The Retirement Bookshelf: Two Uppers and a Downer

Approach something new and unfamiliar…my knee-jerk response is research.  Gather, read, process, and because it’s usually some aspect of history, write about it to understand it, put it in context, and file it with the familiar and known.    Retirement has kicked this approach into gear.  And I am building the retirement bookshelf – the books and articles that will help me make sense of life without the department and the office (and the paycheck).  In the past few weeks I’ve picked up three additions, each viewing retirement and aging with a different lens, but each with useful messages about managing the late years of life.

Finances, as many earlier posts attest, scare me.  So I am always on the lookout for helpful guides to 403(b)’s, Social Security, and other assorted post-paycheck income sources. (The bookshelf contains more than one “Dummies” book on the subject). How to Make Your Money Last by Jane Bryant Quinn is a godsend.  A clear explanation of finances for folks like me…with retirement savings (but definitely not wealth) and a terror of having to organize and spend it.

Quinn begins where many finance books do, with advice to make a budget and gather records of all income sources.  It’s a dose of realism…most of us will likely have to reduce some items on the budget debits list to live within our new means.  Her recommendations, however, go beyond the platitudes that tell me I will no longer need “professional clothes” and I won’t have the expense of a daily commute.  (I teach at a school where jeans can occasionally be professional attire and the commute is 2.5 miles one way.  Not likely the changes here will be cost-saving.)  And her advice does not foster the fear that bubbles up whenever someone mentions downsizing.  Instead Quinn talks about “rightsizing,” a word that captures positive changes to address myriad needs – health, family, lifestyle, and yes, the budget.  Rightsizing requires some imagination; it also asks me to prioritize needs and wants.  Rightsizing lets me entertain the idea of moving from house to smaller unit, shedding maintenance expenses and taxes.

Along with “rightsizing,” “simplify” is the second word that shapes Quinn’s approach to retirement.  Collapse, consolidate, make it easy to see where the money is in order to create a familiar paycheck-like structure for taking money from retirement funds.  Thanks to Quinn’s clear explanations words like “annuity,” “reallocation,” and “RMD” make sense. Having absorbed her discussion of “bucket” investing, for example, I think I now understand the relationship between stocks and bonds and the place of each in my “retirement portfolio.”  (You can grasp here just how truly ignorant of the finance world this near-retiree is.) Picture my retirement stash in 3 buckets – one with liquid assets for emergencies, one with stocks, one with bonds.  Her explanation of how to decide from which bucket to make annual withdrawals was for me worth the price of the book!   Given my Pennsylvania Dutch farmer ancestry, I can understand buckets.

Quinn isn’t talking off the top of her head; her advice comes from years of writing about finance (her columns appear in AARP publications among other venues) and she builds her advice on the work of other researchers. There’s much more in this book than I’ve described here, and it is likely one I will go back to often in the next few years.

My second read was recommended by an acquaintance met at a talk I gave to psychiatric personnel at the Salem Veterans Administration Hospital.  This woman, about to retire herself, told me to check out How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free by Ernie J. Zelinski.  Zelinksi says his book provides “retirement wisdom that you won’t get from your financial advisor.”  And it is certainly retirement for a different perspective! His message:  retirement is the last chance I will have to “remake” myself, and deciding in advance what that identity will be is crucial to creating a retirement with a “purpose” but one that is free of the workplace-generated “need to achieve.”  The upbeat motivational approach to the “active retirement” can be a bit over the top at times, and Zelinski has aimed his advice for folks whose retirement age seems to be far younger than my own.  Nonetheless, his suggestions for list-making resonate with this academic’s approach to making order from chaos,  my need to prioritize activities and choose which activities to prioritize!  Zelinski identifies “boredom” as the number one enemy of a happy, wild, and free retirement – the retiree must not allow retirement leisure to be defined by “the couch, the TV, and the fridge.”   Not much here that can’t be found in many other guides to surviving the transition from work to retirement.

