I had planned to retire at 70. The business part of my brain insisted that this was the most fiscally responsible path — maximizing my Social Security, funding my IRAs, and pushing my modest state pension to its greatest value after working. 14 years in finance. management at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Not only would I be leaving college, but I would also be ending a career spanning over 40 years.
My plan was prudent. It was doable. I was in planning mode. I ran the financial projections constantly to reassure myself and stay on track.
Why didn’t this happen to me?
The pandemic hit the scene in March 2020. A once unthinkable workplace environment has become the norm. The institution’s risk management drills for operating remotely, prepared years ago with a roll of the eyes, have actually been helpful. My team and I retreated to our homes and I set up my own office in a sitting area with a bay window. From there, while watching birds and deer, I conducted business in the form of Zoom meetings, phone calls, and extensive email correspondence.
To the outside world it looked like business as usual, but the inside view was very different. Although our risk management drills prepared us to do the job, I had few, if any, HR tools to help motivate my team or myself. It’s hard to remember when I first realized I was disappearing – maybe six months into the distance format? I was thirsty for human contact and I felt very alone. I looked forward to Zoom meetings with the cameras on just so I could see people.
I hadn’t admitted it to myself for long months: I was unconsciously beginning to prepare myself and my team to operate without a leader in case we couldn’t hire one if I fled. I was grateful to have a job, but I felt extraordinarily guilty because I wasn’t able to overcome the sadness I felt every morning while logging on.
One day, I found myself arguing with my supervisor about recognition awards given to finance employees. I was nominating people every year, and my nominations were historically turned down, which I had always managed to simply accept. But this time, instead of graciously saying thank you for the opportunity to nominate deserving members of my team, I shouted at my supervisor how terrible the reward system was. I then informed him that I needed a week away from my laptop and asked him not to disturb me while I was off.
This outburst would have been the end of me in many organizations, but my supervisor approved the leave, probably thinking that if I had stayed, it would only have gotten worse. He was right. I had to get away from work and my bay window, even though a week wasn’t even long enough to clear my head.
Other warning lights were flashing. I drank too much. I looked forward to 5pm just so I could open the first of two beers, and added wine more often than I cared to admit. I ate whatever I wanted, in amounts that made no sense. Inside, I was screaming, “I hate this.” I have watched several Netflix series over and over. There was something about the repetitive dialogue that I found soothing.
I hired a counselor, and while I wasn’t willing to fully admit what state I was in, I told her I wanted to explore preparing for retirement. My heart was finally clamoring for a place at my brain’s planning table.
The rise to retirement of a former
As this commotion unfolded in my living room, I also watched the world struggle. As I read the newspapers and watched the news every night, I was consumed with fear, sadness, and loss of hope. I felt guilty for thriving financially and saving money when other people could barely keep the lights on. I was aware that job prospects were poor for anyone in positions that had contact with the public.
I also hear, almost daily, of women bearing the brunt of the economic pain of job loss for various reasons. People of color have been disproportionately affected by job loss. Childcare issues were a major pain point, and home schooling by people not equipped to provide it was added to parenting responsibilities. Oddly enough, I haven’t heard much about employment for older people or how we struggled and then recovered – or not.
It turned out that older workers may have been reluctant to stay in the workforce for fear of catching COVID-19 and generally did not return to work at the same pace as younger workers, even after reopening. desks. In their research for the New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, Owen Davis and Siavash Radpour found a sharp drop in the percentages of older workers returning to work and an increase in retirements in 2021.
I also learned that the number of people of Social Security age has increased dramatically over the past two years, according to Pew Research Center senior fellow Richard Fry, in “Amid the Pandemic, a Rising Share of Older US Adults are now retired So is the explanation for the growing number of older adults opting to retire simply because there are more of us?For those of us who are retiring voluntarily, it seems not Due to skyrocketing real estate prices adding to personal wealth and, until recently, the stock market boom, we were perhaps a little warmer and fuzzier at the moment. idea of jumping ship from our jobs. But I guess many recent retirements would have only happened later if the pandemic had not been a factor.
PBS NewshourPaul Solman’s economics correspondent told the story of several newly retired baby boomers who voluntarily quit their jobs after considering their financial situation and prospects for longevity. Mental health and the ability to spend time with family were the main reasons. A South Carolina retiree was pushed over the edge by Zoom meetings. A 77-year-old school bus driver questioned the advisability of spending several hours a day with 30 to 40 elementary students in an enclosed metal tube on wheels. All wanted to avoid the stress of COVID-19, and many speculated about the meaning of life and how they wanted to spend their final years.
Knowing that my university was experiencing its own challenges and uncertainties regarding employment during the pandemic, I contacted a reliable source for information. I learned that the human resources sector supporting retirements was operating on overload and that fatigue related to COVID-19 was pushing staff turnover several percentage points above normal. My source also shared that it was not unreasonable to expect retirements to increase 40% in fiscal year 2022 over the previous two years.
I am now part of that 40%. I got used to the idea of less money being saved and decided that my sanity was worth the difference. Nine months after my departure, I am all the more convinced that it was the best decision given the cards that were distributed to me at the time.
I am exercising. I drink alcohol in moderation and eat mindfully. I am happier. I miss absolutely nothing at work, except my colleagues. I have considered a part-time job, but I shudder at the thought of managerial or supervisory responsibilities. I did things like unsubscribe from my favorite online shopping sites to avoid the temptation of a big sale. I landed on my feet, albeit sooner than expected, at 68.
What was I expecting anyway? Those of us invested in our careers still often cling to the perception of entering retirement with a script. This perception leads to a sense of failure, that we are not “doing things right”. The rigidity of a plan only leads to worry.
If I were to offer only one piece of advice, I would say: “Don’t listen to people who are more than 10 years younger than you.” They have not yet actively considered their own options. Their contribution will only fan the flames of uncertainty. With hindsight and many comments from my senior colleagues, I have learned that there are few perfect retirement plans. Yes, the pandemic has made a difference in mine, but so what? Life situations change daily. Our health fluctuates; our financial pictures fluctuate. Family and friends change; our social circles expand and contract. People move and people die. On the happier side, weddings happen, bringing us new friends and relatives and the prospect of sweet babies to cuddle and care for.
Now, when someone asks me what I’m doing in retirement, I say, “Whatever I want.” (Although that’s not entirely true, as my budget is tighter.) I look forward to yoga classes because I can touch my toes. I joined a group of writers. I have new friends at the senior center and can help anyone who is having difficulty with the computerized registration system as I am one of the youngest who can still see the screen.
And I worry less about my “legacy” in the workplace and more about what I can give back in the form of small favors. I recently received a text message from a former team member with a photo of his graduation ceremony. She was beaming in her cap and dress and thanked me for my help and encouragement. My own accomplishments may take a back seat in the future as I now encourage others.