Baby Boomer Career Women Confront the "R" Word-Retirement / by rita smith

How do successful career women, baby boomer workplace pioneers, shift from the pace and perks of corporate life to move into retirement?  For some, it is years of deliciously private fantasizing about “time for me”.  For others it may be a growing realization of one’s mortality and therefore questioning, “Is this all there is?”  Still others succumb to corporate burnout.  Others are forced into involuntary retirement because of illness, family issues or employer “rightsizing”.  Whatever the catalyst, at some point in time, Boomer career women have to face the uncharted territory of retirement. My defining moment arrived, unannounced, on a Sunday afternoon at Philadelphia International Airport.

     Juggling my ticket, coat, briefcase, carry-on luggage and iPhone, I collapsed into seat 2D in the first class cabin. This was my first flight leg to Philadelphia.  From there I would connect to Frankfurt, Germany and then onto Bangalore, India.  This business trip comprised 19 hour flying each way.  My Sunday was literally off to a flying start.

    Arriving in Philadelphia, I had a couple hours“to kill” in the business class lounge before my flight to Frankfurt.   Knowing that my upcoming airplane meal was a crapshoot, I grazed on the standard lounge fare of questionable cheese cubes, celery sticks, little containers of ranch dressing and pretzels.  At least there was a good Internet connection so that I could “do emails”. I opened my computer, noticing a small tremor in my hands. This was a side effect of my 21-day regimen of anti-malaria pills required for the trip to India.

    After composing a few emails, I looked up from my computer and glanced around the business class lounge.  By now it was crowded and electrical outlets for computers and phones were at a premium.  The room was full of business travelers, men and women, mesmerized by their technology.

     A twenty-something woman interrupted my typing to inquire about an open seat.  After a few moments, she shyly asked if the food was free. I responded like a tribal elder and knowingly nodded.  Was I ever that young and green?  My mind flashed back to my first global business trip and airport lounge experience. This was over 30 years ago.  En route to my first global business meeting, I remember walking into a smoky lounge and a sea of men in business suits.  Back then, my own “dress for success” mirrored their male uniform; a dark blue suit of armor --wool jacket with boxy shoulders, a starched white blouse, a ribbon tie, and a wool skirt that fell mid-calf.   Fighting the feeling of being an imposter in a costume, I helped myself to the buffet fare and then settled into my leather seat.   Here I was, first generation corporate and a female, sitting in an airline club, holding my Passport and a business class ticket to Europe.  Pretty cool.

     A loudspeaker page announced boarding for my flight and jarred me back to the present. I packed up my traveling roadshow of matching, designer luggage and headed for the bathroom.  As I splashed water on my face, I looked into the mirror and saw a tired, stressed face staring back at me.  My mind began racing. At first a whisper, then growing to an internal shout, I heard,  “ This isn’t ‘pretty cool’ anymore. I’m tired.  I’m tired of packing suitcases, eating crappy airport and airline food, being too tired at the end of the day to speak with friends, the incessant buzz of my iPhone email, and putting off the things I enjoy to a nebulous “someday”.  Yes, the money is great and the perks make me feel important.  But, the scale has tipped.  I proved myself in a male workplace. I’m done. I want a life.“  Where did these heretical thoughts come from? I could hear the creak of Pandora’s box opening. So, here in this inauspicious airport bathroom, I first faced the “R” word: retirement.

     In my interviews with hundreds of Baby Boomer career women similarly making the shift into retirement, women comment on their surprise that they have arrived at the retirement juncture.  After all, we were the generation who smashed through the glass ceiling of the male structured workplace.  Maybe cracked the glass ceiling is more accurate.  Regardless, we were the pioneers who led the way into the male bastions of corporate and professional roles.  We put up with discrimination, worked twice as hard, sacrificed our personal lives, experience guilt over choices of career versus traditional roles, lived through the loneliness, and persevered our way into levels of leadership and professions.   How can we pioneers leave the trail? 

     There is no map for our retirement; it is truly uncharted territory.  Our parents’ retirement model is outdated.  Many of our homemaker mothers cannot offer us a path. The traditional male model is lacking as it focuses almost exclusively upon the financial aspects of retirement.  While financial planning is critically important, women tend to also put emphasis on the quality of their relationships and life purpose. In addition, as Boomer career women, we are the first and largest generation of women to define ourselves by our work.1   We need a retirement model that provides continuity and outlets for our education, productivity, achievements, sense of community, and passion for meaningful work.  We do not want to settle into a life stage that relinquishes our hard earned freedom, political clout, and professional identity.

     Once again, we are the generation of women who will challenge convention and reinvent how we will live.  As pioneers, retirement is our next frontier.

     Although existing models for retirement are outdated for us, the concept of retirement is a actually relatively new one.  Retirement, thought of as an entitled life stage, came into being in the Twentieth Century.