The Next Act

Julia Child, who never really retired.
Julia Child, who loved her work and never wanted to retire. Source.

A long-time colleague of mine recently announced her retirement. She’s not much older than I am. Another long-time colleague and I were recently reflecting upon people we’ve known or worked with who over the years have dropped dead at their desks, some at a (relatively) young age, and just how much we don’t want to be one of those people. All of this has me thinking more than ever about what the next stage of life will look like.

As much as I fantasize about leaving the day job to work on blogging full-time, that’s just not in the cards or in our financial plan now. But le Monsieur and I have had ongoing discussions over the past few years about how we envision the next (fingers crossed) several decades of our lives. I’ve never deluded myself that I could be happy running away to live on a tropical beach and having nothing on the agenda other than deciding which color flip-flops to wear that day and whether to have a pina colada or a mojito. I need purpose. Which doesn’t necessarily mean a job, but I’d be miserable under conditions of extended idleness. I am certain that I want to live in a vibrant, diverse community with necessities and cultural events and activities within reach of public transportation (having known too many elderly people who become quite isolated and/or dependent once they can no longer drive).

But aside from logistics, it’s also important to think about what will bring purpose and satisfaction into our later years. A few weeks ago I came across this article in the The Atlantic, Making Aging Positive, which has me thinking about what I want to do as much as where I want to live.

We are a species wired to feel needed, respected, and purposeful. The absence of those qualities is actually harmful to our health, as public health and social scientists have demonstrated.

The gist of the article is that a) people live longer and enjoy better health if they have a positive attitude about aging and feel “needed, respected and purposeful” and that b) our society doesn’t currently do a good job of supporting this. Nothing there comes as any great surprise, but it’s a good reminder. I think we as a society need to shift our thinking about our retirement years as being a time of leisure and invisibility, to being a time of contributing and finding new purpose and meaning. Which means that we not only have to think about our own futures, but have a lot of work ahead to collectively change cultural attitudes.

Perhaps for some, family and grandchildren are already providing that sense of purpose. Perhaps there’s a passion you’ve always wanted to pursue but never had enough time. It might indeed mean a paying gig for us too either out of necessity or desire, but perhaps in the next stage conducted more on our own terms. I’ve envisioned my “retirement” lately as one where I’m still productive, working at something I love (and now that’s looking like blogging, though what form that may take in a few years may change), and finding time to volunteer. I’d love to work with Dress For Success, or something similar helping women to put together interview and work wardrobes to re-enter the workforce, or with some sort of literacy program, or helping shelter animals to find new homes. Or all of it, I don’t know.

How have you envisioned your retirement, or this next stage of your life if you are already retired? What will bring a sense of purpose and being needed into your life?

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  1. Thanks for the link to the Atlantic article Susan.

    At 59 I am finally forming thoughts about retirement but nothing firm is on the agenda. I intend to work part-time for another ten years or so, also increase my volunteering online at a Forum I work at (simple living) and start a concerted round of self guided study.

  2. Good questions! I think I will work at the Coalface til I am 70, that is another 28 years. I love what you have written about still contributing and finding new purpose. I don’t comment all the time but I LOVE your blog! xx

  3. After 3 years of retirement, I am looking for a new project. I think that I would like to volunteer to set up libraries in Mexico or Central America. I have some connections in Oaxaca, Mexico and had planned pre-retirement to spend some volunteer time there.

  4. You’ve hit on the exact reason why I went back to college seven years ago: to prepare for my “second act.” I saw the writing on the wall, so to speak; my children were getting older and I realized that soon they’d be out of the house and I’d need something fulfilling to do (I had been a stay at home mom since my oldest was one). Now I am looking for a teaching job (I teach developmental or remedial college writing) and I plan on doing that until I’m 70 or so. I like the idea of teaching because I not only earn money (to fund the summers that I plan on spending in France) but also do good; the feeling that I get when I see the look on the kids’ faces when they finally “get it” is priceless. It sounds like you are headed, like me, down a similarly altruistic path…best of luck to you! (P.S. my BA is in French; it was my vow to speak fluent French by the time I was 50 that first led me back to college. I love the country, culture and language as much as you do and being able to speak the language has just made me love it all the more!).

