The first job of retirement is to leave work behind—to let it go. Leaving it can’t be done well unless we recognize work’s importance in our lives. Work identifies us, especially men—but now increasingly for women.
People frequently retire from a principal career only to find other work or start a business. If the work or business is full time and demanding, these people are best described as changing careers. Others find work in smaller, less demanding and less stressful jobs, perhaps part time at lower pay. For these latter people, and for those who do not continue working, retirement marks the loss of a principal career or job.
Perhaps the first step to dealing with the loss of work is to recognize how important it has been in our lives.
David D. Gilmore, in his 1990 book Manhood in the Making (New Haven, Yale University Press), describes the importance of work: “The … stress on hard work and on a competitive and ever-climbing productivity is repeated for the American male in the work place, which becomes a symbolic arena for the acquisition of the masculine image.” (p.107). Then quoting Andrew Tolson’s book on The Limits of Masculinity, Gilmore goes on, “In America, definitions of masculinity ‘are bound up with definitions of work.’ ”
Further indication of the importance of work in western culture stems from common references to “The Protestant Ethic,” often known as “The Work Ethic.” The terms are derived from Max Weber writing more than a hundred years ago, when he tied the idea to the development of capitalism. Work became tied to grace and salvation, in addition to being necessary to support yourself and your family in a modern economy.
The ideas are not strictly western. With rare exceptions, hunting, farming, warring, or other work is part of male culture around the world and throughout history. In almost all traditional societies, men are initiated into their roles with formal rites. The rites vary, but they typically involve danger, blood, physical endurance, nakedness, sweat, saliva, even semen (Rohr, 144). Initiation into men’s work is serious, which means that leaving it is also serious.
Women traditionally experience initiation rites as well, often centered on puberty. Women’s roles in western cultures have, however, greatly expanded to include identities in work. The women’s movement of the last fifty years has achieved significant gains for women as equal members of the workplace, gains that came after enormous effort. Though their pay still lags men’s in many areas, they have achieved active memberships on par with men in the leading professions as well as in business and government. Girls are now raised with a new set of freedoms and opportunities. Now, and more so in the future, women too face retirement from active careers and the consequent loss of a work identity.
The Loss is nearly Universal
Most people probably retire voluntarily, yet it is hard to deny there is pressure to leave the job. Declining health prompts some retirements. Even without specific diagnoses, people notice their own declines, how they begin to resent changes or how they catch themselves working in rote ways with little imagination or commitment.
The pressure may be indirect, such as accumulating enough money or pension and Social Security credits. The last years of work sometimes produce little more income than what people will have in retirement. The pressure may also be direct, as when a boss or coworkers ask about plans for retirement. Even when voluntary, therefore, retirement is accompanied with realizations of decline and loss.
We should recognize these losses in our lives, if only to ease the way to actually closing out our work. Earlier, we wrote about Marking the Entrance to Retirement, where we described three ways to initiate retirement. Letting go of work, however, logically comes first, though the two may surely overlap or coincide in time. In losing work we become smaller, but in marking retirement, we set the stage for new growth.
Recognizing the loss of work is the first step to actually closing it out. Next week we will write about specific ways to let go.
Gilmore, David D. Manhood in the Making. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Rohr, Richard. Adam’s Return. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 2004.
Tolson, Andrew. The Limits of Masculinity. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.