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My Time by Abigail Trafford

Going, Going . . . But Not Gone

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page HE01

They're saying goodbye in waves: Tom, Dan and Bill . . . Tom, Tommy and Colin -- a rush of high-profile retirements in the government and the media. Suddenly, a flock of successful men is stepping down from the high point of status and career.

But none of them sees retirement from the Big Job as the endpoint. They all talk about "what next." That's a change from previous generations, when retirement was a stop-work order and people of a certain age would slip to the sidelines with a gold watch and visions of beaches and bingo dancing in their heads.

These 60-plus-year-olds can look forward to decades more of productive life.

As Tom Brokaw, 64, who stepped down after 21 years as anchor of "NBC Nightly News," told Time magazine: "I wanted to change seasons while I still had my physical and, to some degree, my intellectual health and pursue some interests that I've always had."

Tommy Thompson, 63, after 38 years in government service, put it this way: "It's time for me and my family to move on to the next chapter in our life." The secretary of Health and Human Services is one of nine cabinet members to resign from the Bush administration since the election. What next? It could be anything -- work in the private sector, run for office again.

Some in this wave have wanted to retire for a while. Some have been eased out or pushed out. Some have set up bridge jobs to continue working with their employer. Dan Rather, 73, after 24 years in the anchor chair at CBS, will do stories for "60 Minutes."

Some have no specific plan. "I'm just going to step back after 22-plus years of public service in a row, to step back a little bit, breathe deeply and then decide," said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, 59. People need some breathing room at this stage, a no-agenda time to reckon with the past and conjure up dreams of a future. As Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, 67, said: "And what am I going to do next? I don't know."

These superstars are an elite corps of retirees. They will take all the advantages of success into their next chapter. Unlike many of us, they don't have to worry about money or prescription drug coverage. They will still be asked out to dinner. They will get offers to sit on boards and become celebrity volunteers. (And as men, they have some male advantages in the bonus decades -- but that's a subject for another column.)

Yet they are caught in a time warp, too. They may be ready to go on to a next chapter, but society may not be ready for them. They, too, fight the stereotype that Young Turks eventually become Old Dinosaurs whose destiny is to disappear.

They, too, fight workplace prejudice that keeps older men and women out of the hot core of action. (Imagine if Gunga Dan calls the office and is greeted with: "Hi there! Howya doin' [in that netherworld of post-retirement work]? Can I put you on hold -- we're dealing with a breaking story right now." First a little gush, then the brushoff.)

When the Big Job ends, it's usually experienced as a loss -- a loss of income, loss of status, loss of daily structure and activity. Some people never get beyond the Big Job. They are always the "former" this or that. They remain stuck in that high point of the past.

Yet, in loss, there is also liberation. One door closes, another may open. This is the rhythm of longevity. As Bill Moyers, 70, told the Austin American Statesman: "There's a time for staying and time for going. And this is a time for going."

For Moyers, who recently stepped down from hosting "Now" on PBS, the biological calendar of aging has changed for his generation, and he has a future. "I don't know what it feels like to be 70. I am old. But I don't feel it," he explained. "I do feel time. The clock seems to be ticking faster for me now. There are some things I want to do, and one of them is to share with people what -- after a long and interesting life -- I have learned about democracy." First on his list: his book about Lyndon B. Johnson.

Bill, Dan, Tom, Tom, Tommy, Colin . . . these giants are pioneers in "unretirement." Despite their elite status, or perhaps because of it, they can be role models on how to craft a new chapter in this unprecedented period of life.

Go for it, boys. We're (still) watching you. •

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address on Page F2; mark the envelope "My Time."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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