I can recommend, however, two take-aways from this one:  the “Get-a-Life Tree” and Road Scholar.  Why have I not heard of Road Scholar: Education Travel and Learning Vacations? For someone who has always said “travel and explore” would be part of retirement…and quaked at the thought of how to make it happen…this program might be a solution.   It is definitely on my list of necessary retirement information to gather sooner rather than later.  The “Get-A-Life Tree” is a mind mapping exercise to identify and draw my attention to interests that somehow got lost as I was creating the historian’s career, interests that can be rediscovered once the “career building/maintaining” demands have been put aside.   At the center of the map – a box labeled “options for retirement” with lines branching out for:  current activities I want to continue;  activities that “turned me on in the past” but haven’t had a place in my life recently; and new activities I’ve thought about doing but haven’t tried yet.   Zelinski recommends putting at least 50 leaves/activities on these three branches.   It’s an engaging exercise for my pre-retirement stage—helps to visualize (and organize!) the swirling mass of thoughts about how I want to shape living after work.   And has very much made me aware of how much I have allowed the demands of work to narrow choices and possibilities.

If Quinn and Zelinski construct “retirement” as something to pursue, something to embrace, and definitely not something to fear, Susan Jacoby provides the reality check to their optimism.  In Never Say Die; the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age she reminds me that while retirement is a social and political construct, this stage of life is also bounded by the physical experiences of growing old.  Advertisements and commercials have created a model for “successful aging.”  Actors are vibrant, fit, active, often look far younger than the age group they supposedly represent.   It is a concept sold in many guises, and I’m guessing that includes books like Zelinski’s.  And while our “success” is dependent on a marketable product, nonetheless, these ads tell what our “senior” years will look like. As Jacoby interprets the ads and the advice, however, successful aging “means only that a person has managed to put on a happy face for the rest of the world” smiling through the physical aches and pains, hiding memory loss, and demonstrating “a consistent willingness to try anything new.” To age successfully we must never “voice any fear about future dependency,” or show too much need for companionship (just as we must never be content to be alone), and we must not display strong emotions, passion being a privilege of youth (xii-xiii).

This book shows how our emphasis on successful aging  is reinforcing an untenable image of “old age” as a single stage of life (an image equally promoted by the idea of “retirement years” I might add).  A stage that marks only the first years of being “old.”  It is preventing us, individually and as a society, from addressing directly and creatively the problems of “old” old age, or even acknowledging that they are painfully real.   “The reality” she writes, “is that we are all capable of aging successfully – until we aren’t” (xii).   There is a time between this new-style successful aging (“young” old age) and death when a retirement of independence, leisure, and a need to counter boredom will likely become a period of frailty and dependency when physical care trump other needs. “As a people,” Jacoby admonishes us, “we need to face reality and base both our individual planning and social policy on the assumption that by the time men and women reach their eighties and nineties, not the best, but the worst years of their lives generally lie ahead” (5).

As I processed Jacoby’s sobering chapters (and there’s much more to the book than recounted here), this baby-boomer, about-to-retire, still physically fit reader really needed the soothing tones struck by Quinn and Zelinski.  But wishing it weren’t so only works in fairy tales, and so as I create my 3 retirement finance buckets, and draw my “Get a Life Tree” I will remember the difficulties faced by my parents and my neighbors in “old old age,” berate myself for being less understanding than I could have been, and hope that Jacoby’s optimistic prediction has merit:  that as we grow older, we baby boomers (raised in a spirit of social activism) who are now coming into young old age will demand a political response to  the problems attending those who have reached  “old” old age, the problems that face us in the future.

The Bookshelf:

  • Jane Bryant Quinn. How to Make Your Money Last;  The Indispensable Retirement Guide.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.
  • Ernie J. Zelinski. How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free. Edmonton: Visions International Publishing, 2015.
  • Susan Jacoby. Never Say Die; the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.



What’s on Your Mind?

This has been a brutal semester – makes me relish the possibility of retirement even more than before. But, it’s left little time for blogging. Though I’ve started several posts in the past few months, they remain unfinished and will stay that way until the summer, I’m afraid.

So, as I finish out this academic year, I’m inviting all my retired and thinking-about-retirement friends to share their experiences. What keeps you working? How are you making plans? What has been the best/worst thing about retirement? What did you not anticipate? What are your concerns? And if, like me, you are a historian, how does your outlook on past and present shape your thoughts about retirement?

Please comment – I’d really enjoy a conversation about where I’m going and how to get there.


