Retirement comes in many forms. It’s a time when life changes.
Sometimes the changes come gradually. Sometimes the changes are deliberate and happen through personal choice. Sometimes the changes come due to circumstances that force retirement.
When job loss drives the retirement decision, embracing retirement is inconceivable for most people. Finding work again — in a known field or, perhaps in a new field is usually the first consideration. Many factors, including ageism, often make this impossible. Opting out of the labour force becomes the alternative. ‘Retirement’ is imposed.
A similar process occurs when retirement occurs due to illness — especially when there is a long recuperation period. As health improves, the realization dawns that continuing to work will be impossible due to reduced energy, and continuing poor health.
Reaching a certain age may mandate retirement. This happened to my husband at the time when Ontario laws required retirement at age 65. On his birthday, he left his counselling and teaching job at a community college. He then set up a consulting practise that continued for another 10 years until he felt ready to close his office and move into full-time retirement.
Embracing retirement — Margaret’s story
Margaret is a widowed friend. Her husband died after a sudden heart attack when she was in her late thirties. She was left to raise two adolescent aged children. There was no insurance, a mortgage, and the challenge of coping on her own. Previously a full-time home maker and mother, she faced a job market with no skills. She found work in a unionized factory that provided a wage sufficient to meet monthly expenses.
Years passed. The children grew up, completed post-secondary education, married and established themselves in far away places. The mortgage was paid. Margaret dreamed of a happy retirement funded from the factory’s pension plan with visions of travel and leisure.
The dream changed abruptly when the factory moved from Ontario to a Southern US City where labour was cheaper. In her fifties and too young to retire, Margaret faced unemployment.
No stranger to a sudden life changes, she decided to make a new beginning. She enrolled in the local university to attain the degree she’d abandoned as a young woman.
She made a good profit by selling the family home. Her employer paid a severance gratuity to all long-term employees including Margaret. She moved to a small apartment near the university. These changes assured a financial base to fund a few years of education.
Studying was not easy. She cried over term papers when words did not flow. She fought with new technology — appalled that the library was now a digital maze. She had few peers on campus. Most faculty were younger than Margaret and often ignored or dismissed her. During this time she reached out to friends who helped her and supported her decision to study.
Margaret’s perseverance paid off. She took five years instead of the usual four to finish her degree in social work, a profession where many of the lessons learned through challenging life experiences brought compassion, empathy and respect for others.
Margaret now works as a social worker in a children’s mental health centre. She tells me often that she’s not ready to retire. When the time comes, she hopes to stop work gradually by dropping to part-time hours before stopping completely.
Margaret’s story may be an exception but I’m not so sure. In the four years since my retirement, I’ve encountered many people who challenged popular retirement myths. Instead of viewing retirement as a time of leisure leading to an eventual slow decline, they stay fully engaged with life, taking risks to carve a future of exciting daily choices.
Margaret wasn’t held back by a fear of failure. Instead she moved out of her comfort zone and challenged herself. She found fulfillment in a new career rather than sitting around feeling sorry for herself.
All of us can learn from Margaret’s story. By taking a proactive approach to retirement and trying new things, we can move boldly into the future. With some creativity and risk-taking, retirement can bring days filled with opportunities and new rewards.