My friends, my peers and many of my relatives are beginning to retire or have already. As a woman of a certain age, I’ve had the opportunity to have a variety of careers and have, so far, retired 3 times, if you count when I left the practice of law to have my first child. I’ve also not worked for long periods of time.
Women like me grew up in a time when we weren’t expected to have a serious career and working after having children was frowned upon. Even when our children had grown or at least were in school all day, going back to work wasn’t a requirement. Many of my peers stayed home indefinitely being volunteers, playing golf, tennis and bridge and joining garden clubs and the Junior League. Women my age have already figured out how to make life worth living without working.
On the other hand, my husband and just about every male I know in my generation has been working at his career since his mid to early twenties and has put his job in the center of his life. Putting work first was how we were raised and how we raised our kids. Mothers, including me, went to the sports events, the back to school nights, the school trips and extracurricular outings.
I have come to realize that particular division of labor was not great for anyone. I think kids suffer not having both their parents involved in their every day lives. Being the main breadwinner also put an unfair burden on husbands who felt that their family’s livelihood was entirely on their shoulders. And it was not good for wives and mothers who never gained the confidence that can come from having a career.
I live in Manhattan now. We moved here fifteen years ago after raising our children in the suburbs. Because city living is such a communal situation I get to closely observe my fellow citizens and see, either on the elevator in my building, on the crosstown bus or just walking the neighborhood streets, how the next generation deals with their kids. My takeaway is how much more involved fathers are now. It’s as likely that a dad will be escorting a child to school on the bus or running alongside their preschooler riding his scooter on the way to nursery school.
I also get to hear the conversations. I get teary for what my husband and my children missed, when I overhear a dad and his son or daughter talk about their day and question what they’ve seen and what they’ve heard. The conversations in such settings come about naturally and lead to important issues. I had the same kind when I ferried my children to their practices and lessons or did carpools. As anyone who’s had them knows, they’re priceless and a great basis for later years when kids aren’t so apt to be open. Back in the day, very few dads ever had the benefit.
But on top of that loss, that special relationship with their children, many men and some woman I know now have a hard time facing retirement. They worked all their lives, focused on their jobs instead of cultivating other interests and have no idea what to do once they don’t have that job.
It’s true that some have more or less figured it out. I’m thinking of the golfers who throw themselves into the game the same way they threw themselves into their careers. Golf can—at least until you’re in your mid to late 80’s—for some be something to focus on. But not everyone is a golfer or wants to be one. Some retirees travel and can’t wait to take cruises to Alaska and Europe and the Caribbean. Others, like my husband, who is not retired yet, but wishes he were, garden. But it’s the rare individual who finds golf or a life of travel, or even gardening, as engaging or stimulating as the job they once had.
Of course I’m talking about the advantaged, not the retirees who are struggling financially. But I’m not so sure it’s any different for them. Their jobs may not have been as engaging or rewarding, but like the more affluent, the burden of supporting their families was on them and like people of means, if they’re reaching retirement age, they too have to figure out how to find meaning in their days.
Bottom line, defining ourselves by our jobs has major limitations and perhaps it’s the one area where women of a certain age have the advantage.