My former student Cat has made a career from blogging about personal finance for young adults. I like to follow her blog – pride in the accomplishments of one I shepherded through our graduate program and fascination with the creative ways she is balancing a business and a family. One of her recent posts really captured my attention: “How I Decluttered Thousands of Belongings” (

Cat calls her weeding-out binges “decluttering.” For my age group, it is called “downsizing.” And her blog post got me thinking about what downsizing means at this stage of my life. How to approach this project and what to do with all the stuff — academic stuff, family stuff, and just plain stuff? This downsizing is different from the sorting and discarding that went on each time I moved. Then there was no question that almost all of the books, all the files, and all the objects with all the memories would find their way into the packing boxes. Now, however, I need a different set of guidelines.

So, what is “downsizing?” Google search > “downsizing definition” – companies “downsize” by reducing the number of workers. Not helpful, unless I think of my retirement as a downsizing of my department. Google search > “downsizing” — I can choose from downsizing my home, my life, or my government. And yes, there are downsizing blogs where I can “downsize to happiness” or “downsize in style.” Thinking about downsizing is about as complicated as understanding all those books I read last summer about how to “achieve financial security in retirement.”

Downsizing grows even more complicated when, like me, Mother was a hoarder who saved everything because someday she might need…the 2 feet of thread left on the spool; the Styrofoam egg cartons that could be turned into jewelry trays, and the yards and yards of scrap fabric that could be made into a quilt, someday. I am my mother’s daughter. Though there are no egg cartons in my stash of the stuff I could reuse or recycle, there are boxes and boxes of yarn scraps that I’m saving to make into knitted toys for a grandchild, someday!

For sure, there’s plenty of advice on downsizing and it’s just a click away. I started with wiki:How to Do Anything (
In ten easy steps you can move from a house to a mouse hole. Step one: Assess your actual needs. What counts as an “actual need?” Something I use every day? Something I use every week? Once a month? Only at tax time? Do I “use” the stuffed animal that reminds me of my daughter’s childhood? The pictures of my sister and me growing up? My parents’ wedding photograph? OK, the bed is probably an “actual need” but what about all the plants I’ve nurtured for 20 years? I feel the stress level rising; it may take the three years til retirement to come to terms with the meanings, the implications of downsizing. (And as I ponder downsizing, I understand more fully why some retirees, like my parents, resist the move from a house to smaller, more-manageable-for-the-elderly “independent living” apartment.)

Skipping ahead to a later step in the downsizing advice: the suggestion to use plastic containers to pack stuff for storage. But isn’t downsizing about letting go? Why downsize if I need a storage unit to supplement my new mouse hole?

And what’s to keep me from upsizing after I downsize (other than that financial insecurity stuff, of course)? Downsizing, I fear, is like weight loss – getting it off may be easy; keeping it off may require more discipline that what’s available to those of us who came of age in the prosperous ‘50s and were encouraged all our lives to accumulate material goods as the emblem of happiness.

My Dad’s Retirement

My father will mark his 89th birthday on December 10. And, as I composed my thoughts on Ezra Klein’s thoughts about why many folks choose to retire as soon as benefits kick in, my thoughts turned to my father’s retirement decisions. A mechanic and small business owner for most of his life, my father sold his business at age 62. My father, and my mother until she died two years ago, lived frugally, supplementing social security checks with savings invested in a stock market that rose and fell and left them feeling perpetually insecure about money. Nonetheless, the decision to retire was never a regret. I see my father as one of those workers Klein described – from my vantage point, he seemed to have lived a life of quiet desperation, trying to stay afloat financially, juggling employees who made little emotional investment in his business, working long hours and rarely taking vacations. He, however, represented himself as “independent,” his own man, doing what he wanted, and not like those he employed. Still the decision to retire as soon as he was entitled to social security benefits suggests that, perhaps, his independence was not as gratifying as he wanted to believe.

When my father retired he welcomed the “rewards” of unencumbered time. And he filled that time with such unexpected activities. He made a garden, reading seed catalogs and harvesting annually a pantry full of tomatoes, peppers, beans, onions, garlic, zucchini. He taught himself to cook by watching “Emeril” and cooking shows (and he is still, at 89, adventurous in the kitchen and an avid reader of cookbooks). Until he retired, my father could be found in the kitchen only when a meal was on the table! He worked part-time for a brief period in a sporting goods store and took up golfing as a complement to the bowling he’d been doing since his youth. He became a ham radio operator in earnest, visiting places over the air that he would never visit in person. He turned to refinishing furniture – took beat-up pieces found in junk stores and turned them into new family heirlooms. And he shifted his mechanic’s eye from the car to the computer, learning more than the basics and teaching himself to integrate computer and ham radio. (Now, as he sits in the hospital with his Kindle, the nursing staff remark that he’s about the only patient of that age they’ve seen with any electronic device). I am sometimes in awe of the energy he put into his retirement. For him, retirement was the good life with rewards, at least until a few years ago, when my mother became incapacitated and he assumed the care-giver role.

