Last month the Chronicle of Higher Education asked me to reflect on the retirement process. Below is my essay, appearing along with several other pieces on this subject, in the Dec. 2,2016 issue of “Commentary.”
On my 65th birthday I began to ponder the prospect of a future without the academic identity that had taken decades to construct. It was a disconcerting moment. I had watched my parents pass into retirement and observed colleagues leaving my department, some reappearing occasionally over the next few years, others never to be seen again. Until that birthday, however, I had given little thought to life beyond work and what “career culmination” would entail. I knew I was not yet ready to give up the academic life, yet I also knew that, despite the absence of a mandatory retirement age, I had reached the point at which I should take seriously a future in retirement – to professionals in the field, I had become a “transitioner.”
Turning 65 also coincided with my interest in using blogs as tools for teaching. Partly to model a web presence for a class of students, partly to evaluate the value in blogging, I set up “The Retiring Professor” to record my passage out of work and into retirement. My angst is apparent in early entries; my questions seemed endless. For a historian attuned to the social construction of the stages of life, someone who had built a career researching and writing about the identities adults create for children, I found I knew very little about the identity associated with retirement, or how it was constructed. For sure I’d given little thought to designing a retirement identity for myself.
Intuitively I subtitled my blog “transitioning” to retirement, perhaps to postpone the identity project. Only later did I become aware of the significance of the subtitle I adopted. Retiring is, indeed, a journey, not a calendar date. I’ve found it to be a process that involves preparation on many levels and one that could be eased somewhat if university policies were easily accessible. For transitioning through different academic levels, from tenure to full professor, policies are publicized and mentoring workshops are taught by those who have gone through the process. In contrast, identifying information about how to provide my department chair with a formal announcement of the date for my retirement required some determined sleuthing, since even the faculty handbook does not contain a section dedicated to the process of retiring.
Sleuthing eventually led me to the university’s Office of Human Relations where HR professionals support workshops and webpages about retirement. HR’s workshops emphasize financial planning and aim to address the savings concerns of younger employees. Only the workshop on “emotional readiness” is directed toward those of us thinking about retirement in the immediate future. “Retirees Corner,” HR’s retirement website, offers links to advice on Medicare and a video about Social Security. And, it lists the amenities I’ll be entitled to as a retired employee. I am glad to know that I will have free parking, can continue to use my .edu email address, and will have library privileges; I am saddened there is no mention of office space, library carrels, or even a campus lounge for former employees. More to the point, the “Retirees Corner” does not address the transitioner’s need for information about policies and procedures. Nor does “Retirees Corner” give transitioners a place for virtual interaction with HR staff or a space to engage virtually with other transitioners. To address this transitioner’s myriad concerns, I would have found useful something as simple as a virtual bibliography of recommended readings and websites.
If information accessibility has been one source of frustration for “The Retiring Professor,” a second has been my heightened awareness of the cultural meanings of retirement and the attitudes that shape interactions between generations. Often I experience these attitudes as condescension, a benign, but emotionally painful discrimination that marginalizes faculty of a certain age. I see it in the HR workshop leaders who tell us what our experiences should be. This approach leaves me wondering why a workshop on “emotional readiness” is not led by someone for whom finding emotional readiness was once a quest. I see it in published columns about the future of the discipline where the unemployment of young scholars is linked to the failure of seasoned scholars to retire. I see it in the subtle use of infantilizing language – “Retirees Corner” for example. Are the readers consulting this page about to be punished, or simply pushed out of the way? And, in the use of “retiree” as an all-encompassing identifier. I see it too, in a widespread tendency to conflate retirement and the infirmity that often accompanies “old age.” The process of aging and the path to retirement may coincide but require different accommodations and hinge on different public and private identities. My career may be culminating but my life – not yet.
One solution to condescension could well be a policy of flexible or “phased” retirement. If my university offers such an option it is not publicized. Lacking an official option, I found myself designing an ad hoc five-year plan. Creating and maintaining the blog was certainly a part of my design for a phased retirement. As I wrote about my concerns and my research to address financing, knowing when to go, making the decision public, and coping throughout with the social construction of retirement, I was also announcing the intention to retire. As I blogged I also made decisions to scale back on teaching new courses, to ignore myriad university funding opportunities for new initiatives, to downsize my office library, to take on only the work that gave me pleasure, and to avoid discussions about the future of the department. Phasing was right for me; it has made retirement at the end this academic year, after 5 years of transitioning, a step I no longer approach with trepidation. And yet, the decision to phase into retirement is one I fear my junior colleagues do not view with such equanimity. What I see as a way to address energy limits while I do the emotional work that should precede retirement they may perceive as disinterest and lowered productivity. Without a university acknowledgement that faculty need to let go in stages, my colleagues are not able to both include transitioners and find ways to support the process of retiring.
The problems I’ve encountered while transitioning to retirement have been both cultural and structural. I have drawn a very personal map to help me navigate the journey; other professors will do likewise. The process could be simplified, the road made less bumpy, if universities acknowledge that culminating a career can be as difficult as starting one.