Well, I just completed my first 12 months as an emeritus professor. Like every phase of life prior to hospice, retirement has its highs and lows. Thus far, for me, the former have greatly exceeded the latter.
Here are a few things to consider if you’ll soon be boarding Emeritus Airlines, leaving behind the familiar rhythms of the academic seasons.
Be prepared for all those folks who want to know how you spend your time. Sometimes their inquiries can come across as a bit brusque and judgmental. (“So what do you actually do now?”) The implication is that, dammit, you better be engaging in a Jimmy Carter-type of humanitarian activity that is advancing the common good or is at least interesting to the inquisitor. On other occasions, the question appears more benign. (“Gee, what’s it like to be retired?”)
Regardless, you should avoid responding with a cliché (“I’m livin’ the dream, just livin’ the dream”), sarcastic cynicism (“Waiting patiently for dementia, disease and death”) or overdetailed accounts that reflect a desire to impress. (“I’m vice chair of the Palmetto Bug Conservation Society of South Florida. Did you know that the palmetto bug is often confused with the American cockroach? Would you like some literature and a refrigerator magnet?”) Relax: it may take you a month or two to develop a retirement elevator speech that feels right.
If possible, stay on your university’s email distribution list. Few experiences are as satisfying as reading messages from administrators that impose annoying burdens on faculty members that are no longer relevant to you. (“Beginning this semester, all proposals for new courses must be submitted electronically via the SLOW-JAM software package. A six-week instructional seminar on how to use SLOW-JAM will begin on Saturday at 7 a.m. in the Maintenance Shed Annex. Coffee will be provided, but please bring your own container and sweetener.” Or: “New parking regulations for faculty and staff members will go into effect next week. The 12-tier system will be based on seniority as well as car model, year, color and country of manufacture. Vehicles parked in the wrong lot will be dismantled and sold for parts to help offset the recent budget shortfall that resulted from our failure to reach fall enrollment goals for the engineering school’s new master’s program in microwave oven repair. Adjunct faculty members will park out of state and take a shuttle operated by terminated Uber drivers awaiting their trial date.”)
Curb feelings of loneliness. Don’t get depressed if the ratio of meaningful emails to trash emails in your university in-box decreases significantly during retirement. It could just be that your spam filter isn’t very effective at sniffing out invitations to contribute to such journals as the International Review of Industrial Cosmetology and Amygdala Gazette, edited and distributed from a nameless Pacific atoll. Trust me, people still care about you.
Stay involved in your discipline or field if you wish to do so and the circumstances are favorable. If you have published regularly during your career, you are likely to receive invitations to continue writing -- say, a chapter in an edited book, for example. You’re now in a position to fulfill such requests without the pressure of also having teaching and/or administrative duties. Be aware, however, that the aging process can take a toll on the quality of your writing.
Early in my career, I had dinner with a vibrant, well-known Ivy League scholar who was living in an upscale retirement community. He told me that he hadn’t attempted to publish anything that was remotely scholarly in several years. When I asked why, he said that an eminent colleague of his, also retired, had sent him a draft of a paper he planned to submit for publication. “It was total crap. My friend was clearly, and painfully, past his prime as a writer. I decided that I never wanted my colleagues to have to deliver that awkward message to me.”
For some of us it might make sense to simply follow the path of NFL Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, who retired at the age of 30: just walk off the field when you’re still at the top of your game.
Enjoy the moment. Every day, take time to savor the most beautiful statement in the English language: “No more essay exams to grade, no more term papers to read.” Say it out loud, but softly, and don’t rush the words.
Find a hobby. Not surprisingly, the ardent pursuit of a hobby can be one of the great joys of retirement. Last year I started University Life, a humor blog devoted to higher education. It’s gratifying to know that once or twice a week I bring smiles, and even chuckles, to lots of people I’ve never met.
If you’ve arrived at retirement without a hobby to call your own, don’t despair. You may be overlooking one of your annoying personal habits that can be developed into a full-fledged avocation. In his later years, my dad perfected the art of hovering in the kitchen, providing unsolicited cooking advice to my mom as she prepared dinner. (Yes, this activity drove her crazy, but, hey, what hobby doesn’t have a downside?)
As a last resort, you can take the let’s-make-lemonade-from-lemons approach and start an internet support group for retirees who are hobbyless. Bingo, you now have a hobby! Contact the National Institute of Mental Health for details about securing grant funding.
Downsize. If you’re a male business school professor, you can start giving away your neckties. You won’t need as many of them in the years to come. And if you’re a female faculty member, regardless of institution, you can probably reduce the inventory of tart replies you’ve drawn upon over the years when dealing with instances of “mansplaining” in department and committee meetings. Keep a few of these responses on hand, however, since offenders will continue to show up in other settings (parties, grocery stores … well, just about everywhere).
Indulge your guilty pleasures. I was raised Catholic, so all pleasures are guilty ones. Even so, venturing out to a movie in the middle of a weekday afternoon can be a real treat. (Don’t forget to monitor your buttered-popcorn consumption or you’ll notice some unwanted weight gain.) Many people prefer to watch films as part of a crowd, but the advantage of sharing a movie with only a half dozen other folks at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday is that the chances of sitting near loudly whispering couples (“Floyd, which one is Matt Damon?” “Is that woman the sister or the best friend of the mistress?”) and cellphone abusers diminish precipitously.
And just for the record: it’s nice to read The New Yorker in its entirety the week it’s published, rather than years later. (Just found out that Barack Obama was elected president!)
Finally, go to lunch occasionally with your former grad students and colleagues. If you’re lucky, some of the students will tell you that you made a positive difference in their lives. Colleagues, on the other hand, are likely to spend a lot of time gossiping about the bizarre logic that has characterized recent decision making by the university’s administration. Please let them vent, because after lunch they’ll be returning to a campuswide meeting on budget cuts affecting the toilet paper supply, while you’ll be heading home to do some nonscholarly reading.
The third chapter of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is waiting for me right now.
Sorry, gotta run.