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Reinvention Tension

By Alisa Singer

A friend of mine talked to me about her plans for retiring soon from her teaching job. After three long decades of bratty, bored kids, unappreciative, complaining parents, miserly salaries and out of touch and indifferent administrators, she’s ready to be done. But she’s troubled by stories she keeps hearing about people starting new, exciting careers after finishing the old ones. She candidly admitted that she had no idea of anything else she’d like to do. Having worked long and hard for 30 years, she felt she’d earned the right to do absolutely nothing. But all these boomers recreating themselves after retirement were making her feel guilty. She asked me: “Do I really need to put on my list of New Year’s resolutions: lose ten pounds and reinvent myself?”

I responded that I wasn’t sure if ten pounds would be enough but, as to the reinvention part, I assured her that’s exactly what she would be expected to do. “You should feel free”, I told her, “to take a very brief intermission following the end of your first career. But after that the audience (i.e., family, friends and anyone else whose opinion you value) will fully anticipate you to re-emerge onstage with an exciting and meaningful second act performance.” I also explained that it doesn’t matter how long and hard you struggled in your “first act” or how successful you were, because if the second act’s a dud the whole play’s a bomb.

This advice applies to all boomers dreaming about retirement: Unless you’re willing to suffer the disdain of all you know, you’d better surrender your fond dreams of a future spent watching Seinfeld reruns, enjoying early bird dinner discounts and dodging your kids’ requests to babysit, and instead convert some frivolous hobby or pastime (i.e., your true passion) into meaningful committed work.

You see, just as the feminist movement succeeded in making stay-at-home-mothers feel inadequate, the “bonus years” that boomers supposedly get (because fifty is the new forty) translate into a whole new set of pressures designed to make the stay-at-home retiree also feel like a failure. Words like “reinvention” and “giving back” are all code for “get off the couch, and start trying to impress people again”. Even a doctor’s note indicating a terminal illness will not be considered an acceptable excuse. (Reference the “Bucket List” where Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson felt compelled to complete a lengthy to-do list of frightening and uncomfortable adventures even though they each had less than a year to live.)

Now let me be clear about a few things. As far as “giving back” is concerned, a few hours a week shelving books at your local library or volunteering at the community hospital isn’t going to cut it. In fact, anything short of single-handedly educating the female population of a small country or creating a new global food bank won’t even justify a line item on your new resume. And as for concerns about inadequate pay, no problem, you probably won’t get any at all. Nor should you, considering all the psychic rewards you’ll be receiving (not to mention the psychic medical and dental benefits).

But take heart. You’re about to discover that your career opportunities did not end with your last job. Far from it, because these new challenges will create opportunities to fail that will surpass anything you’ve experienced over the last 30 years. You see, this time you will be expected to succeed in a completely new venture without the benefit of education, training or youthful energy. And you will be delighted to learn that your new bosses and co-workers, tikes only slightly younger than your own children, will consider you (and your decades of experience) about as welcome and relevant as smoking in airplanes and instant coffee.

“But not to worry”, I told my friend, “just let your true passion for your work carry you through. And if you’re not sure what that might be, I can tell you that many people at your time of life take up teaching. Maybe that’s something you can consider.”

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