The Unretired: a new word for a generation
Everything changes when you’re about to publish a new book, much the same as giving birth, only the gestation period for a book is longer, and at times, more complicated. My new novel, Last Night of the World, took a good three years to write. Longer if I consider the early notes, research and short stories that pre-date it.
These days it’s mostly up to the author to promote her own work and that means tweeting and posting on Facebook like there is no tomorrow, giving talks and readings, and being available for interviews no matter the time of day or night. I’m not complaining. Every author wants an audience for her book, and wishes to connect in a meaningful way with her readers.
Between writing this blog, books and articles, I’ve discovered a new career, one that I can do from home –no rush hour commuting—and one that gives me great pleasure and a feeling of satisfaction.
My novel is about Russian spies operating in Ottawa during World War II. In the story, you see how the tactics of Soviet intelligence haven’t changed all that much in 73 years. The daily news about Russian interference keeps me current and investigating the remarkable ways history unfolds. Recently I was interviewed for Spybrary, the podcast dedicated to espionage thrillers and I feel honoured to be connected to the world of John le Carre and other masters of the genre. I even went to see the movie, Red Sparrow, to see how the Soviet agent Dominika compared to my spy, Freda.
All of this is to say, that my retirement has been mostly about “unretirement,” a new trend that is playing out with the majority of my friends. I hardly know anyone who just leaves their job at 65 and comes to a full stop.
The “unretirement” is about older adults who often retire for a few months, maybe as long as a year, to realize that they are bored, miss the work they became excellent at doing over a long career, and prefer having a defined sense of purpose. Many need the money.
“Economists refer to this sort of U-turn as ‘unretirement.’ (In ‘partial retirement,’ another variant, an employee cuts back to part-time status but doesn’t actually leave the workplace.),” explained the New York Times.
“Unretirement is becoming more common”, researchers state. A 2010 analysis by Nicole Maestas, an economist at Harvard Medical School, found that more than a quarter of retirees later resumed working. A more recent survey, from RAND Corporation, the nonprofit research firm, published in 2017, found almost 40 percent of workers over 65 had previously, at some point, retired.
Take my friend Dianne, who taught in the Early Childhood Education program at Sheridan College. Not only was she an engaged classroom professor, but she also wrote the curriculum and launched a Montessori program for college and university graduates. After her retirement, she started travelling as well as teaching and accrediting Montessori programs. With her razor sharp mind in action, she is always busy and fulfilled.
When I had lunch with Dianne a week ago, it was the first time we’d met in a few years. It’s easy to lose track of good friends when you don’t bump into them at work, as we had for the twenty or so years preceding retirement. Dianne looks fantastic, sounds even better — if that’s possible– and is engaged in her work for Montessori, and with her family. She plays a huge role in her sons’ lives, has a dog, who is the star of her neighbourhood, and remains living in the home where she raised her boys. There is both continuity and adventure in Dianne’s life.
“We definitely see evidence that retirement is fluid,” said Kathleen Mullen, a RAND senior economist and co-author of its American Working Conditions Survey. “There’s less of the traditional schedule: work to a certain age, retire, see the world. We see people lengthening their careers.”
The trend to return to work, or to stay at work part-time, will grow. Not only are seniors finding it difficult to live off their investment returns, but also the prognosis for future returns is not optimistic, with growth in stocks and bonds following the same pattern as low interest rates coupled with low inflation. The promise of big returns is fading.
This leaves older adults with different choices than we believed we’d have when we began accumulating our retirement savings. Being open to change helps. I still carry a mortgage on my home and that cuts me the financial leeway I need to manage the uncertainty of a new career while opening opportunities to pursue leisure activities that can be expensive.
The arts and aging can be an important aspect of the new unretirement. Even more people might resume working if they could find an attractive option, such as taking up a profession in the arts. “We asked people over 50 who weren’t working, or looking for a job, whether they’d return if the right opportunity came along,” Dr. Mullen reported to the New York Times. “About half said yes.”
Not only do older adults find a release for their creativity, often discovering aspects of talent and dedication they never had time to explore while working and raising kids, but also they bring a certain wisdom to artistic pursuits. Fellow author, Terry Leeder, wrote to me about Last Night of the World on the eve of its publication:
“I just finished the novel. It is wonderfully written and must, at times have brought a lump to your throat. It seems to me something you had to write. I liked the ending. There is a lot of wisdom in this novel, a lot to think about, what it is to be human, to make choices and to live with them. Freda is a remarkable person, and the ending, for all the characters have gone through, is quite hopeful. You show that life, despite all that happens, is worth living and that families matter and love can really conquer.”
For now, I intend to keep writing. Not only does it allow me to stay in my home, the private space I need to write, but it’s also changing me into the person I always wanted to be. It only took sixty years.