How Do You Think and Feel About Age?

A number of people have asked me in the last few weeks and months when I’m going to retire. While I think that might not be a totally appropriate question, I understand why they ask. I have gray hair (which I have earned), I use a rollator to manage my vertigo, and I’ve been public about the fact I pick and choose my travels because of my vertigo.

What I find surprising is that these people think my brain has an expiration date.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: I’m hitting my stride daily. (Not just in my steps (hehe), but in my thinking, consulting, and choice-making.) I’m getting better every day. No, not in my vertigo, but that’s not the issue. In my professional life, I’m able to link things together, to explain better, to be more effective as a consultant, writer, and speaker.

That’s why I find this question so interesting: when will you retire? In my never humble opinion, people ask this question for many reasons. I suspect the meta-thinking behind this question is how does the person think and feel about age?

Early in my career, I was the only woman in the room, especially when those rooms had managers in them. As a manager, I was most often the youngest person in the room. Now, as I work more often with senior management teams, I might not be the only technical woman in the room. I am, however, often the oldest!

I encountered this old-age thinking a number of years ago when I was just over 50. I was on an international trip, consulting about agile hiring and agile approaches to the project portfolio. My client—a lovely young man in his late 30s—said, “No one over 40 really understands agile.”

I smiled and asked, “How old do you think I am?”

He had that deer in the headlight look. He said, “39?”

I laughed and explained about the Jack Benny joke. He hadn’t heard of it because he was too young! (For more fun, see Turning 39: The Supercut.)

We don’t just think about age differently as we achieve more birthdays. We feel differently, too.

Back in my 20s, I thought I would hit the magic age of 40 and be able to say anything to anyone. Well, I started that frankness—including trying not to offend too badly—back in my 20s. I haven’t stopped.

When I turned 50, I felt a bit adrift. I think I had a brief midlife crisis—because it really was my midlife or just past. I realized that I had more years behind me than ahead of me. I became more comfortable with that idea.

I’m not planning on retiring. Certainly, not from life! I continue to choose again: what do I want to offer for my products and services? How do I want to deliver those products and services? How much do I want to travel? How much do I want to consult, coach, speak, write, and how? What fits for me—for my profession, for all of my life?

I continue to think, “forward.” Too often, retirement means, “back.” Backwards-thinking doesn’t work for me. I hope you also think “forward.”

That is the question this week: How do you think and feel about age?

14 thoughts on “How Do You Think and Feel About Age?

  1. Jim Grey

    I had the 12th anniversary of my 39th birthday over the summer. Just five years ago I couldn’t imagine ever retiring. Now…I can. Not that I’m eager to do it. I happen to love what I do. But I can start to feel myself wanting to have a slower life pace, and to rent or even give my time to other things that I want to explore. So I want to retire only in the sense that I want to have the financial freedom to do things that are less lucrative, perhaps far less so, than what I do now.

    1. Gil Broza

      I was formulating a response and then realized Jim said what I wanted to say :) so here is an addition.

      For many people retirement brings about a freedom of time and obligations. Johanna, I suppose you already feel complete freedom in terms of your time and obligations (which you approach from a place of responsibility, not as mandates from others). So the question, I guess, is what would you retire from? And if/once you do, will that be worth it?

      1. johanna Post author

        Gil, I like that idea of freedom of time and freedom from obligation. I bet that’s true for many other people. You’re right, I already feel those freedoms!

        That’s why I can’t imagine “retirement.” I still want something to go to, not something to go from. I might leave some part of my current life behind, and it’s because I have something to look forward to. I would have to make that something worth it. (My fiction is totally worth it, because it challenges my writing chops in a different way from non-fiction.)

    2. johanna Post author

      I actually have a terrific role model for this: my father. He went from full-time to 3/4 time when he turned 65. He interpreted that as: work full time for 40 weeks a year and take 12 weeks to play bridge. (If you’re a duplicate bridge player, this makes sense.) I think he retired from professional work at 70 or so. He then did some contracting/consulting and played a lot more bridge. I think they slowed down the bridge travel once they hit their 80s. At almost 90, he now only plays bridge locally. He also is the editor of the quarterly newsletter for the place he lives, and is starting to sing in various choruses.

      Jim, I wonder if a “slower pace” really means a “sustainable life.” (It might not for you. It does for me.) I need a mix of “work.” That’s why I’m (slowly) building my fiction chops, so I can write more fiction once I slow down on non-fiction.

