There’s a new chapter required in The Etiquette Handbook: “What to say to someone who is retiring.”
I can’t get over some of the things people have said to me after a routine announcement that I plan to retire as President of a NYC-based nonprofit later this year. By the time I retire, I will be 64 and will have served more than seven years in this position after a working career of more than 40 years, interrupted only for 10 weeks of maternity leave in 1983. Is this really such a big surprise?
Apparently it is. The most benign response from professional colleagues was “Wow, that’s big news!” The most inappropriate was “Are you sick?” The most flattering was “You don’t look old enough to retire.” There were plenty of people who did say “Congratulations,” but by far the most frequent response was “What are you going to do next?”
After a few weeks, an amusing pattern became evident. Almost to a person, women were the ones who said “Congratulations. You’ve earned it.” Some men also said some variation of that sentiment, but more often than not, the men seemed surprised and anxious to know “what’s next?” And the closer people were to “normal” retirement age, the more likely they were to fit into this gender pattern. Clearly there was a lot of projection going on. As a friend said, “The women are hoping for free time and enough money to avoid bag lady status while the men are panicked at the thought of not having a business card.”
We’re going to see a lot more of this pattern. I am a “canary in the mine”, so to speak, having been born in 1946, the first year of the baby boom. I’ve noticed throughout my life that I could usually count on having a lot of likeminded people to talk to when I was mulling over major life changes. That instinct for spotting trends served me well in my earlier advertising career –I could usually tell when there would soon be much more interest in products that I wanted or needed, e.g. clothes for a thickening waistline. Already there is a flood of articles and books telling us how to make the most of our retirement – from how to make your money last to how to find more meaning in your life. But most of us are inventing this new life stage on the fly and in secret.
And I think it’s fair to say that not retiring has become rather chic, especially in some NYC and other high-powered circles. It’s a sign that you are just too engaged and passionate to ever give up your important, productive work. One acquaintance asked me the other day if I was really using the “R word?” And since most people avoid talking about money, the retirement discussion is not about whether to retire, but what one will be doing in retirement, often using that oxymoron “working retirement.” It’s not that I don’t expect to work for some time during the next decade. I’ve got enough money saved to survive, but I will live more comfortably with a modest consulting income to supplement those savings. I’m not rich, but I do feel rich in the things that matter most to me—health, family, friends, passions and interests. And I have thoughts about what kind of work I might do, but honestly, I don’t know if these ideas will ever come to pass.
It would be disingenuous to say I am not anxious about the “what’s next?” question. I get anxious just being asked the question without having a ready answer. I have always had a good response to that question, or at least I pretended to know and gave a socially acceptable answer. A friend once told me that I had great timing, e.g. knowing when to buy and sell real estate, when to take a new job and when to move on. But now my secret fear is that I will let too much “game time” elapse and I will be” out of sight, out of mind” when I am ready to pick up the briefcase again. Last week I told a very considerate man that as my next thing I was thinking about buying a new bathing suit. I figured that would stop his questioning (it did), but my snarky response revealed the depths of my own anxiety, especially my worry about being too leisurely as I try to figure this all out.
The ironic thing for me is that I have already spent a lot of time researching the retirement question. I’ve been a board member of Civic Ventures for nearly 10 years and we have interviewed any number of retirees and near retirees, looking at what it would take to encourage the country’s upcoming baby boomer retirees to consider starting “encore careers” to take on the social problems that so many of us have the experience, skills and interest to address. I’ve heard this yearning over and over and feel it myself, but I am not yet sure exactly what it is I want to do in my encore. I know enough to know I’m not moving to Florida to play bridge or golf, and I doubt I’ll be joining the Peace Corps , though that was the encore career my own mother chose, going to Yemen of all places at age 70.
I guess what I want more than anything is to feel free to live for some decent amount of time in what my fellow Civic Ventures board member, Suzanne Braun Levine, refers to as the ” fertile void,” which she says could last a year or more. It’s a “prolonged state of confusion… feeling the energy and spirit of adventure stirring, without knowing what type of action to take.” I need to clear out the years of noise in my head and listen to my inner voice so I can truly know what I want to do next. Correction: I think what I really want from my time in the fertile void is to figure out what I don’t want to do and to finally give up on all those socially acceptable things I think I should want to do.
So for now when I get asked the question “what will you do next?” I plan to say with as little anxiety as possible, “Ask me next year.”