  5. Although in my early 60’s, full time employment will continue for some time as a fiscal necessity. As an experienced grant writer, I already volunteer my services to a local non-profit in support of food pantries and work force development and expect to continue that work after I retire.

    Thanks for the link to the article — Ageism is all around us. While I always treat my work colleagues as peers regardless of age, one young woman actually called me and said she ‘heard’ I was retiring (news to me). She evidently had someone in mind for my job (herself). I sweetly asked her if she ‘heard’ it from me. Silence. A few muttered comments and the call ended. Sadly, the event is unsurprising as I find that some young workers simply don’t have very good social boundaries. Some assume that even though I am still extremely productive (not a brag, just a fact), I am supposed to move out of the way for their upward trajectory. Clueless.

    1. You’re being generous. That goes beyond clueless straight to downright rude. Glad you gave her the killing-with-kindness treatment. I, for one, intend never to retire and am thankful I chose a field in which the experience of the old is as valued as the energy of the new.

  6. I’ve been retired for three years and am loving it. Work was increasingly unsatisifying so I packed it in a bit early at 57. Now I have time and energy for the things I love to do. Doing what you love seems to be the key, whether it’s working as a volunteer or at a paying job or pursuing personal interests or being with family and friends. There is so much to do, so many possibilities and new worlds to explore, you’ll love it!

  7. What a timely post! I’m eligible to retire in six months and always thought that I’d jump at the opportunity to retire at 62. However, as the time approaches, I’ve realized that I actually love my job, the people I work with, and the work I do. (I’m a librarian at a medical school.) I do want to retire in the next few years and have a whole list of things that I’d like to do: more yoga, finally learn to speak French, play the piano, and volunteer for saner gun laws. Like you, I want to live in a place that is easy to get around without having to drive everywhere. (Still looking for the perfect place.)

  8. This topic is one that is central to my life right now. I took an early retirement from a fabulous career 4 years ago at 55 to move forward with a life with my boyfriend of 7 years. We bought a dream home in a dream location with oodles of cultural opportunities and a list of plans a mile long. In just under 3 months, he pulled the rug out from under me by unilaterally walking away from the relationship and financial responsibilities of the house.

    While I was able to find a job that helped me stay afloat financially, it was not satisfying and due to the pressure and responsibilities, I wasn’t able to pursue most of “our” plans on my own. The house was finally sold earlier this year and I am now free to build a new life. Where to start?

    Over this time I developed and refined a list of what was non-negotiable in my life, and one of them is finding a position, paid or unpaid, that keeps me mentally engaged, involved, brings satisfaction and makes me feel valued. I don’t yet know where I will live permanently – I have returned to my original state to be close to my mom, who is 84 and facing many of the same questions, her for the first time too.

    As a woman who has worked in an intense career her whole life, a life of leisure is not attractive to me. I do love my vacations, but find they don’t have the impact they used to have if there is nothing I’m really taking a break from. I have found that purpose is essential to my well being, and am working on finding some. (As opposed to my mom, who was a stay at home mom her whole life and can’t see why I’d want to work!)

    I am volunteering for the first time in my life, and it is filling some of the gaps. I get to work with both young and older people and spend a lot of face time with the public (similar to my career). For now, it is a lifesaver.

    I am in the process of figuring out where I want to settle, as this sense of drifting through my days is one of the most uncomfortable stages I have ever been through. One day at a time!

  9. This post is so timely. I could retire now, but I enjoy my job (most of the time!) and have no particular burning passion that I want to pursue instead. When I was younger I thought I’d move to the country and have a farm with lots of animals. Having had a taste of this life through friends, I now realize I may not be strong enough to cope with a farm on my own. Also my introverted personality could easily lead to isolation on a farm, so I think the country dream is not such a good idea anymore.

