Reflections on Retirement

As I have just retired, I thought I would use my blog to share and reflect on my transition. I doubt there will be any earth-shattering discoveries or anything particularly new about my experience, but sometimes reading someone else’s experience can be helpful. I am sure that my reflections will be helpful to me. I tend to think and figure things out as I write. I am certain my brain is really in my fingers. 

One of the other things I am sure will emerge in this journey is that my experience will likely fit into the research or theoretical understanding of retirement and early old age transitions. One of the things that frustrates me is that I am not special or unique. As much as I want to be different or want to not have to experience things because I ‘know about such things’ – I can’t seem to escape being human like everyone else! For example, years ago I was doing a talk/workshop in a geriatric hospital where I was working to a group of caregivers whose spouses were currently in the psychiatry or dementia wards. My partner at the time had bi-polar illness. As I was giving the workshop about self-care all I could do was think…I should be sitting in the seats with them! Just because I knew about the stresses and strains of caring, didn’t mean I could escape all the stresses and strains. Another example, I have reflected on my life at regular 10 -15 year intervals and built new structures to prepare for the next phase of life….just like Daniel Levinson wrote about in his normative research on the Seasons of a Man’s Life. Because I’ve spent my career looking at ageing and life transitions, I think I should be exempt from having to experience the uncomfortable parts and just get to the good stuff. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Well that’s what goes on inside this brain of mine. I get to learn the lesson of humility on a regular basis.

I’ll make regular posts about my transition, but I’ll make this first blog post about the decision to retire. It’s a bit historical now, but it will set the scene for future retirement posts. 

My Decision Making Process

My husband and I have been together for just over 20 years and he is 8 years older than me. I always planned on retiring a bit early so we could have good healthy years together in retirement. Prior to this relationship I had always thought I would be one of those academics that was found dead in their office at 85 years of age. But then, before this marriage, I was married to my job. One of my pensions allowed for retirement at 59½ without penalty so I knew that was the earliest I could retire – never thinking I would retire that early. But knowing that date set an early financial parameter.

Two years ago (just before the pandemic) we took a 3-week holiday over Christmas and New Year and booked a cottage on the Kyle of Lochalsh. I hadn’t had such a long period of down time in 20 years. I used this time as a ‘taster’ for retirement. Could we stand to be in the same place all by ourselves for this period of time? What would it be like to have a long stretch of unstructured time? Would I get bored? I also used this time to start some serious retirement planning. I’d done a lot of reading and some financial planning previously, but this was now done in earnest and with the potential reality on the 4-5 year horizon, rather than something abstract. This three-week period was really useful and a couple of things emerged. The 1st was that we really did like each other enough to survive being cooped up in a cabin all by ourselves for 3 weeks (The 1st lockdown confirmed this even more). The 2nd was that I was okay with unstructured time. I wouldn’t want to do it indefinitely so I would need to develop a structure and pattern when I retired (duh…that’s that all the research says).  Finally, I outlined what I needed to do to get ready to retire and get a firm plan. This included some serious financial planning with our financial advisor and doing a proper retirement planning course. At this point two years ago, I was still thinking of a retirement date 4-5 years away, but knew I wanted to get the planning started now and done soon. I put those wheels in motion. Then the pandemic hit. 

Despite the pandemic I was still able to have a planning session with my financial adviser (virtually of course) and also enrolled in a great online retirement planning course that covered every aspect of retirement. It was well worth the money. Through both of these processes I discovered I really could retire at 59½ if I wanted to. I still loved my job and was getting great intrinsic reward from it. The pandemic made things a bit more stressful, but I’ve always thrived in a crisis (one of the benefits of growing up in a dysfunctional family). Being a good leader and helping my school and staff survive and thrive themselves while also providing excellent education despite the pandemic was rewarding, exciting, but also VERY exhausting. 

