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How do you know when it’s time to retire?

This is not about anyone in particular, let alone myself. It’s intended as a general question, not as a veiled hint. It’s as subtext-free as possible.

Over the years, I’ve seen some folks hang on too long. They may have grown bitter, or started to focus on the wrong things, or just lost a step without realizing it (or admitting it to themselves). Sometimes it’s about money, but sometimes it seems more to be about not wanting to confront mortality. We all know what the next life stage after retirement is -- it’s a very human response not to want to admit that one stage is over. In at least one memorable case from years past about which I will offer no specifics, it seemed to be largely about ego. In the context of faculty, I’ve known a couple who stayed later than they probably should have in part because they were afraid their departments wouldn’t get to replace them. And sometimes they’re right.

In some cases, health forces the issue. My dad faced that. At a certain point, his ALS made continued work impossible. It happens. Sometimes it’s the fiscal health of the institution that forces the issue. Some former colleagues from DeVry tell tales of having retirement incentives offered to them with the implied alternative being “or take your chances with the next round of layoffs.” In that context, an “early retirement” is a genteel version of a layoff. Retirement incentives have fallen out of favor in the public sector, but they remain a reality in the private sector.

Family issues can play major roles, too. That can be an illness in the family, or a spousal career change, or even the arrival of grandchildren.

Of course, some people don’t have the financial option of retiring, even if they’d like to. In those cases, the premise of the question is flawed.

In this context, though, I’m thinking of people who honestly have the option. They could keep working, or not. Both options are viable. How do they know when to go?

The folks I’ve seen who I thought did it right left when they were still respected, and still good at their jobs. They left because they had other things they wanted to do, while they were still physically capable of doing them. One of my favorite people, back at CCM, told me that she knew it was time to go when she couldn’t bring herself to put quite as much into grading papers as she used to. She believed that the students deserved excellent feedback, and she could feel hers starting to slip. By my lights, she was still a star, but she was more interested in having an interesting and adventurous retirement than in becoming a steadily less effective teacher. I admired that.

Wise and worldly readers who have retired, to the extent that you’re comfortable answering the question, how did you know when it was time? For those of us still working, who did it right, and what were their signs?

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