Engagement, Disengagement, and Re-engagement


April 22, 2015 by Jean

When I was working, I was very engaged in my workplace – the type of faculty member who cared deeply about students, worked hard at making improvements to the institution and its curriculum, was regularly tapped to chair committees and departments, and whose opinions were respected. Based on that record, many expected me to remain deeply engaged with the institution when I retired.

Although I didn’t expect the same level of engagement that others seemed to expect of me, I also didn’t expect to react the way a close friend did when she retired a number of years ago from the directorship of an educational program that she had founded and that had been, in her words, her “life’s work.” I was shocked at how quickly she disengaged. Only a few months after she retired, when the new program director contacted her for advice, she had none to offer, explaining that she had “put all that behind her” and no longer thought about these issues. At the time, I attributed her rapid disengagement to the adverse circumstances (lack of support from top administrators) that had precipitated her retirement.

So I was surprised when, during lunch with a former colleague on my first day back visiting my former workplace, she asked me, “If you could change just one thing about the institution, what would it be?” and I heard myself responding that the question was difficult to answer because I hadn’t been giving the institution and its issues much thought. It turns out that as I moved away physically and emotionally into my new life, I too quickly disengaged.

As I spent a week in Gettysburg, however, much of it on campus and visiting with former co-workers, I found myself becoming re-engaged. I checked out the new retirement incentive package and discussed it with friends. And I found myself becoming especially re-engaged with the politics of space on campus, something I had long involvement with during my employment at the College as a member (and sometimes chair) of a department with serious space issues. As I discussed current space controversies with friends, I found myself becoming passionate about them and eloquent about the symbolic meanings of space.

Now, a week after returning home, I am wondering what I was so worked up about. Once again, physical distance seems to to have brought emotional distance. All of this leads me to think that a retiree’s engagement with or disengagement from the former workplace may be a function of on-going relationship to that workplace. Continuing to live near the former workplace, interacting regularly with those who still work there, and visiting the workplace frequently are all factors that are likely to generate continued engagement.

Now I am wondering whether I will become re-engaged with an educational institution that I worked for in the 1980s, before I began my career in Gettysburg. My home in Maine is only a few miles from this early workplace, and I have a number of friends and acquaintances who work there. I also attend events on campus several times a year with some of those friends. All the members of my W.O.W. retiree group are recently retired from this same institution, and two of them are on campus regularly to use retiree office space. When we all got together for lunch yesterday, a recent campus controversy was the first topic of conversation. I can’t really imagine that I will start caring about the politics of an institution that I parted ways with decades ago. But will the years that have elapsed since I was a committed and deeply engaged member of that faculty offset the influence of proximity, interactions with employees, and visits to campus? Time will tell.

8 thoughts on “Engagement, Disengagement, and Re-engagement

  1. I completely agree Jean. Living an hour away and not very involved with my former workplaces, I quickly disengaged. I even rarely want to talk about school, and school district issues.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I am surprised and intrigued by how easy it is to set aside issues that occupied such a central place in our lives for so many years. To an outsider, this might seem like a big loss in our lives, but it doesn’t feel that way at all.

  2. Jean R. says:

    I was shocked at how quickly my niece disengaged from her teaching career. She was such a dedicated person I thought she’d miss the interaction with the kids. (She even ran a bookmobile in the summers on her own time and at her own expense and she was very active in the teacher’s union.) But she is keeping busy traveling (six weeks in the Orient right now) and with her first grandchild that she says she doesn’t miss teaching at all. Part of that is because of the current political climate where teachers are having to fight so hard to keep their benefits. That weighed heavily on her decision to retire when she did, to lock in while she could.

    I think the physical distance for you is a good thing. As for caring about the former workplace closer to where you live now, I’m betting you’ll listen to your friends talk about it with a passing interest but you’ll not be invested in the outcome so you won’t get sucked into emotionally. As you said, time will tell.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I agree that the physical distance is a good thing for me. Without it, I think that I would get sucked into political issues and get called on to get involved in campus activities — and I retired because I have other things I want to do with my life. With regard to my much earlier (and now nearby) workplace, I need to figure out how to communicate that I’m interested in my friends’ concerns but have no desire to get involved with those issues.

  3. I enjoyed this piece on workplace diengagement. So much of our identity is connected with our vocation, particularly if you remain at one place for a long time. Affirmation of a job well done is also part of the separation process; you want to know that your work was appreciated and that those who follow will continue to hold to a standard you believe you set.

    • Jean says:

      Paula, Thanks for commenting. It’s interesting to think about how disengagement is related to such factors as how much of one’s identity is invested in the job and with a sense that your work was appreciated. I left my former workplace with a very strong sense that my work was appreciated, and that was reinforced during my recent visit; yet I disengaged just as quickly as my friend who left her workplace feeling unappreciated.
      As far as identity is concerned, academia may be a special case, because you can give up work without giving up your profession. Many retired academics continue to do research and write books. In my own case, I describe myself as retired from teaching but not from being a sociologist. Teaching was something I did (and loved), but a sociologist is who I am (i.e., a much stronger part of my identity). For me, being a sociologist is a particular way of understanding and analyzing the world around me; and I don’t think I could give it up even if I wanted to. I continue to use that way of thinking in my daily life — and this post was an example of sociological analysis.

  4. Stacy Moore says:

    People do seem to disengage with ease when they are truly ready for the next phase of their lives. It’s not necessarily rejection of what came before; it’s just that the present is engaging in a new way. You can only hoe the row before you, after all — at least, without doing serious damage to your back!

    • Jean says:

      Stacey, Thanks for making this distinction between disengagement and rejection. Disengagement is more about focusing on the present and looking to the future than about cutting off the past.

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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.

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