Though I was still thinking of retirement being 4-5 years away, we decided to start making changes to prepare for retirement.  Again, some of the research talks about the importance of planning and getting structures in place prior to a transition. I wasn’t thinking about the research, but I can be so normative. Anyhow, we loved Dundee and the Tayside region. It is one of the most beautiful places on the planet and the City of Dundee is a small vibrant city in the midst of a remarkable transformation. It’s simply an amazing place. Yet, it wasn’t quite right for us in retirement. We decided it would be better for us to retire to Glasgow for a range of personal reasons – including being close to family and friends who could help out with caregiving and being part of a larger gay community. We decided to move before retirement so we could establish a good social network and be part of the community. And that’s what we did. We downsized further and bought a small flat in the City Centre, close to all amenities and travel links. (Sounds like a retirement planning cliche)

During this time there had also been a series of leadership changes at the University. Previously I had been very influential within the University and was making a very positive contribution both to my School and the wider University. With the changes in leadership I began to feel pushed aside. Having been central to many important developments and having a lot of influence over a number of years, it was painful and frustrating. I know that universities across the world do these sorts of things from time to time – in with the new and out with the old – and it is not personal. But it is still sore and feels personal at times. There was also a period of considerable moral distress when processes were occurring that were wrong (in my opinion) and I was unable to influence the processes to be fit for the light of day. It also became apparent to me that my face did not fit for future leadership roles. There was great sadness about this. I also knew myself well enough that if I stuck around in a lesser role, I would turn into one of those people that could be destructive rather than facilitative. In my family of origin, I learned how to be fantastically passive-aggressive. Luckily, I have a very good Superego that keeps that sociopathic ID-driven part of my psyche well controlled. However, occasionally that passive-aggressive side does break through my defences. I worried the temptation to be a snide, snarky grenade thrower would be too great. I didn’t want that to happen and wanted to leave my career with integrity intact. I went back to my financial advisor to discuss moving up the timeline, and there was no real financial reason to delay retirement. 

At this same time, I was approached by two head-hunters for other senior posts in two other universities – I was the ideal candidate for both. Head-hunter’s always butter you up, and it feels nice. At the same time, they also can talk straight about how you sit in the pool of potential candidates.  They were both really keen on me and said both universities were keen on me too. In the end I decided to not go forward for either of these positions, even though it felt fantastic to be wanted by two good institutions when I felt pushed aside by my own. I believe if you go for a senior role, you really need to commit to at least 4-5 years to the job or its unethical to go for it or take it. With my husband’s decreasing health and my increasing need to provide care, I knew I couldn’t realistically commit to that length of time. This brief interlude did help with my discernment process, and I decided to make the decision and actually retire early. 

Once I made that decision a huge weight was lifted, and my stress levels plummeted. Ironically, a new senior appointment was made at my university who quickly began to fix the processes that were so wrong in my opinion. I had a momentary twinge of…did I jump too soon? But quickly realised, no I haven’t jumped too soon. This is the right decision for me and my family. I have had a long discernment process, did a lot of planning, and made changes to support the transition. I feel prepared and eager, and I believe I have built the structures that will support the life I build for the next life stage.  

My next retirement blog entries will chronicle the transition as I go through it. 

1 thought on “Reflections on Retirement

  1. Mike Ramsay

    I’ve been thinking of your retirement and the things you’ve said of yourself ‘in-retirement’. I think the traditional model in the UK I’ve witnessed in my family was retirement was the end of work or productive endeavour…my grandads left the factory and hung up their boiler suits and shrank their social activities…it was an ending and marked a move from the autumn of life toward its winter. I sense, in what you are crafting, it is more a withdrawal from full-time work but also with maintenance of the intellectual stimuli you need and a rebirth or rediscovery of social opportunity. It looks well-planned and I hope it proves to be all that you hope for as it plays out…extending and enriching the autumn of life (the discourse analyst in me refuses to use a US Fall here…it just doesn’t work in conveying the positivity of your retirement transition!).

    Reply

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