and preferred to seek out hobbies and interests. This is where I am and continue happily.

    1. @Susan, Nice work! So much skill, talent, and timing to make that work! I imagine hobbies do help, I never had any, still don’t have any, really, just past times that occasionally illuminate my feelings about life. Very meandering, if that makes sense.

  9. Well, I’ve taken longer to work it out that many. Or maybe I can look at my career(s) in different ways. I retired to taking care of my husband into what proved to be 5 years of caregiving and a great deal of isolation. That followed downsizing into part-time work that wasn’t really my choice, but was necessary. After George’s death I was elected to church vestry, became warden, gave it my all, really it was another career although we don’t call it that.

    I think I am the kind of person that always overthinks.

    I can be extroverted if I need to, but only in context (career). I am happy to let much of that go, to chose the context I want. I need to be social, or my creative life suffers and I suffer accordingly, but that is a context I can control. Still working on balance, might always.

    I say I want to explore the process. But I will always have a big project going; sometimes bigger than others. And whatever project I choose, it tends to get my all. But that too can be of my choosing. I’ve got a big one going now.

    1. @Mardel, Overthinkers Forever;). It is different, when one can choose where to put one’s all. I think time as a caregiver changed me forever, maybe you feel similarly.

  10. I was an interior and architectural designer who’s career in that field ended when the real estate market crashed. I could have hung on, but decided after 20+ years in that field, that I was sort of “done” too.

    Without going into details, I’ve had to “reinvent” myself a number of times in my life. It takes time to figure it out and get used to a different rhythm.

    1. @KSL, And maybe you’ve said this most simply and truly, “It takes time to figure it out and get used to a different rhythm.”

  11. This is timely. Actually putting together a similar post for my blog on this very thing. I think it takes time for the dust to settle after forty years of working – in various ways, different jobs, different aims – and part of the settling process is being able to think. Nobody should feel they should be apologetic about leaving the world of paid work, especially if they have reached late middle age. Three years down the line, poorer but still fine, I feel very much better than I did before. I just had nothing to compare it to.

  12. Retirement terrifies me far more than death, to be honest. I’ve worked very hard, nonstop, for most of my life. The first 20+ years to be everything my parents demanded that I be (for them, to fulfill their goals and dreams and live the life they wanted to live vicariously) and then 20+ years of what my profession demanded from me (with therapy, reading, spiritual practice, etc. to recover from 20+ years of living other peoples’ lives, and growing up in dysfunction). My father and FIL were both bored and restless for years after they retired because they were their jobs (and honestly, I’m the same). My purpose in life right now is to find a purpose for life and to excavate all of mom and dad’s dreams and frustrations (and remove them permanently) so I don’t retire – if that ever happens – and find out my greatest fear, that I really am an empty shell filled with other people’s plans, demands, and work goals. I had the empty shell realization in my mid-late 30s and I am working as fast as I can to get that resolved! I hope it works…

    1. @MMJ, I guess is the problem would be getting forced to retire – which is why it makes sense to find purpose beyond work, even if you think you never want to stop per se. I don’t think empty shells can actually talk about being empty shells:), so, I am thinking all will be well. xoxo

  13. Hanging on everybody’s every word here. I never really gave it a lot of thought until it presented itself to me when a generous early retirement plan was being phased out. I made the eligibility age by 3 months!!! A door opened up and I decided to walk through it. No regrets: I left my career at the top of my game, and subsequently got all of the closure I needed.

    I’m still working in the industry, but at a job that is interesting enough but not demanding in the same ways which allows more robust pursuit of the personal interests I abandoned while raising my family. For me, this feels like a good segue to a more comprehensive retirement phase. I had the opportunity to witness a lot of different approaches to retirement (some folks were lots happier than others) and see how it played out in ways people couldn’t anticipate.

    One lesson I learned was this—don’t wait until then to do whatever it is you seek to do. Today, I am just, as my daughter says, “living my best life,” in the way I choose to define that…today. And fully with the expectation that life happens…and it will.

  14. I love your charts. It is so good to write and sketch down things- I can think more clearly and sometimes find solutions subconsciously during the process
    It was very difficult for me to decide to retire, it was a tough decision between career and the other half of my life. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy to get where I was and I’ve liked my job and my status-it was a huge part of my identity.
    Nevertheless,very soon after retirement,some things happened and I had a lot to do and manage-I enjoyed it and am proud to have developed different qualities and abilities.
    I did some voluntary work in health education,too and did ,with my mother,take care of my father -this was priceless for me
    So,yes,now I like to be retired

  15. Very interesting post, missy. I also found everyone’s comments thought provoking. Although I was a stay-at-home-mom, the transition I encountered being out of the full-time parental job took me years to come to terms with as it was the core of my identity. I don’t know if it’s more or less difficult to have your work environment also be your home. For me, part of my adjustment to my “retirement” is being continually surrounded by the tools of my trade with the knowledge things have changed and I don’t need most of what I have now. It’s a different kind of emotion than just walking away from an office. It’s almost a constant reminder that this has all passed you by even though you know you did your job well and loved it, it is over. It’s sad but you also know it’s life. I have worked for our family business from home for 11 years now but I could easily walk away from this, close the door on my upstairs office and never look back. I don’t know what’s next. I’m trying to see this as being an exciting possibility and not to think how much time do we have left for health and travel.

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