Time to retire?
When he's ready - and she's not
Having raised three children, two terriers, and a rose garden, Lou and Debra are facing their first major marital impasse in over four decades together.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The couple, who asked that their last name not be used, took part in interviews conducted with dual-career couples over the age of 62. These talks explored their attitudes toward retirement and their struggle to coordinate their retirement plans.
Lou, a surgeon, has spent a large slice of his life in the operating room. Now in his 60s, he's eager to turn in his scalpel, and troll for trout in a faraway stream. Debra, who was a stay-at-home mom for 16 years, launched her dream job as a pediatrician in midlife, climbed the career ladder, and isn't ready to retire.
Their dilemma is increasingly common among the generation that is now approaching retirement age.
Often, the husband, older than his wife, began working shortly after graduation, has continued working without interruption into his early 60s, and now dreams of spending days languishing in a rocking chair.
In contrast, the wife may have stayed home until the children were in school, and then joined the workforce. Now at the peak of her career, she can't imagine spending days playing golf or relaxing in a rocking chair.
Debra, for instance, considers retirement a virtual death sentence. But Lou would like nothing better.
It might seem simple to ask: What's stopping the partner who wants to retire from doing so, while the other keeps working?
But the answer isn't always so simple. Often, one person's dream of retirement includes moving to another area of the country, or traveling - both of which could interfere with the working spouse's career.
"I'm frequently invited to give talks, to write articles, to sit on important committees, and I can't give it all up now," says Debra, explaining why she isn't ready to retire. "My work is the air I breathe. Without it, I'd simply fade away."
But when her husband rhapsodizes about retiring to a sleepy village where there are no phones, her resolve weakens. As she recalls his many midnight trips to the hospital, she chides herself for being egocentric and believes she should relinquish her career and stand by her man.
With more than a dollop of difference between them, this couple struggles to reconcile two contrasting visions of the next part of their lives.
This dilemma is further compounded in May-December second marriages, where the silver-haired partner is ready to retire while the young spouse is working in a rapidly advancing career.
"Only now has our age difference really made a difference," reports Marlene. "I'm constantly on the move, promoting my career, while poor John - who just retired - is home alone counting the hours for my return."
Department of Labor surveys suggest that women between 55 and 64 are remaining in the work force in higher percentages than their husbands. Reasons vary. Some women delay retirement to ensure increased pensions, Social Security benefits, and supplementary income - especially when their husbands are casualties of company downsizing.
Others believe themselves to be more engaging partners, and decidedly more interesting people, when they are involved in the world of work. Many more unabashedly admit that they enjoy the power and recognition a position of authority confers.
But most women interviewed stated unequivocally that relationships among co-workers provided the most compelling reason for continuing to work.
"We talk, therefore we are," Jane Giddan, a speech and language pathologist, jests. "Friends at work are always there, and you don't have to rejigger your schedule to have a good heart-to-heart."
Though husbands likewise claim they would miss office camaraderie after retirement, they more often cite emblems of prestige as the greater loss. You can always find a fishing buddy, they say, but the office suite, the impressive title, the name on the letterhead - those symbols can never be replaced.