I had phone conversations this past week with two middle-aged (50-ish) divorced professional women that had eerily similar undertones having to do with a critical life inflection point.

These were two talented women who were facing similar challenges in re-entering the job market after an unexpected change in their professional employment status.

It wasn’t surprising to hear their rants about the rampant ageism, the age-biased corporate job application process, the HR-black hole that applicants in this age-range disappear into.

What did surprise me was a very powerful underlying fear both expressed as we went deeper into our conversation.

Both were terrified of the number “65”

Adding to their anxiety of trying to re-enter the job market was a deep-seated concern that they were seriously behind on being able to retire at the expected retirement age.

Yes, for both, the number that underscored their fear was “65”.

For both, the prospect of only having 15 years or so to get “where they were supposed to be financially at 65”not only terrifies them but seems to be driving some employment decisions that were clearly outside of what, deep down inside themselves, they really wanted to be doing.

They are making employment decisions based on a “need” to be able to retire instead of an employment decision based on what they truly “want” to do.

The number 65 is robbing them of their “essential self.”

They both are the rule, not the exception.

It reminded me once again of the power of cultural expectations.  Both of these talented ladies were demonstrating a fear of the cultural-imposed stigma of not being able to “retire on time and in good shape” and were turning their back on their dreams.

It remains a “badge of honor” in our culture to retire on or before 65.  To not do so says “failure” or, at a minimum, to cast one as an “unfortunate.”  Take my word for it.  I know I’m viewed this way by those who inquire of my status and find that, at 76, I’m not retired.  I encounter few who subscribe to my outlier position of never intending to retire.

For both ladies, a key criterion for their next employment was a good 401K.  I didn’t have the heart to suggest that to try to recover and build enough retirement savings in fifteen years to support another 15-30 years of “retired life” is, well – impossible.

With both ladies, I posed the coaching question:  “If we were to take away time and money as a factor, what would you be doing?”

Both expressed something radically different from the employment they were pursuing.

One said she would be running a “doggie daycare”, a dream she has been carrying since childhood.  She is deeply passionate about animals and only partially satisfies that passion by having two dogs.

The other said she would like to coach people on finding their true potential but struggles with what it takes to start a coaching practice part-time that would eventually support her.

Both are tabling things that excite them to try to fit the cultural mold of retirement at 65.

Thinking about their thinking.

I asked both to think about what was so sacred about retirement at 65.  Neither had a really good answer other than one that dripped of unwritten cultural expectations.

I reminded them that 65 is an invalid, artificial finish line established 83 years ago for political reasons and at a time when the average lifespan was 63.  It was never meant to provide for a lengthy “life of leisure and bliss” as it’s marketed today.

When I injected the notion that retirement is an unnatural act and, for most, the beginning of phasing out and moving toward societal irrelevance, the tone of the conversation changed a bit.  That a productive life beyond 65 is not only possible but potentially the most productive and fulfilling time of life was a concept they instinctively found difficult to get their brains around.

For them to envision a re-launch or re-acceleration of life at 65 or thereabouts was laden with dissonance – as it is for most at this point in life.

Did our conversation “rock their world?”  Will there be a fruitful shift in attitude and perspective?  I can’t say.  I just know that, for the animal-lover, the idea of removing 65 as a cultural guidepost seemed to take pressure off.  The idea of not having to ever retire seemed to re-open some new possibility thinking – more of an open-mindedness to the remainder of her life as opposed to one restricted by cultural timelines and the expectations of others.

The childhood dream very suddenly re-emerged and she literally transformed on the phone – her voice changing from one coming from fear and concern to one of excitement and passion.  She reached back to childhood conversations she had with her father, who supported and encouraged her dreams but was sadly taken from her life early by a fatal heart attack.

Her story is like many – she suppressed the childhood dream to pursue a more “sensible” livelihood.  It served her well – until it didn’t.  Fifty, divorced, a single mom with a teen, sudden unemployment followed by severe under-employment, fear of not “measuring up” on several fronts.  All a toxic brew crawling with ANTs – Automatic Negative Thoughts.

Both/And, not Either/Or

I hope this talented lady will understand that, with the removal of a culturally dictated timeline, that she needn’t give up on her childhood dream which likely is an expression of an unacknowledged or suppressed “essential self” or “unique ability.”

The reality of her circumstances requires that she stay outside her essential self some of the time to meet her obligations as a provider.  To think of it as “either-or” will only increase frustration.  “Both-and” works for lots of people.  She needn’t give up on her dream but rather may find a way to cultivate it, perhaps as a side-hustle, while succeeding as a provider.

Regardless of the road traveled, I believe she can now move forward without the stigma of thinking she “has to” retire or that “65” holds any significant relevance.  I believe she is beginning to see how this thinking is robbing her of an opportunity to re-open her dreams, passions, and creativity.

I’d bet you know someone like this – or perhaps you look at one every morning in the mirror.  I can tell you, from my own personal journey, to crawl out of the thick shell of cultural expectations, to shed the barnacles of sailing in someone else’s seas is tough.

I’ve found Martha Beck, author of “Finding Your North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live” to be a great source of inspirational reminders when I beat myself up with the frustrations of pursuing my essential self.  Here’s one of those gems I hit this morning in my re-reading of the book:

“When you’re doing what you’re meant to do, you benefit the world in a unique and irreplaceable way.  This brings money, friendship, true love, inner peace, and everything else worth living; it sounds facile, but it’s really true.”

Do you have a story about finding your “essential self” or “unique ability?” Scroll down and tell us about it.

About the Author

Gary Allen Foster is an executive recruiter, retirement and career transition coach, writer, and speaker. He is an over-70 portfolio-career guy and audacious ager dedicated to helping folks in the over-50 crowd adopt a new perspective on how to live longer, live better and with more purpose in the second half. He coaches, speaks and writes publicly on the issues of mid-life career transitions, planning for purposeful retirement and achieving better health and greater longevity.

Find his thought-provoking articles and get a copy of his free ebook entitled “Realize Your Full-life Potential: Five Easy Steps to Living Longer, Healthier, and With More Purpose” at www.makeagingwork.com

Gary Allen Foster
Executive Recruiter/Retirement and Career Coach
Highlands Ranch, CO 80129
720-344-7784 (O)
720-810-1300 (C)