Gender stereotype: women have an easier time with retirement than men. They are not so rooted in work and status. They care more about people than power -- and with more hobbies and more friendships, they won't experience as much turmoil when a job ends.
This notion of a less traumatic retirement is myth to many women. They share with men the same psychological and social pressures when a job ends. For more than three decades, women have flooded the workplace at all levels. Just as they fought some of the same battles to succeed on the job, they face a similar conundrum at retirement: What is my identity without a job title? Where is the structure that was once provided by a workplace? What is my purpose?
Nancy Carson of Alexandria worked for 30 years in Washington, ending up as an executive at the Office of Technology Assessment, a policy research arm of Congress. She left the agency about 10 years ago at age 55 with full retirement benefits.
"I wanted to retire, but it was like a giant black hole," she says. "I tried to prepare. I went to workshops. I could not fathom the enormity of time that was ahead of me -- in days and years." She was eager to try new things. "I began to look around to try to figure out who the hell I was," she says.
Sharon Franz of the District retired nearly four years ago from the nonprofit Academy for Educational Development. Like Carson, she had a stellar career. She managed a division, traveled throughout the United States and overseas. She was looking forward to retirement at age 60 -- and yet she also found it a huge adjustment.
"It took me two years to get into a rhythm that [my life] was okay," she says. "It took me a year to change the alarm on the clock radio from 6 o'clock -- that it's okay to sleep to 8 o'clock."
Women who came of age in the 1970s -- those pioneers from police departments to law firms, who broke down barriers in education and employment -- are now in their 50s and 60s. Once again, they are tearing down the gender divide as they make the transition to this new period in the life cycle.
Researchers have traditionally focused on the retirement experience of men -- from the plight of the CEO who must learn to make do without a secretary to the 45-year old military pilot who is looking for a job in the private sector. The blow to self-esteem and risk of depression that may occur around the loss of a job are well known. They apply to women, too. Both Carson and Franz experienced a sense of loss -- even though they welcomed retirement. Both missed the structure of the workplace, the daily engagement with co-workers.
"I missed the sense of accomplishment of being part of a team. We did great work. This was gone," says Carson. Franz missed the challenge of work. "My whole career was about making a difference," says Franz. "You walk away from an organization that you helped build."
The end of a career often coincides with other losses. Franz also suffered the deaths of a close friend and her sister-in-law. "You are losing people you love and losing an identity," says Franz. "The whole issue of loss and grief is part of the life cycle. . . . I don't think you can avoid looking at what it means to move to this stage."
Both looked for work and hit the wall of rejection. "It's a myth that you can go back into the job market at your same level," says Carson. "It's rough out there." Yet both have found meaningful new occupations. Carson goes to work by turning on the computer at home where she performs her job in internal communications at AOL.com. She's also been able to travel, take courses and has written a book about women.
Franz has become a substitute teacher in the D.C. school system, which completes a circle; she started out as a teacher in Buffalo, the first in her family to go to college.
Both have created a network of family and friends. Carson, who is divorced, often visits her grandson in New York. Franz, who never married, is the mentor for the nieces and nephews in her extended family.
Obviously there are differences between men and women in bonus years. But the challenge of writing a new chapter is universal. "You've still got to do the psychological work about retirement. You can have a richer life if you explore what this all means," says Franz. "I feel like I have a happy life right now."
"Don't think you'll be able to anticipate what's ahead. Be nimble," advises Carson. "Never use the word retirement. Say you're changing jobs. Retirement is an outmoded concept. Just think of the next phase of your life."
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