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.

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.

Some men implied that their wish to relocate after retirement was not simply the lure of sunny skies and salty seas. Rather than become sidelined on home turf, they seek a kinder "elsewhere" where no one would ask: "Weren't you once somebody?"

Attitudes about aging and mortality often make a difference in approaches to retirement. Husbands who have worked non-stop throughout their careers often proclaim that "life is short," and that there is insufficient time to postpone the longed-for cruise, safari, or a visit to the land of their ethnic roots.

"I want to enjoy now all that we put off for later," says Professor Mayer Zald. "I want to retire when I'm still able to travel and hike and deliver a mean serve across the net."

Working wives frequently insist that life expectancy has doubled in the past century, that we do in fact have "miles to go before [we] sleep."

There are exceptions to the trend of wives working longer than their husbands. The study showed that some women retired before their husbands because they had worked 40 years without interruption.

Often they were single mothers at the time, shuttling between home and office, trying to "do it all" without benefit of today's day-care facilities and involved fathers. So, when retirement benefits finally came due and they were already happily ensconced in a second marriage, they grabbed the opportunity to slow down and spoil their grandchildren.

"I [had] wanted to retire for the last 20 years," says one of those women. "I'll never forget those frantic mornings when the kids were small: I'd wake them too early, rush them through breakfast, pack four lunches, and race out the door like a half-crazed gazelle. "Now, I welcome a ... chance to relax and play with my grandchildren in ways, sadly, I could rarely do with my own [children]."

lndeed, the birth of grandchildren gave many of these working women pause. With children dispersed across the country, work schedules often interfere with extended visits to families.

Yet, some believe their job obligations inadvertently promote more harmonious relationships with their married children. "I have trouble seeing my grandchildren in day care when they're so young," urban planner Claire Turcotte says. "I certainly understand my daughter's wish to work, but I don't approve of leaving the children in someone else's care at such an early age.

"I have one foot in my mother's world and one in my daughter's," she continues, "and I really think the short sweet visits my work schedule imposes help me hold my tongue and at least try to honor my children's choices."

What of solutions? How does this generation of career couples resolve its retirement impasse?

Lou and Debra decided to remain in Boston for five years, while Debra oversees recently launched hospital projects. Lou, who retired a year ago, began an active consulting schedule six months later. He is now reconsidering his trout-fishing plans.

Ms. Giddan joined her retired husband in Dallas, where she continued her work in a half-time position.

Still another couple retired to Raleigh, N.C., where they began a joint venture serving as goodwill ambassadors in the region.

In accord with findings from a large-scale study on couples' retirement, conducted by Phyllis Moen and her associates at Cornell University, these interviews demonstrate that retirement is far from a discreet event with a beginning and an end.

Rather, it is typically an ongoing process with frequent detours that may include reduced work, related work, return to previous work, or the special joys of long-deferred artistic work.

Indeed, as we live longer and remain in better health, retire-ment is likely to assume a different shape, to follow a long and sinuous course with cul-de-sacs of rich and variegated experience.

• The author is a clinical supervisor at the Psychological Clinic of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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