In the book, Don’t Forget Your Sweater, Girl: Sister to Sister Secrets for Aging with Purpose and Humor many women interviewed confessed that working some type of job kept them vibrant and engaged in life. According to AARP the hottest demographic in the labor market is men and women working not only past traditional retirement age but into their 70s, 80s and sometimes beyond (AARP, The Magazine, February/March 2015). The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that older men and women will be the fastest-growing segment of the workforce in the coming decade. Among 65- to 74-year-olds, labor force participation is predicted to hit 32 percent by 2022, up from 20 percent in 2002. Some decide to keep working because they need the money while others love what they do and can’t imagine life without work. Some even say they just need to keep busy. With life expectancy in the U.S. steadily increasing with continued improvements in health care, the message is clear; seniors are looking for more in life than retirement living.
I am one of those seniors. I just turned 70 and still work a full-time job as a professor for a university. I have held some type of job since 16 years of age. I recall excitedly visiting our local pharmacy at 15 to inquire about applying for a part-time cashier position. “Come back when you’re 16,” the owner said with a serious look on his face. On my 16th birthday I returned to the pharmacy. “Remember me? Today’s my birthday. I’m 16 and would like to apply for a cashier position.” The following day I was suited up in a pharmacy jacket to work the register. And I worked there through high school to save money for college. This was my first job and I loved it and I’ve been working ever since. I have worked as a grocery cashier, waitress, gas station attendant, insurance secretary, fast food burger cook and wedding photographer. I have been a teacher, a school principal, and district superintendent which became my ultimate dream job given my intense interest in women in leadership and gender studies.
I thought I had finally met all my career goals in life when appointed as the first woman superintendent for a large school district in Fresno County California. Keenly aware that over 75% of school superintendent positions in the United States were held by men, I was proud to have broken though both internal and external barriers to gain this top position in school leadership.
I cherished every minute of this high profile, intense and meaningful job as a women leader. I was fortunate to retire at 62, a good time to exit the profession given the restrictions within the California retirement system. What I did not anticipate before retiring was the need to set in motion a plan for what to do after retiring. It didn’t take long however, to set up a small consulting business and then write a book on education. But something was not good. I missed the work; that feeling of being connected to something bigger than myself. I started looking for gainful employment. I was fortunate a year later to be hired as full-time professor for a university within their doctoral program. This opportunity was a pure joy. What I did not expect however, was the response I received from friends and relatives.
“What’s wrong with you?” my younger sister chided. “You’ve worked your whole life, why aren’t you taking time to ‘smell the roses’?”
A close friend also admonished… “You’re crazy. You’ve earned your down time, working at this age will kill you.”
And finally, my husband, who was looking forward to some one-on-one quality time in our retirement was a bit disappointed to see me going back to work. He was however the only one in my inner circle who truly understood my motivations. Work, for me, WAS ‘smelling the roses. It always had been… work is what I love to do. So why would I stop now? I was, however, somewhat intimidated by the initial reactions from close friends and family. So in keeping with my process when out of synch with the rest of the world, I needed to configure a new normal. I needed to learn what other women my age were doing after retirement. After studying some articles posted on the internet I was thrilled to learn that women over 65 were out in the workforce in droves. And over 25% of women over 70 work full time jobs; the majority in professional areas they did not want to leave after spending so much time on their education and skill building. Knowing these details gave me some comfort but I also needed to survey some women role models who were still working to learn if my intuition on this matter could be right.
The good news was the list of senior women working was endless: Nancy Pelosi, age 78, Jane Fonda-80; Gloria Steinem-84; Hillary Clinton-73; and of course, Ruth Bader Ginsberg at 85. I will work as long as my health is good, until it stops being fun, or I cannot perform the duties of the job effectively. At age 70 I am very happy and can still smell the ‘roses’.
Dr. Marilou Ryder Professor of Education, Brandman University Author of Don't Forget Your Sweater, Girl