I am writing this during the first week of my retirement from an academic career. At age 63, I take solace in the fact that I am not alone. The retirement of the prime baby boom cohorts is in full swing and boomers are negotiating their first days of retirement. Retirement at age 61 is average in Canada, two years less than the average in my province of residence, Alberta. Baby boomers were born into a new world in many ways, not least because retirement became an expected component of working life in the post-Second World War era. Canada’s Old Age Security pension was inaugurated in 1952, thus boomers are the first Canadian generation to have lived with the prospect of retirement as an expected life phase – a prospect that finally started to materialize for them in the 2010s.
With minor exceptions, mandatory retirement came to an end in Canada in 2012. Though it may still be justified if it is based on a bona fide occupational requirement (such as public safety), for university faculty members across Canada, retirement is now voluntary. Professors don’t have to retire and many delay doing so. Indeed, according to some estimates, about a third of Canadian university faculty members are likely to work beyond the traditional retirement age of 65.
Many faculty members cannot imagine doing anything else with their lives that would be remotely as satisfying. A colleague once told me, “I know of no other job that would pay me as well to do something I like so much. Why would I retire if don’t have to?” We all know colleagues who plan to leave the university “on a slab.” Some have a lot of debt, savings greatly diminished by divorce, or pensions that have not had a chance to grow due to a late career start.
Voluntary retirement may be prompted by impending health challenges and the potential for progressive incapacitation. In other cases, professors simply want to walk away from academia and set aside all vestiges of their professional lives. But for many faculty members, a comparatively early retirement offers the potential to experiment, to see what might materialize once they are footloose, free of teaching constraints and ready to take a chance. This is the opportunity for a “third career” trying something quite different, with the safety net of a pension to manage the risk.
The prospect of a third career is wrapped up with the arrival of the “third age,” the 25-year period from ages 50 to 75, a time of life characterized by relatively good health, financial stability, a gradual reduction in workplace and family obligations, and for most, a cathartic realization that the race is over. At some point in this period most academics opt to retire, an event marked by some form of retirement celebration as a rite-of-passage, authenticating the change in status.
How should third-agers deploy their remaining vitality once free of the demands of their occupation? What creates meaning once familiar signposts are removed? There is an incredible variety of responses to this question, and some are perceived as more successful than others. Once the second-age career is complete, success at retirement becomes just as important as success on the job ever was. Retirement is a fresh start and new opportunity to create meaning, make a contribution and experience satisfaction.
For many faculty members, retirement is about freedom from the social expectations of our workplace and of our community. The meaning of life is no longer defined by one more enthused student, one more positive review, one more successful grant application, one more colleague pleased by a committee decision, or one more pat on the back. Many in the professoriate are searching for new goals in life and new measures of achievement.
But for some of the newly retired, the uncertainties brought on by this “freedom” can be stressful – just as stressful as looking ahead to the first day of classes of yet another semester. So, now that I have taken the plunge, what is to become of me? In spite of loving my job (and I truly did), I have to confess to daydreaming about all kinds of alternative occupations in my third career. These are unlikely to be as remunerative as the compensation typically provided to a senior university professor, but the size of one’s per diem is no longer a measure of career success in the third age, privileged as it is with pension earnings among other potential sources of retirement income.
Ian MacLachlan retired in December 2015 after 30 years as a geography professor, primarily at the University of Lethbridge.