“It was a hard slap to the psyche.”
That’s the way Margo Withy describes how it felt to be forced into retirement in 2017 at age 69. A single public relations professional from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, Margo had been her own boss for decades and she intended to work until she was 70. Then a longtime (24 years!) client abruptly announced—via email, no less—that they were “going in a different direction” and her services were no longer needed.
“Although there’d been no written contract for years, I felt they were taking away my power to decide when to end the relationship and, with it, my business,” she relates. “They’d always told me I was like family but boy, if this is how you treat family…”
Margo had already begun downshifting into semi-retirement about five years before her “dismissal.” She no longer actively pursued additional clients, instead relying on the retainer from her longtime client, which was a six-months-a-year gig that involved promoting consumer shows throughout the Midwest.
“I had a secondary source of income from a modest inheritance and knew that Social Security wasn’t too far down the road, so I just took the other six months off,” she relates. “It was delightful.”
Then she was blindsided by the client letting her go. Although the timing of their unceremonious announcement was only a year earlier than she’d planned to retire, being forced out really stung emotionally.
“I was angry, hurt, embarrassed, sad, confused and scared,” she admits. “I felt like I’d been fired, and I’d never been fired before. Who was I? What was I going to do? Who cared?
“I went through every stage of the grieving process,” she continues. “The sense of betrayal by that one remaining client stayed with me for a long time and it took me a while to stop talking about it. I had been a part of their family for so long, it felt as though I was going through a divorce. It was best to no longer be ‘married’ to them, but a part of me still loved and missed them.”
She began to realize, however, that her forced retirement had its upside.
“I had come to dislike the industry I had been part of for so long and I was really tired of it all,” she says. “The prima donnas in the media irritated me. I resented proofing ads at 5:30 in the morning or show programs at 11:00 at night, just so deadlines could be met. Putting my clients’ needs first, while my own personal needs took a seat in the trunk, made me angry. It really was time to call it quits.
“They let me go in April, so I knew I could get out in my garden soon and get my hands dirty, and not think about my situation all the time,” she recalls. “And when fall approached—when I would normally start up my work again—I felt a great sense of peace. The stress that was the norm at that time of year suddenly wasn’t there any longer. I was free! I didn’t know what to do with myself, but I was free!”
Margo recalls that a friend of hers—a former news anchor who’d lost her job due to her age—was helpful at this time.
“She suggested I simply relax, rejuvenate, and then look into reinventing myself,” she says. “It was good advice, but beyond the relaxing and rejuvenation, I had no desire to reinvent myself at age 69, at least not professionally. I didn’t have the strength or desire to get out there and sell myself again.
“The first year of retirement, I spent my time reading, thinking, trying out old hobbies to see if I still enjoyed them,” she continues, noting that piano-playing was a yes, but cross-stitch, not so much. “I worked on my writing—I’ve always kept a journal. I took lots of long walks, which the dog loved. I did some volunteer work, but haven’t yet found anything that excites me, makes me feel needed or just useful.” Her search for other volunteer opportunities has been put on hold by the pandemic, but she’s joined some Facebook groups to connect with likeminded others who share her interests in gardening, Springer spaniels and local St. Paul history (her family has deep roots there).
She also has spent a good deal of time providing moral support to her younger sister as she navigates her cancer journey. And she’s happy to be the resident mail-picker-upper when neighbors are out of town.
It took Margo a good two years to “settle in” and come to terms with no longer having a career. “I’d rather be remembered as a good person, a good friend, a good sister, or that crazy, somewhat eccentric old aunt than an accomplished public relations professional,” she says.
“I’ve come to accept that I can just be me and there’s nothing wrong with that,” she continues. And she’s learned that it’s fine to just be.
“Sitting on my front porch with a good book, admiring the woodland garden I’ve been working on for more than ten years, watching the pesky squirrels and the vast array of birds at my feeders—that is my nirvana,” she says. “There is no need for a title to describe me, but ‘retired’ works. I’ll take it.”
What’s her advice for other women who find themselves forced into retirement?
“My heart goes out to anyone in this position,” Margo says. “It may take a while to get over the hump initially, but it’s important to learn to reframe things, to make yourself feel good about what you do have, what you can do.
“If you’re not sure just what you want to do—like me—then you will suddenly find that there’s ample time to explore new ideas,” she continues. “It’s liberating. And fun.
“Embrace retirement,” she adds. “Don’t be frightened by it. It is a time to enjoy the smallest pleasures of life. Let’s face it, you’ve undoubtedly earned it.”
What do you think? Have you (or has someone you know) been forced to retire before you were ready? How did it feel and how did you handle it? Please share.
In Part 2 of “When retirement isn’t your choice,” which will post on October 1, we’ll have some professional advice from a psychotherapist/retirement coach on how to cope if you’re forced into retirement. Stay tuned!