    Which opens the door to the question of what kind of life do I want instead? Your points about living near culture and good public transportation make sense to me. Plus I need a volunteer position or part time job to make getting up in the morning worthwhile and to keep up contact with other human beings. Living alone I know I need to push myself to keep up social contacts.

    I look forward to your posts on this subject and reading everyone’s comments on this topic.

  10. At a certain point in my life, I chose between advanced studies in Medicine, and art school.Retired from medical practice, I”m now pursuing my interest in art…classes, submitting work for shows, involving myself as a volunteer/gallery attendant . I find I still enjoy competing and working to a deadline, just not 24/7.Yes, there are moments where I feel a “what next” coming on, but I remind myself that will last a minute or two, and then am swept along again in my art projects.

  11. Hello – You are such an active blogger, almost daily, that with that energy I am sure you will never retire. Thank you for your fashion tips and I am glad you love Paris as much as I do. Perhaps we can meet next time you visit !? I live there most of the time.
    Have a great week 🙂

  12. Hello again – I meant to add that I love Julia Child’s books and I loved the film Julia and Julie, so inspiring and in my semi-retirement I experiement with the “cuisine” I am now adopting by now living in France.
    Swan – Now Living in France, follow, follow, follow me pleeeeeeese. S

    1. I retired last year, at 62, and I have not regretted it for one second. I had planned for years that I would be a literacy tutor through a program at my local library, but I have not found that to be what I had hoped it would be. I am far too jealous of my free time to share it with anyone, unless they are wholeheartedly committed. So I’m taking line dancing classes and ukulele classes, to learn new activities that I would never have considered before. I also make it a point to take advantage of all the wonderful cultural resources we have here in LA.

      Plus travel! In the past year we have traveled to Hawaii, Seattle, Yosemite, Monterey Peninsula, Paris, Amsterdam, and London, along with little weekend trips to Coronado Island and Santa Barbara. I also have lunches and coffee with my friends, most who are still tied to their jobs. I can’t wait until more of them are retired so we can do more gallivanting!

      My husband retired two years before I did and uses his free time to golf. He was a school administrator and has been a substitute teacher at charter and private schools and a short term temp administrator in public schools. While full time work is no longer his thing, he found he does need the validation of paid work. I think that is true of most men I know.

      1. Christine: I had to chuckle at your posting. I too had thought about being a literacy tutor at the local library but almost immediately realized that I was very jealous of my free time. I’m loving retirement. Your posting sounds very much like my life so far: travel, visiting friends, etc. My husband’s retirement party is tomorrow night. His colleague’s memorial is tonight. There’s no time to waste! Best, Sally

    2. Oops, didn’t mean to put my little dissertation as reply to you, Swan. But I will be checking out your blog.

  13. This is a topic near and dear to my heart! As I am at the beginning stages of my second act (or third, depending how you look at it), I am finally at a place in my life, that I have always dreamed of. As a creative, it has been my life long dream to be able to make a career out of my passions. To be able to seamlessly weave work and leisure, into days filled with creative endeavors … and now it feels like so very many pinch me moments … of I can’t believe this can really happen.

    I have never dreamed of ‘retiring’, rather instead a I have always dreamed of a life of meaningful work. Theses days I want to grow my accessory business … not only for financial reasons … but to do it in a way … that I can not only empower women, but help turn the tide on ageism … to show that second and third acts … can still be wrapped in … the bounty of the best is yet to come. I want to know that dreams can come true … not only for me … but I want to inspire others to live their own. I am interested in not only helping women, but have a heart for those aging out of foster care.

    I have worked my whole life to get ‘here’ … and I don’t want to miss a day!

    Thank you my dear … for offering up such meaningful conversations!


  14. This post was timely for me too, as at the moment i have taken a 3 month sabatical to try and find some balance in my life, so that it is not ALL about work. So far i’ve done some knitting, some craft work, started a home and decorating blog and taken my first yoga class and once a week i go painting with friends. It’s all about finding out who i am again. I’m not quite there yet, but it’s happening – hopefully.


