Her full-bodied smile gave her secret away to anyone astute enough to notice. As the calendar and clock ticked away the last hours of the job that had consumed the last 17 years of her work life, her step seemed lighter, her eyes brighter. Things had happened so suddenly, there hadn’t been time to fret over the details. One phone call, “yes, we’d love to have you give more time to our organization.” A visit to HR to confirm she could take her benefits with her, and her new life in “retirement” began, at least in her mind’s eye.
As an elder, born slightly ahead of the baby boomer generation, I’ve faced the need to navigate more than one transition from a familiar work life of many years to…something else. Whether an employer no longer needed my services, or I left a position and moved to another city as a trailing spouse, or I resigned to help my daughter take care of her children as she went through treatment for breast cancer – after each incident it seemed a “second” or “third act,” in my career life or, a label I prefer – another refirement.
Retirement hasn’t been around that long, just since the middle of the last century when longer life expectancy met the increased benefits corporations and social security provided to a white male industrial work force physically worn out by the age of 65.
For most people, then and now, retirement has never been a practical reality. Low salaries and lack of benefits during their most productive work years disallowed the accumulation of the nest egg necessary to leave paid employment completely. Since the decline of the single job career life, and the recession that began in 2008, many middle class workers now can only think of a “semi- retirement” that leaves plenty of time for paid work for necessities like housing, food, and health care. Hopefully, this model can still includes more time for personal relaxation and enjoyment of family and friends.
Refirement, an even newer concept, involves thinking of a “second or third act” for the energy that has been consumed in one’s work life. According to James V. Gambone, a major proponent refirement means being guiding by one’s values and passions, to create a life-style of work, play and renewal. Refirement can include, in addition to paid work, reinvesting in a hobby, learning new skills, connecting purposefully to the younger generation, and contributing to projects for the common good.
In the mid 70s my engineer father accepted his company’s offer, after 40 some years, to retire a year earlier than he’d expected. When his company was merging with another, they offered more money to stay home than to come to work. Fortunately he’d had the good example of his uncle whose model of a long retirement might be an example of what we now call refirement.
Uncle Lloyd retired from Bell Labs at age 50 and lived a vibrant life until his death at 90. His retirement, which turned out to be longer than his working life, didn’t involve golf or boating, or traveling to distant exotic places. And no bridge or shuffleboard in a 50s+ retirement community either. He and Aunt Bertha spent summers in their New Jersey home and winters in a small farmhouse in Florida. His busy active 40-year retirement consisted of doing each day whatever his passionate interests inspired. Travel was to reconnect with and visit family. His creativity was exercised in his extensively outfitted basement workshop, his curiosity satisfied at neighborhood swap meets and his legacy insured by mentoring his nephews like my father.
Last night our improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players performed a Retirement/Refirement Ritual to help our friend Lynn with her career transition. We shared stories of her strengths and appreciations for her gifts, many achieved during her past career life. We helped her identify what she wanted to leave behind as people who had been through it told of what they haven’t missed from their previous careers. To represent what she didn’t want to bring along to her new life, the community helped her place her old business cards into a fire. We shared our hopes and dreams for her joyous new life by dancing and blowing bubbles on her behalf. Perhaps it was a good omen that the bubbles remained intact on the wet ground for a considerably long time. I heard rumors that her breakfast this morning was left over rum cake and blueberries. Sounds like the fun has already begun.