Those were the days! At the zenith of my career I was the Director of Executive Coaching for an international accounting firm. I had a talented team with global responsibilities. I traveled a lot — always first class — and got to interact with people from many countries and cultures. The perks were great, but the best part was I knew I was making a positive difference in the lives of my clients. As I neared retirement age, people were taking bets that I would either delay my departure or launch a business on my own. I left the firm at age 65 and let my coach certification lapse. On to other adventures.
Not everyone makes a smooth retirement transition. Many of us, who managed to crack the glass ceiling, poured our hearts and souls into our work and frequently over-identified with our professional roles. I know of one female partner, who two years after retirement, was still signing her email as “Former Partner of XYZ Consulting.” Another described the impact of retirement saying, “It was like driving 100 mph, slamming on the brakes and hitting the windshield.” One recently-retired friend commented that she had no time for personal interests while she was working and now that she had free time, she had no idea what she might be interested in doing. Successful women, many of whom were pioneers in the corporate world, find themselves struggling again without a script when they retire.
William Bridges outlined a stages of retirement transition model in his 1991 book, Managing Transitions. He was one of the first authors to differentiate transition from change: the former being an internal process that happens over time, while the latter is usually the result of an external event that happens at a specific point in time. Bridges defined three phases in transition:
1. Ending, Losing and Letting Go
2. The Neutral Zone
3. New Beginnings
When a woman retires there are many things that she may be happy to let go of: an overscheduled calendar, pointless meetings, dealing with difficult co-workers. Other things, however, may be more difficult to give up. One friend, who recently retired, confessed, “I find myself wanting to tell the clerk in the grocery, ‘I used to be a big deal,’ but I doubt if he’d believe it from a woman dressed in sweats, wearing no makeup.” Besides the prestige of a former position, others lament the loss of administrative or tech support. Retired women also miss interacting with colleagues and the intellectual or creative challenges of their work. Most miss doing something meaningful or productive each day. I often hear from retired friends that days of walking the dog or attending yoga class seem empty and merely self-indulgent in contrast to solving complex problems in the boardroom.
Even women who retire with a plan sometimes struggle in transition. A friend calls William Bridge’s Neutral Zone, “The Pause.” She retired with a plan to go back to college to satisfy requirements for a certification in Sustainability so that she could consult on issues that she found important. The requirements for certification were surprisingly strenuous, however, and she found herself drawn to leisure activities that she could share with her partner. She had a hard time abandoning her original plan, as nothing else of substance called to her. She found herself unmotivated, frustrated and felt like she was just wasting time. Women, who were once rated on productivity and driven by deadlines, find it hard to slow down, rest and reflect — the very qualities required to reboot successfully.
Women, who already have hobbies and interests before they retire, move through the first two stages of retirement and transition fairly quickly to get to a place of new beginnings. These women often do a deep dive into an interest that they had limited time for when they worked. One woman, who always loved to cook, scheduled a series of cooking classes based on international cuisines and traveled to each foreign destination to immerse herself in the various cultures. Another planned trips within the US based on her goal of visiting all 50 states. A woman, who always loved to garden, started a second career running a small-scale landscape design company catering to neighbors and friends. But bucket lists are finite and sometimes quick starts are also false starts. Bucket lists can become just another to-do list to plow through, if the list is merely an attempt to fill time or if the activities involved aren’t savored.
Women who successfully retire first take time to celebrate their accomplishments and recognize their hard work. They throw parties for themselves or plan special trips to commemorate their success. They acknowledge their work and see their careers as merely one of many chapters in their lives. They accept that the current chapter has ended before they start a new page. They allow themselves to grieve the things they miss about work that can’t be replicated in retirement.
Women who navigate the stages of retirement well take time to reflect on their strengths and explore interests. They can relax with downtime, seeing it as a reward for years of hard work and they don’t narrowly define their self-worth in terms of prior productivity. They use the skills they honed as professionals to thoughtfully build a strategy for their next chapter. They try on interests to see how they fit and aren’t afraid to look foolish as a beginner. They abandon those interests that aren’t fulfilling without feeling like a failure. Women learn that when they are retired the ego is no longer in charge. They seek authentic interests that resonate with their real selves.
Women who thrive in retirement realize that a new life phase requires re-invention. They are willing to see that business card for what it really was — a 2 inch by 3.5 inch limiting box. They know they are more than a title. They are willing to think of themselves as a trapeze artists high above the Big Top, fearlessly letting go of one bar, soaring unsupported before reaching for the next.