“We didn’t like the word retirement,” Helen Dennis told an audience at the Santa Monica Library. “So we came up with renewment instead.”
Dennis was the first speaker in a new four-part informational series at the Main Library called “The Living Room.” A national leader on issues of aging, employment, and retirement, Dennis co-authored the 2008 book Project Renewment: The First Retirement Model for Career Women, which has generated discussion groups for women “in transition” from their careers.
Dennis outlined several trends among mature adults, including: an increase in life expectancy; fewer adults retiring; more people living as “the working retired”; retirement being both encouraged (to allow younger folks to move into the work force) and discouraged (because of a lack of experienced workers in some fields); and increased expectations even later in life.
Historically, she went on, women did not have to consider retirement because women did not work, at least not in the workplace. Women in agricultural societies worked very hard at survival tasks and worked for as long as they were needed. The Industrial Revolution sent many women into the work force but women who married (usually at about age 20) stayed at home raising the children.
Fifty years ago, women either did not work or worked only before marriage and only at certain kinds of jobs. The turnaround came with Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique in 1962, followed by the feminist movement, which sent an entire generation of women into the workforce and into careers hitherto undreamed of.
“This is the first time in our history that so many career women are retiring,” said Dennis. “We are the first generation of women to define ourselves by our work.”
So what if women have problems adjusting to “retirement”? Or what if they don’t want to actually quit working or cannot afford to quit?
For these reasons, Dennis and her writing partner Bernice Bratter came up with Project Renewment. An initial discussion between the two women about 10 years ago led to a dinner party to which they invited several other women on the verge of retirement. The discussions that occurred at this dinner gave Dennis and Bratter the idea of starting regular discussion groups. Today there are 22 Project Renewment groups around the country.
Discussion topics include: “Who Am I Without My Business Card?” “What is Productivity Anyway?” and “How Do You Know When to Retire?” The latter question was thrown out to the “Living Room” audience and several women gave their thoughts.
One woman said she knew she had to leave her job when a younger supervisor made the job unpleasant for her. Another woman said she could not retire because she was still raising a child.
Dennis noted that Project Retirement is not a “support group” or therapy. It is “grass-roots” and has no Board of Directors. Its mission statement sums it up: “[It] provides a forum for women 55 and over to use their strategic thinking, creativity, and vision to forge new direction for the future.”
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