Do you feel a small tinge of panic once the summer solstice passes? Perhaps a rush of alarm when you realize that it's time to start preparing for a new fall semester that each year seems to arrive with the speed of a Bonneville Salt Flats race car?
More to the point, are you of the age in which jokes you used to make about retiring no longer seem funny? In a recent article, Robert J. Nash defended teaching past the age of 80. I respect Nash's decision, but at some point, most of us wrestle with determining when it's time to call it quits.
Full confession: my choice was forced upon me. Like many baby boomers’, my hearing was damaged by listening to music at earsplitting levels. (How I worry about ear-budded millennials!) I used to quip that Jimi Hendrix made it necessary for students to speak up in the classroom, but the humor drained from that self-deprecating remark when testing revealed I had lost much of my hearing in the high range. I could hardly understand anything soft-spoken students said. I became adroit at keeping conversations going until I could piece things together but ultimately concluded that my strategy was dishonorable, especially toward female students. My decision to leave led me to the Social Security office, but more on that in a moment.
If you are on the decision-making bubble, here are some things to contemplate.
Is It Time?
A checklist includes:
- Has the joy gone out of teaching?
- Do students annoy you to the point that you become hypercritical of their values and culture? Are you behaving toward them as elders you disliked once behaved toward you?
- Does grading student work feel like you’ve been sent to a gulag?
- Does contemplation of change -- from learning a new classroom management system to finding an alternative textbook because the old one is out of print -- make your stomach hurt?
- Do you sit in department and faculty meetings and find that you don’t give a damn about things you used to think were important?
- Do you find yourself begging off every committee, after-hours lecture, conference and collaboration you possibly can?
- Are you envious of younger colleagues who are doing things you barely understand?
Can You Afford to Leave?
Talk to your financial adviser, especially if you’re not particularly savvy about money. TIAA-CREF used to say that it managed investments for people who don’t like to think about money. I took that to heart, as I did my father-in-law’s advice to ignore what the market is doing at a given moment, as it's irrelevant until the moment one retires. When I visited my TIAA adviser, I was pleasantly shocked to find that my portfolio was robust and would continue to be so even if the market stagnated for the next 30 years. That made my choice easier.
You, however, might have a mortgage, kids with college debt or any of a number of other financial obligations. I can’t tell you how much money you will need in retirement, but your financial adviser can. That individual can also help you map a life plan. Let’s be frank: you’re unlikely to need certain things -- fancy cars, expensive vacations, luxury goods and so forth -- once aging takes its toll. An adage holds that retirement is a cycle of go-go, slow-slow and no-go. Let your financial adviser help you develop a sensible budget.
If You Need to Retire Early, Start Planning Now
Let me circle back to Social Security. If you have an injury, serious condition or disability and hope to activate Social Security or Medicare before your automatic starting date, know that the process is slow and bureaucratically constrained.
If you file for an exception now, expect to spend months scheduling various caseworker and doctor’s appointments. You must go through approved doctors associated with your claim, no matter what your own have said. After that, you might not hear anything for six months and, if your application is accepted, wait another four to six months before your eligibility begins.
Another quirk is what qualifies as a disability. It's pretty obvious a hearing-impaired professor shouldn’t be in the classroom, right? Not under current regulations. The question is whether you are employable in any form. If the government decides you could still sort mail at the post office, you’re ineligible for benefits.
That happened to me with my first application. Then I tore a lumbar disk while shoveling snow. That made me eligible, even though I had a correctable condition (back) and my ineligible condition (hearing) is degenerative. This makes no sense, but bureaucracy is bound by rules, not a philosopher's logic.
Another note: you can begin taking partial Social Security income at age 62, but I recommend that you avoid that option, as your monthly check will be substantially lower unless you qualify for a disability exception. That said, you shouldn't wait until you are 70 unless you are confident of your longevity chances. For most retirees, you won’t leave money on the table until your 80s. If your university retirement portfolio is sufficient, the amount of Social Security income you’ll “lose” each month might be inconsequential. As my TIAA adviser patiently explained, you max out your yearly benefit at 70 or 71, but the extra payout of waiting incurs higher monthly taxes, plus it is hard to predict what the future inflation rate will be. (Heaven forbid a return to the hyperinflation of the 1970s, but no honest adviser will tell you it couldn't happen again.)
Prepare Yourself Mentally
Several people echo Nash and tell me they will never retire. They claim they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves and that their identities are tied to being a professor.
Let’s address the second part first. If you are a professor now, all that ends are teaching and university duties. Professors are like doctors and lawyers; they retain professorial status whether or not they currently practice. In retirement, you will have more time to research and write, if that remains important to you.
You should, however, dust off old hobbies and/or develop new ones. Since retiring 18 months ago, I have taken archery, ukulele and photography classes; joined several discipline-related boards; and started going to the gym regularly. I also volunteer at a local arts venue, visit museums more regularly and experience great joy at a local café coffee klatch. Although I've published, often days fly by before I pick up my research.
The most compelling reason, however, is that unless one is extraordinarily lucky, a time will come when you should not be on the faculty -- no matter who you are or what you do. Just as we wanted others to move on so we could move in, so, too, a new generation of scholars awaits its turn.