  15. I’m slowing doing less commercial design work and more of my own artwork — as such I have no plans to retire, but just to phase into doing the writing and artwork full time that I’ve struggled to fit in for years. It’s important for me to stay connected to people; I’m not an introvert. I think having facility with technology and especially the internet will help people our age avoid some of the isolation we probably fear and have seen in others. It’s nice to know I have friends all over the world, may of whom will be in similar situations. We can all help each other.

  16. Timely for me as well as a lot of the other commenters. Although I’m suddenly unemployed, it’s too soon to think of retirement. However, I’m reluctant to work at something I don’t enjoy, so I’m definitely being more selective for my next act.

  17. I think looking to the future is important as one reaches an age where people may start to wonder, “will she retire soon?” I’ve seen it happen – budgets get tight, all eyes turn to someone who’s pushing on in years. I consider these things when I think about letting my hair go natural, about putting on outfits that I’ve had for 10 years, when engaging in conversations with younger people and referring back to my son – the lawyer. It influences how people perceive you.

    I worry about losing the job I have and finding a new one. It’s been a long time since I looked for a job and it’s a scary thought. Keeping my enthusiasm and energy up for my job, that I like, is important. I don’t want to be that old person who’s off in the corner muttering about , “the way things used to be.” Being open to change and new ways is important for keeping a job that I’ve investing a lot of energy in, as well as for preparing me should I be looking for a new one.

    I will retire someday but I’d sure like it to be by choice and not by necessity.

    1. GingerR, you make such good points about how we are perceived! At my last job, I found myself talking about past experiences that were relevant to our work and all of a sudden I realized that I was talking about things that happened when some of my colleagues were in grade school. I realized I didn’t want to be sounding like I was talking about my “glory days” and changed that up right away.

  18. Great questions! I have been retired for about 1 1/2 years now after working for almost 40 years as a Registered Nurse/Nurse Practitioner. I am currently 67 1/2 and feel that — although healthy — I might have 5 years to do ‘active’ travel and the next five years with less active travel. If that makes sense.
    Currently I have returned to my original passion: painting. Although I still love fashion, I’m more interested in comfort and clothes that travel well. I’ve made MANY trips to the Goodwill now, giving up my ‘corporate clothes’. At my age I feel that there is no more time to waste. It could me that many of your readers are much younger than I so maybe my thoughts are not relevant. I have to say that I am loving retirement. Loving it! Sally

  19. You & I are about the same age, Pseu, but I’ve been “retired” for about ten years now. I didn’t plan it this way; a layoff (after which, I admit, I was quite fed up with Corporate America) happened to coincide with my kids being in middle school and my mom moving in with us. I spent the first few years of retirement being a caregiver for my mom. She’s been gone three years now; I wasn’t inclined to try to go back to work, since I figured no one would hire me at my age, plus I just wanted the freedom to do what I wanted after being tied down with caregiving. At first I didn’t do anything much, but in the past year I’ve finally started DOING things. I volunteer at Dress for Success, go to Pilates class, just started golf and tennis lessons. I’m not athletic but the golf & tennis are as much for the social aspects as for the exercise. I’m also able to travel a bit with my husband on his more interesting business trips (Oklahoma, no. San Diego, yes!)

    Assuming retirement is financially comfortable ( a big assumption for lots of people, I realize), an important factor is having some discipline. I’m pretty lazy, so it helps if I schedule appointments for myself. I’m still pondering the bigger picture: what do I want to BE, vs. what do I want to DO.

  20. I took a good redundancy package at 49 , nearly 17 years ago now . I did wonder if I would cope with a life without rigid structure ,after working non stop since I was very young . So much so , I quickly took on lower paid part time work to fill the gap but after 6 months I took the plunge & claimed back my life . We have no children ,by choice , so can’t depend on being included in regular family groups , which means we must make the effort of contacting friends for get togethers . I have been a volunteer at the local animal home for 16 years now & it has been very rewarding but you need to see it as a commitment – so many walk away at the first hurdle because of course you can , unlike paid work . It’s great to holiday more , enjoy cooking interesting meals & go out for leisurely lunches , spend time admiring the garden instead of just working in it , read books without nodding off – just doing what YOU want to do . Plus if like us , & you , there are dogs to be walked then you bump into new people everyday . Our life wouldn’t suit everyone , we don’t seek constant challenges & we are lucky not to have money worries but it feels like the best time of our lives- fingers crossed it continues for a good while

