Until a few years ago, retirement had never been part of my everyday conversation.
But then my friend Carol’s husband was forced out of his job at age fifty-eight due to a company merger, and he decided to retire. Carol told me she was not at all pleased to have David at home full-time because her office was in their home and she knew he would be a distraction. Another friend’s husband, who was five years from when he had thought he would retire, found that his company’s office was moving sixty miles away, and at his age, he didn’t want the long and difficult commute. Neither of these women had considered retiring in the next few years, nor had they planned on having their husbands retire so soon.
Retirement had seriously entered my thinking.
I talked to other women about their attitudes about husbands retiring to see if there was a trend here, and the floodgates opened:
“Talk to my girlfriend in Georgia—her husband retired and is
driving her crazy.”
“Call my mother-in-law. She has plenty to say.”
“Interview my sister-in-law.”
Or even, “My husband is not allowed to retire! I won’t let him,”
and “My mother is living this life!”
I soon realized that I was not alone in thinking about retirement and how it affects couples. Here is what a sociologist had to say:
When we ask baby boomers and pre-boomers when they want to retire,
couples invariably say they want to retire together. But they are making no
plans to do so. Couples tend not to talk to each other about retirement. It’s
tied in with the idea of being old.
— Phyllis Moen, Sociologist,
author of The Career Mystique
Right. Retirement means “old.” Social psychologists have called retirement a “marker event”
for entry into old age. And that’s the problem. We may be ready to retire, but we certainly are not ready to be old. According to those who study this stage, retirement is a form of social disengagement; it equals “old” in the minds of both older and younger people.
But maybe not. We are healthier, live longer, have many years after retirement to keep on “living” so we better get it right.
According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, less than 20 percent of couples retire in the same year. The biggest problem was that many couples found their at-home existence suddenly out of sync. For example: Melissa’s husband has been retired from a law firm for two years. He is stuck in neutral, and Melissa feels their time together
has become stressful rather than joyful. “While I appreciate my husband’s
right to retire, I am struggling to find the right way to assert my right to my own life. I’ve adjusted my schedule and tried every way I can think of to negotiate and communicate. But the message itself, that although my love is strong, I need to be a person in my own right, is the root of the problem. Our marriage has suffered more in the past two years that it did in the previous thirty-five years.”
As Melissa discovered, the old assumptions just didn’t work anymore. While it is true that baby boomers have been studied and observed from their first toys to their work ethics, no one has looked at what happens to this generation when one partner stops working and the other partner doesn’t. It also affects the lives of women who are retired themselves or don’t work outside the home but are not ready or willing to devote all their energy to being a full-time companion to a retired husband.
Life expectancy has doubled in the past century. The implications for twenty, thirty, or more years of constant togetherness postretirement means there will have to be adjustments made for millions of couples. Because work gives structure and purpose to our lives in addition to income, a decade or two can be a long time to be unemployed and without a feeling of purpose! Retirement is not the finish line. It is another phase of life, one that requires
changes in attitude and action.
Dwight Moore, a psychologist who counsels professionals preparing for retirement, said that there are several stages of retirement. The first stage, which can last as long as a year, is usually one of excitement—no deadlines, no pressure, and perhaps some travel, changing residence, and doing things one has put off for years. “Then comes a stage of loss of identity,” he said. “Next is the fear of ‘how am I going to replace the kind of affirmation that I got from my career?’ You lose who you are. You lose the work identity and the work context.” Those who adjust the best, Moore said, think of retirement not as the end of the story, but as the next chapter.
Moving from the Age of Aquarius to the Age of Retirement is not easy. As one insurance company said in its advertisements, “The generation that didn’t trust anyone over thirty never planned on a thirty-year retirement.” That is a long time to be unhappy, frustrated, and tense.
Thinking about retirement? What are you doing to plan for these changes? I would love to hear from you.