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Inside the Brown Bag

By Peg Brown

The BIG Decision and My BIG Failure . . .

No, not which college to attend; what career path to follow; what relationships to pursue…

No, the biggest questions for us baby boomers are WHEN or IF to retire…even as we enter our 70s.

“Everyone says you’ve got to get ready financially. No, no, you’ve got to get ready psychologically.”—Lee Iacocca, business man and author, designer of the Ford Mustang, former President of Ford Motor Company and former President and CEO of Chrysler

I don’t remember retirement being a major topic of conversation among my grandparents or parents. While members of the family worked at a variety of jobs, both blue-collar and professional, I don’t remember retirement planning discussions dominating the last few years of their working lives. In hindsight, it seemed like that transition for previous generations was rather seamless. Most of our parents’ generation spent decades with the same company or in the same career fields, some with the promise of a presentation of a gold pocket watch at the end of their working lives in recognition of long and dedicated service. Oh, there were a few who left town for career and life paths in other areas, but for the most part, those who remained in my small home town worked for the State Hospital, the school system or local government, in tiny factories like Diamond National or Acco whose executives were exiled to the North Country, in our local mostly family run businesses, on farms or in trades that kept the town running.

So, what has changed in the past five or six decades? Just about everything.

I am certainly not the only one who faced this challenging life transition. According to a recent article in the New York Times, 10,000 “baby boomers” reach retirement age every day—that’s approximately 4 million a year for the next 10 years. But, as with me personally, we did not and are not going quietly—and, in fact, many of us, are not going at all. While women of my grandmother’s generation did not often work outside the home, and many of my classmates’ mothers were also primarily homemakers, the participation of “older women” (I’m raising my hand) working has increased dramatically since our high school days. As I entered my junior year at in high school (1963—gulp!), only 29 percent of women worked outside the home—by 2016, over 59 percent of American women were either in the work force or seeking to be.

The millennials have been waiting in the wings wondering when the old farts are going to get out and free up spaces for them. The answers from many of us have been or will be— “don’t hold your breath.” Aside from the fluctuating state of the economy, worrying about outliving our savings, the uncertainty of the Social Security and Medicare system and the escalating crisis in health care and related costs, there are some really good reasons we’re holding on—and will continue to do so.

Unlike our grandparents, retirement for this generation could last two decades or more—like living from birth to age 25. I actually went on-line and used one of those life expectancy calculators to see if this projection could possibly be true. According to my results, I have a 50 percent chance of living longer than 95 and a 25 percent chance of living to be almost 103. After I finish that needlepoint I started in the 1970s, write the great American novel and learn to play Mah Jongg, what in God’s name am I going to do?

What would be the motivation for getting out of bed each day? If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we’re scared and might still be scared even if we’ve chosen to retire. Most of our lives we have been driven by structure and schedules—school, vacation, soccer, volunteer work, work requirements, holiday rituals—essentially deadlines established by others or goals set because we thought we ought to do or achieve something in particular by a certain date. In retirement—all of those requirements, regiments and goals, real or imagined, will disappear—take my word for it.

More importantly—no one cares what we wear. All of the business suits, ties, nylons, heels and other work accessories will rarely move out of the closet (because we’ve already donated them to Goodwill—finally!)—except perhaps for a rare dress-me up social event or a funeral. I’ll admit I’ll save money, but I’m not sure I’m ready for sweat pants and tee shirts for the rest of my life—how will I know if I’ve gained a few pounds if I don’t have to button my pants!? My grandmother never had to make the transition—she continued to wear house dresses, a corset and a full-length apron until her death.

Okay, so perhaps I could consider a structure by eating breakfast every morning at the local diner, drinking coffee for a few hours with the girls and catching up on the gossip of the day—but, now that I think of it, it’s mostly groups of men I’ve seen in this mold—in Florida we call them ROMEOS—retired old men eating out.

And then there’s the problem of no regular paycheck—(we all know that Social Security checks are not quite the same.) And, we’re aging—the truth is we aren’t as strong, as fast, as nimble or as sharp as we used to be. (Conditions that cannot be solved by doing more crossword puzzles and deep knee bends.)

No one will call on us for our expertise or opinion any more. We will no longer be part of the team. Oh sure, “old” colleagues will call us occasionally for lunch— (that happens for about a year)—then…life at work goes on and we have to deal with the fact that we were not after all irreplaceable. Very suddenly we’ll realize we no longer have control over much of anything, including our bladders.

And then there’s the spouse and all that unstructured time together where roles are not clearly defined and the requirements of work, children, special projects and other obligations no longer stand as obstacles to what we thought would be quality time.

No—for some baby boomers like me, retirement looked like the dark forest of the storybooks of our youth—complete with unknown monsters possibly lurking behind every tree and under every bridge.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me add that I have a very small family left and no grandchildren, whom I’m sure, might have made me consider retirement with less fear. And I do have a very understanding husband who has not been TOO vocal about me choosing NOT to jump into a golf cart and drive into the sunset—or travel cross-country in a camper. But…Maybe I should have done what we did as kids at camp—hold my nose and jump into the cold, choppy water. Instead, I slowly entered the water, experience discomfort with each new step. My new deadline for transitioning into the Florida lifestyle, complete with sequined tops and yes, elastic waist pants—has moved up. We now spend four or five months in the sunshine—still figuring out how to fill the days.

I’ll keep you posted if I get better at this “golden age”. However, I will admit I secured a volunteer position in Florida that does fill two or three days a week—and I have learned to sit by the pool and play cards in the afternoon (if there’s money involved) but—honestly, I’ve failed miserably at this new stage in life. Maybe it’s not too late to start that law degree after all!