One evening (at 5:30, of course!), I decided to treat myself to a dinner in a nice restaurant. I brought my Kindle but didn’t end up reading. It was a busy night, the restaurant was loud, and there were a number of conversations.
Upon arriving at my table I observed an older couple finishing their meal.
“Can you wrap this up for me to take home?” the older man asked the waiter while slightly lifting his empty plate. The waiter stumbled a little. “I’m only kidding,” he said. He then proceeded to offer some tired puns. The waiter was polite, but it was a busy night. When the man started to talk about his past accomplishments, his wife intervened and asked for the check.
Midway through my meal, I overheard another older couple ordering their meal. The man was going through each menu item and making nonsensical requests. “Can I have the lamb stew without the lamb? Does the pot pie include pot?” Each time the waiter smiled, answering each question. After exhausting the menu, the gentleman placed his order.
I recognized both of these well-groomed men. They were “used to be’s” (also called the CEO blues). They were used to commanding a room. During their careers, subordinates and peers had listened attentively and chuckled at those jokes. But the world moved on and the sycophants found someone else to follow. These men had lost their identity and the attention that came with it.
Most people with successful careers are able to adapt to retirement. Many become benefactors, others enjoy their hobbies, still others travel extensively. But there are some highly successful individuals who struggle and experience depression, social isolation, loss of identity, and loss of purpose. I can empathize. Besides parenting, retirement has been the most challenging stage in my life. I had to retire ten years before I intended to, so I entered this phase of my life without a plan. Before retirement I had been a workaholic.
Like these men, I was used to commanding attention. Today, the only way I could silence a room would require me to embarrass myself.
My unexpected retirement after losing my husband was frustrating and frightening. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was one of 30%-40% of retirees who struggle in this phase of life.
Former CEOs, leaders, and those without a plan are most likely to struggle. People who maintained a healthy work life balance, put a priority on family over career, had a retirement plan, and those with hobbies usually find retirement very satisfying. On the other hand, women who managed the home sometimes discover they don’t get retirement.
So retirement is tricky.
We are in the eighth and final phase in Erik Erikson’s stage theory of psychosocial development, known as Ego integrity vs Despair. During this stage we reflect on our accomplishments, review our mistakes, and create our own personal scorecard. If we are overall satisfied with our choices, can accept our mistakes and conclude that we have lived our lives with internal integrity, we feel a sense of peace (Ego Integrity). But those who regret their choices or believe that their goals were thwarted, find themselves in states of sadness, anger, and reliving past wrongs (Despair).
And since this is such a complex stage of life, some highly successful people choose to delay retirement and keep the familiar over unknown (retirement). Our current presidential front runners are examples of those people.
The 70% of retirees who have made the jump into retirement successfully have done it in a myriad of ways. Some have dedicated themselves to their community. Others have invested in their hobbies and passions such as: travel, sports, boating, hunting, fishing, and savoring all that this beautiful peninsula offers. Still others have learned a new skill or seen this as a time of reflection and connection with family, friends, and nature.
It can be painful to discover that the world has moved on and that another generation has taken our place. A generation that sees the world differently, their technologies are different and more advanced, their acceptance of differences greater, their vibe, their interests are not ours.
“Used to be’s” recognize that they must start over without the energy, physical health, drive, technological skills, and naivete of youth. Volunteer jobs can be ego bruising, such as cleaning up refuse in a park, taking water samples. Dinner parties aren’t as much fun. The stories have been told over and over, and remind us that looking in the past, leaves us stuck in the past.
I still haven’t figured out retirement. I tried volunteering, but I realized that the jobs that I wanted were not volunteer types of jobs. Despite my expertise in fostering animals, I was cleaning cat cages. Instead of writing grants, I was stacking shelves. Instead of statistical expertise and UI design, I was throwing out my back by lifting cages of heavy oysters. A key limitation for me is that I divide my time between two states, making many volunteer activities understandably unavailable.
Even successful retirees can get bored or lonely as physical limitations increase. Sometimes we feel like we are stuck in procrastination with more free time than motivation. And then there are the losses, so many losses that make us keenly aware of our own mortality.
This column is not intended to be a fix for challenges in retirement. There are many courses, books, videos, and articles that offer advice. For those who are struggling, there are local volunteer and part-time opportunities.
I finished my dinner deep in thought about retirement and empathy for the challenges that both these gentlemen were facing. And as I was leaving, I passed that couple that had now finished their meal and I heard the gentleman ask in front of his empty plate.
“Can you wrap this up?”
I hope that all of us can find our way in this transition. At least for the waiters’ sakes.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.