Monday, July 7, 2014

Retirement of a Scientist: When Should I Retire?

We are talking about retirement in this series of posts. Once your contemporaries begin retiring, you will begin wondering if it's time for you too to put down the pipette and hang up the lab coat (or whatever the equivalent is in your specialty). In the last post, I covered how to determine if you are ready to stop working. In this post, let's explore the factors that determine when you should retire.

Deciding exactly when to retire is partly dependent on one's finances, as discussed in a previous post. Other factors include age, health, job satisfaction, and the spouse's situation and preferences.

Will I Be Forced To Retire?

In the past, people over the age of 65 were thought to have embarked on an inevitable decline in mental and physical faculties, a belief that underpinned the widespread implementation of mandatory retirement. It provided an easy way for an employer to replace aging employees with younger staff to ostensibly maintain overall productivity. Mandatory retirement was later challenged in several countries (e.g., as age discrimination in the U.S.) because it was not based on a person's actual performance but on some arbitrary chronology that did not necessarily apply to everyone. Scientists in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia no longer have a mandatory retirement age and can work as long as they are able. Other countries may have different rules.

Even with mandatory retirement, one can continue to work. A famous example is Grace Hopper, a computer scientist, who made important contributions to computer programming (she's credited with coining the term "debugging"to describe finding and fixing computer glitches). She was retired at age 65 by the UNIVAC division of Sperry-Rand Corp. (now Unisys). She then went to work for the U.S. Navy's Naval Data Automation Command and achieved the rank of rear admiral. Fifteen years later at age 79, she involuntarily retired from that post (she was able to remain on active duty beyond the mandatory retirement age by special approval from Congress). Hopper almost immediately started a new career as a senior consultant with Digital Equipment Corp. (which has no mandatory retirement) and worked there until her death at age 85.

It's great if you are able to carry on like Grace Hopper and continue to be active and productive into your eighties. But not everyone is able to or wants to.

What's the Best Time To Retire?

Some scientists retire in their fifties or sixties, but others stay on into their seventies and beyond. For me, an important consideration was to retire early enough so that I would be physically and mentally capable of doing what I wanted to do once I stopped working—and there were things I wanted to do before I got too old to do them. Someone who quits at age fifty-five is still young enough to travel, to
learn a new skill, or even to embark on a new career. At seventy-five, a person may be less physically and mentally fit to do volunteer work in Africa, learn to ski, travel the world, or go back to school. Yes, there are individuals who remain energetic and mentally sharp well into their eighties and nineties. But most people don't. Some don't even make it to those ages to find out. Mortality statistics show that even though the death rate in the U.S., for example, has declined over the past 75 years (see graph), average life expectancy is only 78.7 years.

Even if you exceed this average life expectancy, your physical functioning will likely decline. The next graph shows the percentage of the population (of Americans in 2012) exhibiting difficulty with some physical function such as walking, stooping, or carrying. At age 75, about half are having difficulty with some daily task; by age 85, 86% have some type of physical impairment (66% have difficulty walking, for example). You may be lucky and fall in the 15% who are able to perform all daily tasks well after age 85, but it would be wishful thinking to assume you will.

In our calculations, my husband and I figured that we would be in the majority—those who will have difficulty doing one or more daily physical tasks after age 74. We estimated that if we retired in our mid-sixties, we might have another ten good years in which we could still travel easily and do other physically challenging activities. That calculation was quite sobering. Ten years is not a very long time.

A general rule of thumb is that you want to retire before you have to. Knowing when that will be is not easy; if you are no longer productive or are having difficulty with some tasks, then you've probably stayed too long. I began noticing that it took me longer to finish certain tasks and to bounce back from physically-demanding fieldwork. Not enough that others noticed or that would interfere with my job, but I felt it clearly. Many older people discover ways to compensate for minor mental and physical changes, and I certainly used those. However, those gradual changes alerted me to the fact that I was slowing down a bit. Those are just a few signs that someone might watch for if they want to stop working early enough to be able to attempt physically or mentally challenging activities in retirement.

