Color & Control:

Retirement. Is it all that it’s cracked up to be?

A look at our expectations

By Michelle Pannor Silver

Retirement’s freedom can pose a huge challenge for people whose work is central to their identity. Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique that “the only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.” So, then, what becomes of us when we must retire, whether because of caregiving for a loved one, our own declining health or simply because that is the societal norm?

For more than five years, I interviewed retirees whose work identities had become so closely intertwined with their sense of self that, for them, retirement was incredibly difficult. For my book Retirement and Its Discontents, I aimed to discover the social meaning of retirement as it related to such people. The book includes experiences from a wide variety of professionals, including doctors, chief executive officers, athletes, professors and homemakers, each of whom self-identified as retired. What I learned was that retirement’s supposed freedoms can actually feel deeply constraining and limiting.

Meet Wendy, Omar and Tomas

Wendy, one of the many retirees featured in Retirement and Its Discontents, had a successful career as a family doctor though she had often struggled to balance her work, family and affairs. Despite these struggles, her most challenging hurdle was closing up her practice and finding a life outside medicine, without the esteemed “doctor” title.

Omar, another retiree I interviewed, was an Olympic athlete whose athletic career ended in his early 20s, leaving him to spend decades in retirement searching for a replacement for the adrenaline he experienced as an elite runner. He went on to have several careers before rediscovering himself in academia.

Tomas, a retired university professor, told me how he had always lived for his work and described how he continued to work well into his retirement.

These experiences invite readers to consider unconventional ideas about what retirement means. Could it be that each of us needs to move away from common portrayals that promote retirement as a time for leisure and the end of productive life, or as a time marked only by physical decline, dependency and the end of life?

Retired by others

Of the many retirees with different work backgrounds that I chatted with, homemakers were the most unconventional. They did not make a traditional transition out of the paid workforce. Instead, they based their retirement on the workforce transitions of their spouse or peers. The changing demographics of today’s workforce make this group a diminishing subset, but their stories illustrate the widespread and persistent use of “retirement” as a term to describe one’s personal identity. Their experiences highlight the diversity of retirees, and call attention to the important roles that many unpaid workers play as caregivers and sources of support to others.

True workers

For people who retire from their paid or primary work to fulfill the all-consuming role of caregiver, work can feel endless. Caregivers are rarely acclaimed and often overlooked, and tend to get classified in surveys and research studies as “non-workers” rather than true workers.

While caregiving can be incredibly gratifying and fulfilling, it is nonetheless work and leaves little time for self-care and reflection, let alone bucket-list goals or leisure activities such as golfing, enjoying cruises and travelling that are often endorsed in retirement advertisements. Such advertisements often feature vibrant and happy retired couples who appear otherwise satisfied with their lives. But this imagery, associating retirement with freedom from present or future responsibilities, can downplay the harsh realities that many face.

Women and aging

As our society ages, we are seeing greater demands for caregiving—and much of the responsibility to provide caregiving is falling to women. For the first time, the people approaching traditional retirement age include large numbers of women with a wide range of work experiences. Women who came of age as Betty Friedan’s culture-shifting book The Feminine Mystique was circulating have witnessed massive shifts in cultural and workplace expectations. Although women generally remain underpaid relative to men and underrepresented in high-status positions, a much broader range of roles are now open to women and there has been a dramatic increase in the overall proportion of women who work outside the home.

Reflecting on expectations

Caregiving is autonomous and demanding work that requires perseverance. When it coincides with retirement, it can feel like the end of a professional journey. It can also be isolating, and can impose restrictions on personal freedom that run counter to contemporary images of the idle retiree. It is important that we reflect on what our own expectations are for this stage of life, and look at how they will offset our sense of self with an identity relative to our pre-retirement occupation.

Based on my interviews with retirees, I learned that traditional definitions of retirement can lead to discontent among those whose personal identity has been strongly tied to their work. Departing from one’s life’s work can mean losing a core and fundamental component of one’s personal identity. But retirement can also offer an opportunity to shift our focus and interests. The ultimate lesson—understanding that the true challenge for aging societies is not the increasing proportion of older adults heading into retirement per se, but rather how age influences the personal identities of older adults, as well as their economic and social lives.

Michelle Pannor Silver is the author of Retirement and Its Discontents: Why We Won’t Stop Working, Even If We Can and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

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