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What Surprises Boomer Women Professionals When They Retire

Authors Karen Wagner & Erica Baird

We are women on the leading edge of the wave of boomers who have worked for decades and are now starting to retire. We knew, way back in our brains, that one day we would retire. As the date got closer, the reality began to take hold.

Our offices and assistants were reassigned, our successors were named. We knew that the loss of our work — and ready-made conversation and colleagues, deadlines and commitments — would create a void. We understood that our time would be largely our own and that we would need to figure out what to do with it. What we did not understand until after we retired was that the end of our careers meant that we would lose part of our identities too.

Over the course of decades, we forged strong identities and personal brands. Thanks largely to the women’s movement, we were thrilled to get real jobs — albeit in a man’s world. At that time, there was a widespread assumption that women would not be around for the long haul, that work was a stopgap between school and raising a family. Ladies rooms were up the stairs and down the hall. The uniform was an adaptation of male garb, effectively disguising the female shape — a gray or navy suit, black or brown shoes, a white Brooks Brothers shirt (maybe with floppy bow tie) and an old-fashioned briefcase.

Do great work, keep your head down and keep your mouth closed, was the unstated rule. And don’t assert yourself or make waves.

Needless to say, we didn’t have a lot of breathing room to form our own identities.

As we became more confident, however, we recognized that fading into the woodwork didn’t suit us. We wanted to be seen for who we were.

The Evolution of Boomer Professional Women at Work

We came out as women. We strategized about how to be seen — and heard. We wore colors, dresses, leather and high heels. We spoke up and sometimes got credit for our thoughts. We asked, and sometimes argued, for promotions. We brought female traits — like collaboration and humor and celebration —to the workplace.

As the years passed, career women were no longer oddities. We became integral, highly visible participants in the working world, with our own identities and value propositions.

Then we started to retire.

Shaky Ground Soon After Retirement

At first, we celebrated long careers that had come to their logical ends. After six months or so, however, the ground began to feel shaky.

It didn’t seem right to identify ourselves by employers and titles we no longer had. It didn’t feel comfortable to characterize ourselves by past accomplishments. And our shoulders really slumped when we had to say: “I am retired” when asked “What do you do?”

We seemed, once again, to be fading into the woodwork.

Inexplicably, we were being seen as women whose business with the world was done, who wanted just to take it easy and smell the roses.

What Happened to Our Confident Career Woman Identity?

Our confident career woman identity — the one we had just a few short months before — seemed to have become invisible to everyone, including ourselves.

We started to internalize how others saw us, and that started a vicious cycle.

We were not able to articulate our value without our work, and we didn’t have any work. If we couldn’t see our worth, why should anyone else?

No Role Models for These Women

Many of us are having the same experience — feelings of loss of value and identity tied to retirement. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising. We are the first wave of a tsunami; the first large group of career women who are retiring. Because of that, there are no role models for us, no career women who retired before us and forged post-career identities.

Media and society haven’t caught up either. There are few images of retired women who remain vibrant and engaged with the world. Older women are typically portrayed as pulling back: chillaxing, meeting with financial planners or excited about medical devices that defer the inevitable — a slip, a fall and a helpless end. No work or purpose in those pictures, just a fading away.

We know in our hearts that’s not us, but those images can make you wonder if they are the reason we are invisible.

We’re grappling with outdated notions and attitudes as we address the question of who we want to be now. It will take some effort before we find our path and become comfortable with new identities.

What’s Exciting: Forging a New Vision

But we also know that we are once again forging a new vision of what the decades of retirement can look like for women like us.

And that’s exciting.

For starters, we are not alone. There are lots of us all in the same boat. Remember how we achieved great things when we came together in the women’s movement? We can continue to achieve great things if we come together again to confront a new set of antiquated attitudes about older women and retirement.

Even better, this time we don’t have to start from scratch.

Fashioning Who We Are Now

Because we worked for decades, we have experience and resources that form a sturdy platform for fashioning who we are now.

Boomer women know how to do this. We changed the working world. Now we can change post-career life and create modern images of retirement for modern retirees.

Just as we were role models for the young women who followed us into the workplace, we will be the role models for future generations as they reach retirement and embark on their next chapters. The possibilities for us, and our next decades, are endless.