  21. Just saying LOVE the comments here- fascinating! I wish we could all meet in the 1 room to discuss x

  22. I retired in stages. First, from my professional job, at age 54. Really, really tired of social work…my chosen profession…I took a retail job, part time,, and enjoyed that for 11 years…until I didn’t. Now I am fully, and happily retired. Life is busy, and I don’t miss work at all. My husband is three years reired, and misses it every day, although he has found a rewarding sideline in medical education.

    This is my hard learned advice about retirement: it won’t be what you think, no matter what you planned. Most people fail to anticipate family needs: caring for aging parents, children who return to the nest, or never leave it, siblings who suddenly need help, etc. It’s impossible to predict, but its almost always there, and it may force you to rethink major decisions about work, where you live, etc.

    Before you move to a new city, or a different style of housing, have blunt conversations with friends, and even strangers about their experiences with this. Listen hard, it may change your mind. We always thought we would downsize to a condo in the heart of the city, but after listening to friends, we ended up moving to a smaller house with a small yard, a few miles from our old neighborhood, and we literally congratulate ourselves every day.

    Be open to new experiences and to new people, and take them as they come along. Just has you really had no idea at 21 how your adult life would turn out, you have no idea about this one either, leave room for change.

    And BTW: I AM a literacy volunteer, and it is the high point of every week!

  23. Tish, read your article with both amusement and awe! I retired 10 years ago and have never looked back. After a 25 year career in banking, I knew it was time to exit that field; but what to do with the rest of my life? I spent some months traveling, then returned home in Washington DC. While reading the Sunday newspaper, I came across an article about tour guides in the District. That was it! Bells went off; lights turned on! I have been a tour guide in DC for going on 10 years now (this puts me in the “definitely” over 40 category). All year long, I get out and walk our beautiful city. I share not only history, but stories and sentiments about our nation’s capital. Keeps me young in body and brain. I doubt I will ever fully retire.

  24. The comments here are really helpful and interesting. I found Ellen’s comments resonated with my own experience: there will always be the unexpected events which overturn even the most careful planning.

    And doesn’t it demonstrate that there is no one ideal retirement? We are all different. Hooray.


    1. Always glad to resonate with someone. Tonight after dinner, I sat on the front step of my downsized home, which overlooks the Mississippi River, and watched a pair of eagles play on the breeze (I know there’s a third because I saw it last week!), and I thought how lucky I am …and for that moment in time, that was perfect retirement! And as Scarlett O’Hara famously said: “Tomorrow is another day”; I dont know what it will bring, but it does have possibility!

  25. I retired three years ago at age 62 and have not regretted it for a millisecond. I loved my work as a medical librarian but the commute was killing me. I also wanted to make sure I had had quality time with my husband who is a decade older than me and has health issues. Cutting back to part time and then retiring early reduced my retirement income but I’ll manage and I still feel I made the right decision.

    For me, life changes even faster in retirement than it did in the working world. It is definitely a journey and you have the opportunity of redefining yourself even more than in the working world. Freedom is delicious. As is getting enough sleep – at first, I felt like I was swimming in endorphins from getting enough sleep for the first time in decades. And realizing that money and material things aren’t so very important – people are, loved ones are, enjoying a slow latte while watching the sun come over the mountain, reading one great novel after another, growing my own fruit and vegetables, becoming a Master Gardener and learning more about gardening in three months than in the prior 60 years, spending time with my grandkids, developing a good at home exercise program, on it goes….

    Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy it and give yourself the gift of unpressured (well – sometimes) time.

  26. Be careful what you wish for. I seem to be busier now than I ever was when I was working. Time seems to fly past when you are having fun. It took me quite a while to find my “thing” I just allowed myself to try out new things, take courses and just experiment. Then I returned to my roots which is Fashion and all things connected to it and my blog was born.