Why Retire Now?


March 14, 2013 by Jean

How does a person decide when to retire? In some countries, there is a standard age for retirement set by law or by labor contracts, and not much decision is required. This is not the case in the United States, where mandatory retirement policies are now illegal. A report from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College tells us that in 2010, the average age of retirement in the United States was 64 for men and 62 for women. But these averages are at the center of a fairly broad age band in which retirement might be considered appropriate – which means that individuals have to make a conscious decision about when to retire.

The decision to retire depends on a balance of push and pull factors. There are attractions like increased leisure or a desire to travel pulling people into retirement. Another powerful pull into retirement for married women is a husband who is retiring (which is why the average age of retirement for women is lower than that for men). But there may also be factors pushing people away from retirement; the financial crisis of 2007-08 led many baby boomers to postpone retirement as the size of their retirement investments shrank. At the same time, older workers may find that work provides satisfactions and a sense of achievement that pull them toward work and away from retirement. Alternatively, a worker may be pushed into retirement by challenges of illness or disability, or by dissatisfactions that make work less attractive. A friend of mine was pushed into retirement in her early sixties when a new supervisor who didn’t support the educational program that my friend had created and directed expected her to dismantle it; my friend couldn’t face this prospect and retired instead.

A person is likely to retire when the forces pushing them away from work and pulling them toward retirement outweigh those pushing them away from retirement and toward work, and this balance is often a delicate one. In my own retirement decision, the pulls toward retirement have been more important than pushes away from work. The most important factor for me has been the desire to live full-time in Maine; both the physical beauty and the social culture of this place exert a powerful pull for me. For a number of years, this pull was offset by pushes away from retirement; I felt as though I was “too young” for retirement, and I also didn’t feel secure that I had saved enough to live comfortably. On the other side of the equation was work that I enjoy and that provides me with needed intellectual stimulation and a strong sense of achievement; these exerted a strong pull toward work and away from retirement.

AT camping spot_1back garden entrance - July
Two pulls toward retirement – the physical beauty of Maine and my garden

I began to think seriously about retirement in 1998, the year I was 50 and was diagnosed with cancer. As I faced my own mortality, the possibility that I might never again live year-round in Maine hit me hard; and as I reassessed my life priorities, I realized that the focus on research and publishing that is part of an academic career was more a source of stress than of satisfaction. In the years of remission that followed, I made a point of getting to Maine more frequently and I worked on actually accomplishing some long-delayed home improvement projects – building a deck on the back of the house, remodeling the kitchen, and creating a garden in the area around the deck. With each of these improvements and with each year, the pull toward retirement and living in Maine got stronger. And, as my retirement savings grew, the forces pushing me away from retirement lessened.

By the time I had a one-year research sabbatical in Maine in 2009-10, I had already decided on a retirement date and knew that I would have four more years of full-time teaching when I returned to Gettysburg in fall 2010. That sabbatical marked a shift in the balance for me, and the forces pushing me away from work became stronger. I felt sad about leaving Maine that fall, and I found that the 60-80 hour work weeks of the teaching semester wore me down in a way that they hadn’t in the past. I still enjoyed teaching, but I just didn’t want to work so hard at it. During that same 2009-2010 sabbatical, I had also begun writing a garden blog and had discovered a whole new world of creative endeavor that I have come to love – another pull into retirement. In the end, I am looking forward eagerly to retirement not so much because I am dissatisfied with work but because, as one recently retired friend put it, “I have other things I want to do with my life.”

4 thoughts on “Why Retire Now?

  1. Jean says:

    Your retirement plans remind me a lot of what my parents did. About ten years before they retired they started remodeling their cottage retreat into a year-around house. It was a wonderful place to live in their retirement years, not just for them but for the whole family as well because the cottage was the setting of some of our best memories growing up.

    My husband’s stroke forced us both into retirement….not the best way to do it but unfortunately it happens after too often. You are wise to go on your own terms.

    Your Maine garden is beautiful, like a magazine cover.

    • Jean says:

      My parents downsized by selling their house to my younger sister and her husband and buying a mobile home in a retirement community. They then bought a second mobile home in Florida (near my younger brother and his young children) and enjoyed Florida warmth and their Florida grandchildren for half the year.

      That’s not for me; having shuttled between two homes for the past 25 years, I’m eager to settle down in one place. But it worked well for them.

      That’s my favorite photo of my garden; sometimes it’s hard to believe that none of it was there a little over a decade ago.

  2. That is what I say, “I have other things to do with my life”…work is wearing me down and my health matters more…I am excited to not have my days scheduled and have time to be free and do nothing for a while…I am still coming to grips with the whole idea and hope to write a memoir of my experience of retirement with no plan.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I know what you mean about the idea of having days that are free and unscheduled. I may have asked you this before, but have you ever read Alice Steinbach’s Without Reservations? It’s a memoir of a middle-aged divorced woman with grown children taking a year off from work and traveling without a plan or a schedule. I think you might enjoy it.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

Please join me as I step into my future.

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