confronting The r-word

25 Jul 2019 | 04:09

The demographic trends of the growing aging population are clear. By the year 2060 the number of Americans ages 65 and older will more than double from 46 million today to over 98 million, and the percentage of the over 65 cohort will rise to 24 percent of the population from 15 percent. These are startling numbers. The baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — are more and more entering into their later stages of life with little guidance about how to deal with the impending changes.

There have been myriad articles on the financial implications of retirement, especially whether there will be enough in the Social Security trust fund past 2020. It’s also not hard to find advice on how to stay healthy or the best way to mitigate the aching effects on the aging body.

However, there doesn’t seem to be much attention given to the emotional or psychological impact of moving into this next phase. It seems that denial of what looms ahead runs deep. I entered this proud group over two years ago when I was sixty-six and decided to leave a job I loved. I have spent the last two-plus years adapting to a lifestyle where I don’t have to get up every morning and head to the office, but can stay involved in issues I care about and am freed from having to be accountable to an array of others from former co-workers to growing children.

I am often asked how I like “retirement.” I try not to use the R-word, since retirement sounds like a sudden ending when I prefer to think of my decision as a new beginning. I always respond that I have begun a new chapter which is both exciting in the limitless possibilities but frightening “as you know what” since it is less about external forces than about my own internal state of being. I will confess that the transition has not necessarily been that easy, and while I have successfully discarded my former role and embraced what I am now doing, (helping several immigration organizations, mentoring newer nonprofit leaders and writing an occasional human interest story for this newspaper), I am not alone in confronting this challenge.

Missing the Pressures of Work I decided to see if I could make sense of this by talking to several friends and colleagues about lessons learned or pitfalls to avoid when facing the decision to undertake this major life change. I asked what their motivation was for taking this step, what has been difficult about the transition and any lessons they could share with others.

Some spoke of the difficulty in making this leap. As one colleague told me, “In an instant you go from being highly important in your field to completely irrelevant. The myth is that others will continue to call you and ask your advice. They won’t.” Another expressed guilt at not being able to fill up all the free time and confessed to missing the pressures of work.

I also admit to an inherent bias in this inquiry. It did not represent the eighty percent of Americans who have less than one year’s income saved for retirement. Those I spoke with were well-educated and highly respected in their fields who have transitioned to their next chapter by choice — a law partner at a well-known firm, leaders of other nonprofit organizations, a former reporter of a major newspaper, a Hall of Fame college coach and a consultant who has become a serious poet. Some also refused to use the R-word, and although the circumstances of each of these people differed, the issue raised a certain level of angst and introspection.

The impact of retirement may also very much be affected by gender, class and socioeconomics. The wage earner who has done physical labor his/her entire life might approach this phase differently. Yet I contend that the sense of loss and perceived diminished personal value, regardless of career path, transcend these differences.

Joan Malin, the former head of Planned Parenthood New York City, retired two years ago after leading the organization for 17 years. “The transition has been psychologically challenging,” she said. “We grew up in the sixties and seventies. Our identity, especially as career women, has been defined by the work we did. To me, giving back to other organizations is an important way to create a new inner identity.”

“You Can Pick and Choose” To a person, there was a sense of having to redefine one’s purpose outside of work. “I went from 100 miles per hour to zero in an instant and was at a loss,” a friend said. “I decided to retire at 62 because of the economic incentives. The system is geared to cleaning out the dead wood and transferring more responsibility to a younger generation. I decided that I had to quickly jump into the void and reorient myself so I joined a leadership program focused on giving back to others.”

But not all were thrown by the change. “I had prepared for my retirement and was comfortable from the beginning,” said Michael Zisser, former CEO of the iconic nonprofit organizations University Settlement on the Lower East Side and The Door, which serves youth citywide. “Every day is different and if you are staying in New York City and interested in the same issues you’ve spent your life fighting for (and not going to Florida to play golf), there is much to become involved in. The beauty is that you can pick and choose.”

There was a palpable desire to stay relevant, and an urgency to pursue what is of paramount personal importance. This took the form of writing books or articles, enrolling in an educational or ecumenical program with others facing a similar transition, developing a mutual support network (I am part of a monthly breakfast club), spending more time with family and grandchildren, as well as employing one’s organizational skills to work on an important social issue or mentoring the next generation of leaders.

“You can do all the planning you want,“ Malin commented. “But I can guarantee that your initial idea of how you will spend your time will change over time. There were many interests I wanted to explore. This was the powerful lesson I learned.”

Stephan Russo is the former Executive Director of Goddard Riverside Community Center and “retired” in 2017.