Nan Bauer-Maglin, Marilyn Katz and other contributors to a new book on retirement hosted a panel discussion at the 2003 Sarah Lawrence Reunion.
“So, what do you do?”
Yes, it’s that timeless dinner-party conversation starter. For many recently retired men and women, it’s also a question with unpleasant existential reverberations: Without your work, who are you?
For women, it can be especially tough to answer. Those of the baby boom generation worked hard to establish themselves in professions traditionally dominated by men; now, facing retirement, they wince at the very real possibility that their social relevancy will be erased along with their job titles. With few role models (after all, before their generation few women worked outside the home) and little public discussion on the topic, women have had little help in negotiating the terrain of retirement.
Nan Bauer-Maglin ’63 has initiated a much-needed discussion of the subject by co-editing Women Confronting Retirement: A Non-traditional Guide (Rutgers University Press, March 2003) with Alice Radosh. The book presents the stories of 38 women of different ages and professions as they confront the need to redefine who they are when they leave the workplace. “The book begins a conversation about how women can remain effective, socially committed individuals after they no longer have the identification of their careers,” Bauer-Maglin says.
Sarah Lawrence Dean of Studies Emerita Marilyn Ogus Katz ’54 and former Trustee Ione (Georgie) Gatch ’57 contributed an essay to the book. “Discovering What Matters: A Focus Group on Retirement” is the result of a series of meetings between Katz, Gatch and a few of their friends. “It was like a seminar at Sarah Lawrence,” Katz quips. “We talked, and through the talking we isolated important issues about retirement and started to come to terms with those issues in our own lives.”
Upon retirement, the group members had each found themselves relatively healthy, energetic and in search of new ways to define themselves. Retirement, they discovered, entailed a whole new way of being in the world: There was time to cultivate personal, intellectual and cultural pursuits, deepen relationships with friends and family, and devote themselves to meaningful causes and organizations.
On the other hand, each of the women keenly felt the loss of the structure and community that work provides. “Everyone in the group had planned for retirement, but none of us understood the emotional impact it would have,” Katz says. The group found that developing a diverse community of colleagues outside of their social circles gave them the interaction they missed. Katz, a writer, joined an all-ages writing group, and Gatch got involved with political work.
The Reunion audience was open and eager to discuss the issues presented by Bauer-Maglin and Katz—and the latter was not surprised by its receptivity. “It’s not news to Sarah Lawrence people that you evolve and grow, no matter what stage of life you’re in,” she says. So go ahead and let them ask that dinner party question. “I tell people that I’m retired—then I list the projects I’m working on,” says Gatch. “Like many people, I used to fight the word ‘retirement.’ But now I think, hey, this is pretty neat.”