It’s possible for academics to continue to work past the traditional retirement age of 65, but they’re going to want to quit at some point, and it’s never too soon to start planning for an active and productive post-retirement life, says Suzanne Cook, a York University professor.
“People used to have this image of retirement that was akin to the Freedom 55 ads, where people are walking on a beach or sitting on a park bench and they’re just so relaxed. But reality has caught up and people are realizing that they might have another couple of decades of life after ‘retirement age,’” she says.
Dr. Cook, an adjunct professor at York in sociology and the faculty of health, has been studying aging and career development for 10 years. It was during this time that she coined the term “redirection” to reflect the new, emerging stage of one’s career that occurs after traditional retirement. The idea, she says, is to change the narrative to acknowledge that the skills acquired during a career can be transferred and applied to new pursuits after people retire.
“Academics are high-achieving, and most have had incredibly successful careers. Some of them have been so busy, and are so invested in their university and academic careers, that they haven’t had time to think about what they might do when they retire. Also, a large part of their identity is wrapped up in being a professor. This makes the transition into retirement extremely difficult.”
She adds that most academics probably don’t realize that they have acquired an arsenal of skills from all of their years of study, because they’ve been so concentrated on their research and academic careers. “I want to create awareness that there is life after academia,” she says.
Dr. Cook stresses that while it’s never too late to think about what you want to do after retirement, it’s also never too early. She recommends that those under 50 should start making a list of activities and things that interest them but just don’t have the time for right now. This means actually pursuing some hobbies or activities outside of academe. “Make time for them before age 50 so it’s not quite the shock when you hit retirement age and you have no idea what you want to do,” she says. This self-discovery is very important because her research demonstrates that exploration is a key step in the redirection process.
For those closer to retirement who don’t yet have a plan, Dr. Cook recommends the same course of action, but on a shorter scale. By mapping out what their interests are, academics are laying a foundation for when retirement does arrive. “You really have to be in tune with those inspirations that strike you. And track them, so that you can map it out when the time is right for you.”
She tells a story of a female professor who approached her because she was unsettled by thoughts of retirement, until Dr. Cook recommended she map out her redirection plans. “She took three years to be ready for this important transition. She retired last June. She redirected from academia into consulting and training with non-profit organizations,” says Dr. Cook.
Dr. Cook has produced a documentary film called Redirection: Movers, Shakers and Shifters, which showcases examples of people – one of whom was an academic – who redirected after retirement. The documentary, along with her research, are all part of the Redirection Project, funded by the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling.
She has also been giving talks at other universities, sharing stories of redirection with academics who are nearing or are close to retirement. She says universities could be offering more supports and services for faculty when it comes to redirection. “It can be really exciting and appealing to be working on your redirection, putting the pieces in place so that you are excited about your retirement. You are retiring to something, rather than retiring from. But faculty can’t do it alone, and I think that universities can do more to help educate them about these possibilities and options”. In fact, she says that having support during the redirection process is critical.
She notes that many academics may not have had to really map out their career in this manner before. “In their past, things may have fallen into place a lot more smoothly and they never had to be planning so much for what comes next, the next challenge.”
Dr. Cook was inspired to start this research after watching her grandparents not let age get in the way of contributing to society. “My grandfather was an incredible role model of healthy aging – he lived until he was 99. I imagine if I live as long as he did, I will probably redirect many times. I’ve been studying redirection for 10 years and I am seeing people do something for five to ten years after they retire, and then they will redirect again.”