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Florence in Words

Retirement: A Problem, Not the Solution

Begun January 16, 2013, revised January 28, 2013

A dear friend I first met in 1980, when she was 37 and I was 50, is visiting from Latin America where she lives. Through the twenty years of the last century we worked together on United Nations conferences and policies with regard especially to women’s education and to other feminist issues. Though we were so different, from different patterns of life and culture, we were as one about women’s rights. I remember when we attended two different regional UN conferences, where we both inserted into a UN document the identical, precise language to describe women’s rights to a gender-balanced curriculum. “Access to education is not sufficient,” we each wrote separately: “All education itself has to be gender-balanced, nonsexist in all respects.”

My friend is visiting me in New York, in part, because she wants to talk with me about changing her life. She is now 70 and she is finding it physically more difficult to work her twelve to fifteen hours a day, often seven days a week. She feels tired. She would like to have a different life. She has begun to think about how to accomplish this financially, though here she has to solve other problems. What should she do?

We have had only one brief talk so far, but tomorrow, when there is time for just the two of us to relax, we will talk. What shall I tell her?

First, retirement is not a solution, certainly not the solution. Retirement, I am finally certain, is the problem. Perhaps it is not a problem for all people, but for me it has been, and I am guessing that for a certain kind of working woman, someone like my friend, it is also a problem.

Here is a brief summary of my own case. I am soon to be 84. In 2000, I retired at 70 as director/publisher of the Feminist Press at CUNY to work full-time on Women Writing Africa, a multi-volume research and book project. In 2001, for example, I traveled for the project to Senegal in January; Uganda and Morocco in April, and then to Bellagio, Italy, in September and November to meet with the West Africans for four weeks. In addition, I traveled to China on another book project, and I am not mentioning the trips I also made to Paris for fun, or to California to see Tillie Olsen, who was failing, or to East Hampton and New Hampshire for summer holidays with friends—all the while editing the final texts of the Southern African volume.

Yes, I was not really “retired.” This schedule continued for the next four years, interrupted only because in 2005, the Feminist Press Board asked me to return as Interim Director. When Gloria Jacobs was hired in 2006, she asked me to stay on for two years as publisher. So I retired again in June 2008.

At that point, I was really “retired,” since I no longer arrived at an office each day, no longer was responsible for the book program, no longer attended staff meetings. I worked at home full-time, writing my memoir—the rest of 2008, all of 2009, even half of 2010, aiming at publication at the end of that year. To promote A Life in Motion, I traveled, caught a serious bug, was ill and mended in the first half of 2011. Since then I have indeed been “retired,” sometime occupied, sometimes depressed enough to seek professional help.

What have I discovered? For people like me, “retirement” is a problem, not a solution. I didn’t solve it creatively because I didn’t recognize its parameters or anticipate the symptoms it might rouse. I am a person who has worked hard all her life from age 13 forward. Clearly, I didn’t have to put a stop to working, since projects kept me going for more than eight years after I thought I was retiring. But I didn’t think ahead enough to arrange a non-retirement life, a kind of working life that I will recommend to my friend.

It’s now a week since she has gone home, and I can swiftly summarize the advice I gave her.
1. Do not leave your job; redefine it.
2. Cut your hours; cut your pay; keep a significant portion of control over the workplace or your work in it.
3. Take a vacation, even a month-long one, and return refreshed.

Perhaps this advice will be useful only for women who have founded start-ups, new programs, or who are in charge of work important enough to allow them to follow my suggestions. I’d like to hear from people who are wrestling with retirement, or who have solved its questions in quite different ways. (If you’d like to write to me privately, use my CUNY mail:
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