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No Woman Retires Elegantly

Why is there no feminist road map for bowing out of the workforce?

By Mary Hogan | December 18, 2013

This essay was written for Zócalo Public Square

The concept of “retirement” is as foreign to me as size 0. I’m a young boomer who came of age in the midst of the Women’s Movement. Real women, I was taught, work.

Although I never supported burning a perfectly good bra nor embraced the body hair that nature so generously gave me, I did internalize the message of the early movement: Equality means earning your own keep. Period. Helen Gurley Brown had it all. Why couldn’t I?

The Truth About 'Having It All'

Of course, as bleary-eyed boomer women now know, having it all is a crock.

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It means having no sleep, having no life, scheduling a Pap smear during lunch, carving out family time over a carb-free dinner and scrubbing the toilet before bed. Instead of becoming equal partners, we morphed into überwomen — a woman and a half — working around the clock.

Clearly we were too tired to notice that Ms. Gurley Brown didn’t even have kids. She did, however, have a driver and an assistant and a housekeeper. Her hair colorist came to her.

Why No Feminist Road Map?

No one from the feminist era offered the slightest road map for an elegant retirement.

Like all women in publishing, Helen Gurley Brown “retired” the way a terrified skydiver jumps: pushed out by eager, younger folks behind her. (Officially Brown never retired and was on Hearst’s payroll until the day she died, at 90.)

Helen Thomas, the late legend of the White House press corps, abruptly, uh, retired when she blurted out her personal opinion on Israel. (She was near 90.)

A Disappointing Google Search

When I did a Google search for “famous women who have retired,” the top link was a story about 27-year-old actress Amanda Bynes, whose career derailed after she was arrested for allegedly tossing a bong out of her Manhattan high-rise window.

I found no proud female retiree accepting her gold watch and golf club head covers after a lifetime of worthwhile employment.

(MORE: At the Front Lines of the Women’s Movement)

No Retirement Role Models

As I approach the traditional age of retirement — not 90, by the way — it occurs to me that I can’t think of a single female role model who retired the way I would want to … or even the way she wanted to. In fact, the whole notion of retirement itself feels vaguely shameful.

In my circles, the R-word is rarely spoken out loud. One retired friend has “reinvented herself” as a Mah Jongg player. Another is now “freelance.”

Without role models showing us how to retire gracefully, we’ve simply plucked the word retirement from our vocabulary. The most commonly used euphemism: “giving back.”

So where does this leave us working boomer women? Leaning in until we fall on our wrinkled faces?

The Financial Challenges We Face

Maybe it was being dead-tired that prevented us from stopping the changes that now imperil the very financial independence that we sought. Company pensions are a shambles, 401(k) plans are about as stable as a subprime mortgage, and Social Insecurity may soon be the norm. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, most women erroneously believe they’ll need less than $250,000 saved for a comfortable retirement.

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Add up the years between 65 and 100 that we’re likely to have ahead of us, sprinkle in the high cost of healthcare and inescapable inflation, and it’s easy to see why $250,000 will be nowhere near enough.

How My Mother "Retired"

The cruel irony, for me, is the fact that my one real role model — my mother — worked as a bookkeeper all her life to help our family make ends meet. She “retired” when her male boss did. In her 60s, my mother was handed a $5,000 check and thanked profusely for her 25 years of service to the company. Divorced and unable to find another full-time job, my mom did the only thing she could: She lived into her 87th year on a retirement plan that consisted of Social Security and my sister and me.

Personally, I plan to reinvent myself as a freelancer who gives back as much as I can.

In short, I’ll retire when I’m 100.

Mary Hogan is the author of the novel Two Sisters (William Morrow), to be published in spring 2014.