      1. Jim Grey

        I’m living the sandwich of children transitioning into adulthood and parents transitioning to the ends of their lives. My wife and I have seven children between us aged 17 to 33, and three surviving parents and so this takes a lot of our time and energy. It is enormously challenging at times to balance full-time work with it.

        It has not given me much time to think about how we achieve a life we’d like to have. My wife and I are both mission-oriented; we want to be doing things that are meaningful to us and make the world better. We both have solidly marketable skills. Is there a way for us to get to the place where one or both of us trade them part-time for pay, or become consultants, so that we can add the other things we’d like to do?

        The pastor at my church does that. It’s an inner city church with no money, not really. He is a CPA with 25 years of government experience, and he goes around doing financial turnarounds of struggling government agencies, probably 2-3 jobs a year for 6-12 weeks each. It’s enough to pay his bills and let him be the pastor the rest of the year.

        1. johanna Post author

          Jim, there’s a reason we’re called the “sandwich” generation.

          Your pastor’s example is fascinating to me. Gil has a partial answer: I don’t see how to build a consulting business that thrives unless I spend pretty close to full time doing it. You can become a contractor and decide how many hours to work in a given week. You do need to charge enough money that you can buy the various insurances and pay yourself for your eventual retirement.

          However, you are a writer. You can make money with writing. No, one book doesn’t do it. But, write enough books, and they create a system that feeds itself over time. Well, with a little marketing from you. I gotta get that book writing workshop done.

      2. Gil Broza

        Another thought about “slowing down”. Both you and I, in our separate businesses, spend dozens of hours a week providing services, maintaining our practice, advancing our knowledge, marketing our businesses, etc. We love doing those things, and we don’t think of them as a “job”, but they have to happen. These activities form part of a system, and below a certain threshold of labour, they are not tenable. For instance, if I wanted to work only 4 hours a week, or only 4 weeks a year, I’d become irrelevant and thus couldn’t stay in business. The same goes for the not-self-employed. I suppose one sense of “retirement” — when we already have freedom of time and freedom from obligation — is the decision to not put in the minimum effort to keep the business going.

        1. johanna Post author

          As I slowly work through the consulting book, I wonder how minimum that is. I think it’s more than I ever expected.

          1. Gil Broza

            That minimum is so high, that if didn’t love our work and didn’t feel so strongly about its purpose, we wouldn’t put those hours in.

  2. Christina York

    Johanna I think the reason many people ask about retirement is because they are asking themselves the same thing. I know my colleagues and I have these discussions as we are all making short- and long-term plans for our professional lives. But for us in the working-for-other-people world it means something different; it means moving from following someone else’s schedule/rules/requirements to embracing our own.
    As for age… for me it’s only a number on a calendar. Most people think I am a decade (or more) younger than I actually am. It comes not just from the lack of gray hair (nothing I did, thank good genes, not chemicals) but from attitude, and I suspect the same goes for you. We may be the oldest in the room-I think I was in that room in Vegas!-and I am proud to claim all 70 years, but our hearts and minds and attitudes are much younger.
    I truly believe mental and emotional agility mean more than anything else in determining our “real” age as opposed to the number on the calendar.

    1. johanna Post author

      Chris, I think you’re right about people asking (you and me!) because they are thinking themselves. “If Chris/Johanna is still working, does that mean I can/should, etc?”

      Yes, you and I both have the growth mindset, which is critical for our long-term success and satisfaction. For me, that growth mindset (as in Dweck’s book) helps me realize I need to exercise my mental and emotional agility.

  3. Phil

    Thanks Johanna quite thought provoking. Had a conversation this week with a friend on this topic. He’s looking for things do learn that will carry him over into retirement. So planning what roles he might take to learn those things. He asked me what I thought and my view was there was no such thing as retirement if you do what you want to do. You just keep doing that until you want to do something else.

    At least here in Australia, the idea of retirement is more a government mandated life stage gate prior to which you can’t access a pension or your superannuation. So get hopefully that financial freedom.

    I think if you have a learning mindset, are flexible, have the capacity to do things and want to then retirement is not an option!

    1. johanna Post author

      Phil, yes, in the US, you can’t easily access retirement funds until you are a certain age (or you’re disabled). Yes, you and Chris both noted the learning mindset/growth mindset. I’m with you.

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