And that brings me to the present. His retirement identity has been superseded by “old age.” Declining health has sapped his energy, my mother’s death has left him lonely, and the move from his house to a small apartment in an “independent living community” has torn away much that was familiar and left him feeling very “dependent.” “This is not what I expected,” not what he “bargained for,” are sentiments he’s voiced more than once in the past few months. My father, and so many like him, was psychologically ready for retirement. But he was not psychologically ready for “old age.”

I do not know how to help him with this transition, short of running errands, trying not to make decisions without consulting him, and providing an ear for his concerns as he works his way through senescence. But I am mindful of the change and mindful that “retirement” is not the last transition that I will face.

Retirement, 5-Year-Old Style

Where to live after retirement?  I have been talking with my daughter about moving closer to her, away from Blacksburg with an apartment attached to her house or a small home nearby. There are many things to consider, including tax issues, all explained in an interesting article by Jane Bryant Quinn in the September, 2012 AARP Bulletin. (“When Parents Move in with Kids,” )

But, five-year-old Jacob finds this prospect of living with Grandma quite fascinating and, much like his grandmother, he has been cogitating on the meaning of “retirement.”   Yesterday, in response to his father’s demand that he complete his chores, Jacob announced, with the drama only a 5-year-old can muster,  “I need to retire.  Tomorrow I’m retiring so I don’t have to work.”  He’s got the hang of it!  Though he has missed a crucial part — not doing the chores/retirement also means not collecting the allowance!

Grandma ≠ Retirement

National Grandparents Day, September 9, 2012, just slipped by unnoticed this year.  Nonetheless, I have been thinking a lot about grandparenthood recently; Alison Rose was born on Sept. 14, joining her five-year-old brother Jacob as my two grandchildren.  It is clear that Grandmother ≠ Retirement.  I am not the only working grandmother who cannot be there when the baby is born, who must content herself with a visit several weeks later when I will juggle department meetings and student requests via email and Skype.  And I am the fortunate one with a flexible job and a sympathetic department chair.  Many grandmothers both work and parent their grandchildren—definitely not retirement!

Still, there is a connection between grandparenting and retirement, and it’s one I find somewhat disconcerting.  I see it so clearly on the National Grandparents Day website (and in the critiques of the fashions created by the designers on “Project Runway”).

Listen to this clip of the national song for the day at

Johnny Prill’s lyrics describe grandparents as adults with time on their hands, ones who do special, fun, things with their grandkids, as in Verse One:  “Going to a ball game, fishing on the lake/Eating Grandma’s cookies, boy they sure taste great/Going to the circus when it comes to town/Eating cotton candy and laughing at the clowns.”  Aside from setting up unrealistic expectations for the grandchildren, it seems as though these grandparents have retired from employment that limits leisure time and demands scheduled attendance.  How else could grandparents offer to provide all these great experiences?  They have a condition more often associated with youth, one marked by undisciplined fun, energy, excitement, and minimal responsibility, a condition they share with their grandkids.   The judges on “Project Runway,” in contrast, refer to creations they find objectionable as matronly, sad, depressing, and unimaginative –clothes (and personality) more suitable for droopy women at the age of retirement than for a fashionista.

I am feeling whiplash because either way I turn, neither “grandmother” nor “retirement” signifies a wise, mature, engaged woman who can add something to her grandchildren’s lives beyond cotton candy and cookies (though I do love baking cookies!).   The roles allotted to me as grandmother are the same (unrealistic and unacceptable) dichotomous choices that have marked younger women throughout history – the angel in the home v. the bitch/drudge/hag in the workplace; Purity v. Jezebel, and so on, and so on. I know there were Native American cultures in which women earned respected tribal status as they aged.  Doesn’t it suggest that a key to the problem of irrelevance at retirement is a relationship between generations built on a respectful portraiture, and not on national holidays?  And a culture that does not infantilize people at both ends of life?

Alison Rose, granddaughter              Bernice Baublitz Williams, grandmother