In the end, the decision of when will likely rest on a combination of ability and desire to continue working. Some scientists may feel less and less satisfied with research or teaching and decide it's time to hang up the lab coat. If you are passionate about your research, and it requires access to a laboratory or special equipment, for example, then you may decide to continue working. If your research is mostly computer based, then you might easily continue your work, perhaps part-time, at home—if that is what you want. Many scientists change the focus of their research over a career, and thinking ahead to retirement might be wise in formulating such a change.

Identifying something to do in retirement that is just as interesting and challenging as your former work is not only essential but can help you decide when to retire. I planned to continue some research and publishing for a while in retirement to ease the transition, but also wanted to do something new. During the last six years of working, I consciously gravitated toward visual communication of science (something I was good at and enjoyed) with the idea that this would be readily transferable into retirement. Is there some aspect of your job that you love to do and that you might spend a lot more time doing if given the chance? If you enjoy writing about science, for example, then science blogging or writing a book might provide a good outlet. If you like being outdoors or interacting with people, then volunteering or working part-time as a guide at a park or science museum might be fulfilling. For me, I enjoy writing as well as developing better ways to communicate science. So in addition to blogging, I'm now giving lectures, hosting workshops, and creating video tutorials to help others be more effective science communicators.

Or you may want to develop something totally unrelated to science--woodworking, building model trains, starting a vineyard, gourmet cooking, whatever. Or you may just want to spend your remaining years spoiling your grandchildren or walking on the beach.

However, it's a good idea to try out your plan ahead of time to see if it is sufficiently satisfying. I started blogging and making science videos long before I retired. I spent enough time at it to know that it would be fulfilling in the long run. The same goes for anything else one fantasizes about doing in retirement. Planning to take up wood carving or travel writing? Try it out for a while before retirement. You may see that it is not what you thought…that it is not sufficiently challenging or interesting. On the other hand, it may get you so fired up that you can't wait to retire and focus entirely on your new activity.

What If My Spouse Isn't Ready To Retire?

If you have a spouse who works, things get even more complicated. Couples don't always agree about when to retire. One spouse may be ready to retire at 55, but the other wants to continue working another five to ten years. Among our friends and acquaintances, the difference is less, with one spouse wanting to work only a year or two longer than the other. Having one spouse working while the other is "having fun" puttering around the house or traveling can lead to resentment, however. On the other hand, if the retired spouse takes over the housekeeping and cooking chores, then that may balance the outside work by the employed spouse and reduce friction. An age difference can add to the discrepancy in readiness (or need) to retire—something to consider in financial planning. The older spouse may be forced to retire due to health or other issues long before the younger spouse is ready to quit working.

Fortunately, my husband and I had similar feelings about approximately when to retire, which may have been partly because we were close in age and partly because we had been discussing our options for several years—an ongoing conversation that gradually merged our respective outlooks. I was the first to really express an intention to retire and was prepared to do so whether or not my husband retired at the same time. But I was also willing to compromise and work a couple of years longer if my husband considered retiring at the same time. We decided that it was important to retire together because we both would be free to travel and do other things together. We eventually settled on a date that we both felt comfortable with.

Talking about retirement is not necessarily easy, however, and some couples may avoid it because it may dredge up financial problems (a reason to set up a retirement plan early and stick to it) or marital problems (the prospect of spending 24 hours/7 days a week together may terrify some couples). Some people have strong opinions about their careers and are unwilling to compromise when there is a disagreement about when to retire. One spouse may be so totally committed to research or teaching that they cannot see things from their less enthusiastic spouse's perspective. For us, what worked well was to think about retirement as a joint future together and doing what was best for us as a couple rather than as individuals.

Another concern is whether both of you will have something to do in retirement. If you have a schedule of activities and lots of interests but your spouse has nothing to keep them occupied, there will be conflict. I think it's important to have time to yourself in retirement and is something that needs to be discussed and worked out by retiring couples. My husband and I "work" at home but in separate areas of the house (we often text or email each other to minimize interruptions). We both have our "projects" and separate activities that keep us quite busy on a day to day basis. We then get together in the evening to have dinner, to watch the news, and to talk about our day. This arrangement is very similar to our pre-retirement life, which may be why it works so well for us.

Once you've decided to retire, the next decision is when to announce it….the subject of the next post.

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