Why I Refuse to Be Retired From Usefulness
Who says you have to stop contributing at 60? Busy is a four-letter word I embrace
On PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, hopeful people from all over the country gather heirlooms, garage sale finds, and inherited treasure to descend on a filming site in the hopes that the vase, signed baseball, or 1920s poster will yield them a surprise windfall of thousands of dollars, occasionally much more.
After careful and sometimes tedious appraisal, an historian makes a declaration that transforms the object, previously banished to the attic or closet, to instant authenticity. It is now deemed valuable, worthy.
I am not an antique, but the notion of retirement makes me feel like one.
I bristle at the idea of expected, elective, or mandated retirement for a woman my age — early 60s. Because, rightfully or not, I feel the unused antiques gathering dust are at times a culturally enforced metaphor for persons in retirement.
The object — or person — is only assigned value by a commissioned expert. If no value is decreed by a person in the know, the item is relegated to the attic or basement, retired from usefulness. And that scares me.
Of course, I know that I am not an oil painting from the 1800s that was a rare flea market find. But as I witness many of my friends — both women and men — embark on their retirement journeys, I fear that if I were to exile myself from daily work, connections, and outcomes, I would lose my assigned value. To others and to myself. Apparently I am not alone in wrestling with my retirement plans, fears, and refusals. The Social Security Administration reports that 45.8 million workers were retired as of June 2020, collecting an average monthly payment of $1,514, or 33% of their income. By 2035, the number of Americans over 65 years old will jump to 78 million, from the current 56 million.
Truthfully, I enjoy most all of what I do as a journalist, author, facilitator, and mentor, and I do not want to stop. Though I have not achieved all I imagined in my career, I feel I have climbed closer to the tier Abraham Maslow defined in the 1940s as self-actualization, feeling alive and authentic in my work. I find it meaningful and rewarding to mentor many who create real change in the world. I relish the process of intellectual, creative engagement required to perform my roles. I am not ready to call it quits.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a role model I hold as an icon for stretching out her brilliant career to the very end, understanding fully her role in democracy and the world.
I may be alone here, but retirement, heralded as the last big, grand, glorious vacation for so many, right now sounds perfectly dreadful to me. With frightening health scares looming in my imagination, picturing myself alone on my porch with no deadlines to meet, no clients to please, no meetings to lead, feels ominous at best. Busy is a four-letter word I embrace.
Over the past 45 years of working, I have seen my share of forced as well as chosen retirements, and it has not all been neat, pretty and Instagrammable.
There was the administrative assistant at the university where I worked for 18 years who customized “colorful” limericks (that’s a euphemism for lewd) for every faculty celebration. She also deliberately and repeatedly kept open a basement door to the building so she could feed the squirrels, leaving a bounty of treats for them each day, resulting in an infestation.
I screamed the first time I was greeted by a squirrel on my desk enjoying a snack she provided.
Well into her 70s, her retirement was encouraged — on the grounds of public safety, I believe — and she offered a spicy poem at her own retirement party.
Other departures at other places I have worked were forced; someone makes a grand mistake and HR insists they must go, the announcement disguised as “spending more time with family.” And then there were those who simply reached the age limit of welcome and were not given a choice — or gold pen — and they dutifully collected their belongings and headed for the hills, feigning relief.
Yes, I do understand that for my friends who have willingly chosen retirement after fulfilling careers — or frustrating ones — their days spent relaxing, traveling, visiting grandchildren, learning new hobbies and being responsible only to themselves and their immediate circle of loved ones are blissful.
Pre-COVID, these friends shared photos on Twitter and Facebook from beaches, hiking trails, and mountain tops across the globe. Since lockdowns have shrunk their parameters, they now share snapshots of new paintings they have created, volunteer classes they teach, quilts they are sewing, or even axes they are throwing. They always seem to be smiling. Their retirement from paid daily hustle looks well-deserved and rewarding in its own right; they crave nothing, regret little, seem fulfilled. Retirement to them means reinvention and reward.
That is not who I am.
Yes, I could take a vacation now and again — if we ever get back to being able to go somewhere far away following the pandemic. But the notion of forever and always waking up to an open calendar empty of appointments, responsibilities, and meetings, wondering what I will do for the long lingering day, seems less than appealing. I want to plan more than lunch.
My resistance to retirement could be a paradox that I do not value myself fully as is; instead I only see my worth as measured by my output, or accolades from colleagues and strangers who witness my efforts. I do envy those who do not seem to have similar self-doubt and ambitions they can’t seem to quench.
I wonder what it would be like not to wake up in the middle of the night with the urgency of an idea for my next book or project, the finishing touches on a newsletter or speech, breakthrough action to a client’s dilemma. I keep a journal on my nightstand for just such racing thoughts and inspirations; I have filled many. I wonder if I would sleep better or worse with no immediate tasks to fulfill.
The financial piece of the puzzle most certainly plays a big part for me and for many. New research from Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, shows just 19% of women have a solid retirement plan. The National Institute on Retirement Security reports that women have far less money than men in retirement, and yes, we live longer.
Lucky for me, my youngest son is a retirement planning consultant and secured me a long-term health plan through his company. As an independent contractor and sole proprietor, I had no immediate access to one.
Practically, day to day, week to week, month to month, I am pleased I collect paychecks, knowing my time spent has a rate attached to it. I also need to. The “100-year” slate roof on my 1932-built house needs replacing; the contractor told me that even though it was 12 years shy of the 100-year claim, that the missing and broken slate tiles would need replacing before the hard winter. He also said the century claim was a figure of speech, and 88 years was a good, long time for a roof to last. I signed the deposit check.
Yes, eventually I see myself not working this hard and living carefree in a smaller, two-bedroom condo, complete with pale peach silk curtains that puddle on the floor. I will not have back-to-back Zoom conference calls where someone is texting me angrily. I will feel that I have done enough, that I can calm down a bit, that what I have done did matter. I will be content reaping some of the rewards of my hard-working career. I will simply sit back and enjoy the view.
I recently watched a few episodes of the Masterpiece series, Flesh and Blood. Vivien, a beautiful, retired widow with three complicated grown children, lives in a gorgeous Sussex seashore home. She falls in love with Mark, a retired surgeon and widower, they marry quickly, and travel spontaneously. They drink wine, kiss often, and share meals across Europe until he sets her car on fire. I haven’t seen the last episode, but I think he ends up killing her.
Retirement can be the earned reward so many have longed for their whole lives. For now, I see more of my whole life between me and that reward. I do not want this part of my story to end.
Indeed I may be antique, but this roadshow is far from over.
Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, emerita faculty at Northwestern University, senior leader with The OpEd Project and editorial director of Take The Lead. Her latest book is Act like You’re Having A Good Time.