Retirement for the Restless

If you love to work, the thought of stopping entirely can be terrifying. So don’t. See how these overachievers are redefining retirement.

By Lisa Belkin

Between 2012 and 2015, she expects to be in school, maybe earning a master’s degree in divinity. For five years after that, she plans to either enter the ministry or do legal work on behalf of a nonprofit. Bridge and poker are on the schedule too, and she wants to compete in a ballroom dancing contest. By 2051 she hopes to study music and read any books she hasn’t yet gotten around to. And after that she plans to make a new plan.

Whatever your own goals, there is a growing industry to help you refine and implement them. The women ahead of us are not only leading by example, they are also going a step further and creating tools the rest of us can use. Many of their own "third acts," fittingly, have been to build businesses that advise others on how to craft this stage of life.

The Chapters of Life

Charlene Martin, 50, is one such woman. She spent her 30-year career in higher education, working with adults who wanted to go back to school. She "retired" in December 2006 and immediately started Pathfinders Retirement Innovations, in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, holding seminars for individuals on "how to make the most of the second half of life." The question most clients ask, she says, is "Who am I when I no longer have a title?" — and much of the decision-making by today’s midlife women is an attempt to answer that question.

There are other kinds of resources out there as well, such as Epoch (epochworkforce.com), with offices in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, which matches "free agents" — particularly professionals in their 50s, 60s, and 70s — with companies that are looking to hire on a per-project basis.

That is a perfect pace for a retiree who wants to work on her own terms, says founder Linda Stewart, 52. Similarly, the Transition Network (thetransitionnetwork.org), in New York, helps retired professional women find meaningful volunteer opportunities, also on their own schedule.

Both of these groups — those who’ve created a type A retirement and those who advise them for a living — agree on one thing: Start thinking about how you envision your retirement (or semiretirement, or rejection of retirement) long before you get there. On the other hand, Mom warns, don’t plan too precisely. For the past few years she has been teaching business law online — a profession that did not even exist a few years ago — by exchanging e-mails with her students as she roams the world. (She graded final exams last year while touring Bhutan.) But this summer her job was eliminated, and she spent a few days feeling unmoored and a little frantic. Then she started to work on a series of children’s books, and says she’s having the time of her life. "I know I always want to be doing something, but part of the adventure is not knowing exactly what the something is going to be."

This from a woman who reads the last chapter of a book first? Life, she explains, "is the one story where you don’t want to know the ending."

Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2008.

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