When seniors don't want to retire

At a certain point in every long career, one question looms large: When to retire?

Among workers eager for a more leisurely pace, the answer is often easy: "Quick, show me the door now." Others, concerned that the loss of a paycheck and a title will leave them with too much time and not enough money, respond with a simple "Not yet." For still others, like Jean Cherni of Branford, Conn., the answer to the when-to-retire question is: "Ideally, never."

Three years ago, after 25 years as a real estate broker, Mrs. Cherni started her own business, Senior Living Solutions, serving as a retirement adviser and moving coordinator. Now, in a voice filled with enthusiasm, she says, "Finally, at 75, I'm doing what I want to do."

Cherni knows firsthand how difficult - even "tremendously traumatic" - an unexpected retirement can be. Twenty years ago when her husband, Val, was in his early 60s, he was forced to retire from the firm where he had spent a long and satisfying career as a nuclear engineer.

"They were getting rid of the older men," Cherni explains, adding, "I think if I had divorced him it would have come as less of a shock than this did." The sudden end to his career created challenges for both of them. She was still spending productive days as a broker, and he was sidelined.

Eventually Mr. Cherni found work as a consultant for a small engineering firm - a job that lasted more than seven years. Now he works three days a week at a local hospital in various capacities, including serving as an interpreter for Russian patients.

Although some men "take to retirement easily," Cherni says, she thinks the transition can be harder for many others because they typically follow a straighter career path than women do.

The Chernis illustrate a pattern of later-life employment that is becoming more common as older workers find - or create - jobs that are part time, flexible, or entrepreneurial. One study shows that among those in their early to mid-60s who are still employed, 44 percent work in arrangements other than regular full-time jobs. Flexibility and autonomy rank high on their list of priorities.

Describing the pleasure she derives from self-employment, Cherni says, "I'm fashioning my own hours, and I'm not locked into a job description. It's an excellent time of life to do this."

Her new business is especially rewarding after her checkered earlier career. In their first decade of marriage, the couple moved 13 times in 10 years. Cherni took whatever jobs she could find. She also tailored her work to the needs of her family while the couple's three children were growing up.

These days, in the corporate seminars Cherni gives on retirement, she sees the challenges that sometimes arise when one spouse says "later" or "never" to retirement while the other votes for "now."

In some marriages, she says, there is "heavy negotiating that has to go on when couples have different expectations at that point in their lives."

Her comments echo the sentiments of others who, at least for now, are saying no to retirement. In San Francisco last month, during an afternoon workshop on women and work, one participant who had retired for a short time told the group of 30 women, "When I saw what my retired social friends were doing, I knew I didn't fit. I hate shopping. I have this thing against bridge. I struggled with, What am I going to do? I decided I wanted to stay in my field, but wanted to do it differently."

Others in the group, which included Cherni, nodded in agreement. For many of them, "differently" is the operative word. They want to continue to do "something meaningful," as Cherni puts it, but may be interested in scaling back slightly. Family ties - spending more time with elderly parents, more time with grandchildren - figure in their ideal mix.

Cherni harbors no illusions that all older workers who want employment will find it. "At 75, it's good to have your own company, because it's hard to get hired," she says.

Whatever choices older employees make - to leave the workforce now, later, or never - many current retirees can offer this word of reassurance: There are as many ways to create a meaningful retirement as there are to shape a satisfying career. Leisure time, too, can have its rewards.

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