When we were young, we had mentors who guided our entrance to the academic life and helped us grow as scholars. Starting a new career without a mentor was to embark on a perilous path. At my university, mentoring of new faculty members is now recognized as a “value added’ service activity on our annual reports. Mentoring for retirement, however, is not such a respected, respectable, or available service (unless, of course, it is “financial planning”). If not a mentor, I would at least like to find some role models who have made successful, intellectually and psychologically rewarding transitions from inside to outside academia, from work to other than the work I’ve done for decades.
To be sure, there are books of advice, like the recently published The Encore Career Handbook by Marci Alboher. Subtitle: How to Make a Living and a Difference [or, as the website says, find “passion, purpose, and a paycheck] in the Second Half of Life. Not sure if retirement is the “second half” of life?? But I do like playing with the idea of retirement as an “encore.”
In the search for role models I have come across the story of one post-retirement life that offers a vision of encore. On retirement from Princeton, the historian Nell Painter “put down her pen and picked up a paintbrush.” (A quote from Stacey Patton’s article, “A Noted Historian Bids Farewell to the Past,” from the Chronicle of Higher Education, January 28, 2013). Painter, whose academic career was brilliant, decided to write no more history. Instead she would indulge her artistic passion. She first pursued BFA and MFA degrees and now paints from her studio in New York. Why not continue as a historian? “I’ve moved on,” was her reply. (She does also explain that she has had the financial resources to “move on” in the fashion she has chosen.) So, I ask, is moving on the model for my retirement? And if so, what, if anything, will take the place that history (not teaching) has held in my life?
The Chronicle has published quite a few retirement biographies in the past year. Perhaps my encore should be a collection of retirement role model stories? Seems the market must be ripe for such a project. Are You My Mother? was one of my daughter’s favorite books when she was young. Baby bird looked everywhere, asking everyone, “are you my mother?” before his mother appeared to make him feel safe and happy. I think perhaps I should call that book project for pre-retirees, Are You My Mentor?
One of those Chronicle articles tells the story of two Cornell professors, and while one retired and the other continues to teach, both see retirement as a continuation of the work they have done for a lifetime. Their stories present a retirement model that lies at the opposite end of the “encore” spectrum from Nell Painter’s choices. For the Cornell professors, “encore” is a song from the same album, as they continue to work in the disciplines that dominated their pre-retirement lives.
Attached to this article, however, are troubling posts from readers, commentary on the meaning of retirement that convey strong sentiments of generational misunderstanding. One speaks of doddering elders who “can’t find their keys” and persist in giving the same lectures again and again. Another calls retirement an ethical issue and urges those of retirement age to consider it their ethical responsibility to make room for younger scholars. The issue for these readers isn’t “encore,” it’s merely “get out of the way.”
Pushed or pulled, shoved or enticed…either way, I think I would like a wise mentor, not a book of advice, as I plan my encore.
 Audrey Williams June, “Life and Leisure Issues: Why One Professor Retired – and Another one is Staying On,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 18, 2012.