Answering my own question by
(43 Stories)

Prompted By Retirement

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

It took a couple years to get used to this retirement business. But now it’s music to my ears. (Photo by Andreas/Pixabay)

I was talking last year with my 40-year-old son David, and he told me how he loves his career as a sales rep for a huge medical supply firm, but that he’s working hard to retire at 55. Maybe even sooner.

Retiring to do what you want to do ... or are you already doing it by working?

He will probably make it, because he is so successful, but he was talking to a dad who had just retired (a second time) at age 74. So I asked him, “And then, do what?”

“Then I do what I want to do and enjoy life, Dad,” he responded.

“But I thought you were already doing that,” I said.

“Hmmm,” said he.

The long pause

That was followed by a long pause, as he thought about that question. A year later, I guess he’s still thinking. I’m still waiting for his answer.

To me, that’s a good thing. When to retire, and why you even want to  are questions worth a lot of pondering before you actually pull the career plug. Because if you do it as early as my son wants to, you may have four decades left to fill with something as meaningful as work can be.

Otherwise that’s a long time to watch the grass grow.

The career tree

I’ve had a trifurcated career in which all three branches have complemented each other. There were the ten years as a full-time journalist, followed by forty years as a college professor, and mixed into those four decades I authored seventeen books. I loved my career, and am still pruning the third branch of that tree as I work on a history of my Oklahoma hometown.

It took two swings at the bat to actually slide into retirement from my California university. I swung the first time in 2017, but the ball fell short of the cheap seats. I was back at work in 2018, happily so, until I found my workplace to be a different world even though I’d only been gone a year.

“We’re so glad to have you back,” was something I heard several times during my first few weeks. “Your experience and institutional knowledge will be invaluable to us and your young colleagues.”

Oh really?

During faculty meetings, however, that sentiment seemed to translate as follows: My young colleagues would ask what I thought about proposed changes to my discipline’s curriculum. They then tried valiantly to appear interested in my opinions. Then, when the voting came, they ignored them altogether in one invisible, collective yawn.

(Photo by Norbert Pietsch/Pixabay)

It was obvious my young friends were intent on doing what they wanted in order to show they were leading the department into a better future. So much for my experience.

I probably did the same thing as a 30-something assistant professor in Boston, so I get it.  Karma gets its revenge.

But it was enough to make me take the second swing at retirement in 2020. This time, I hit the ball out of the park. I was ready for the next game of life.

Now it’s 2023, and I still miss teaching college kids. I miss seeing the excitement and passion of young minds. There were always enough of them to outweigh the others in my classroom who would rather be in Philadelphia.


I’ve missed it so much that I’ve tried to reinsert myself back into the academy’s carousel a few times since 2020. I came close to being hired a couple times, but my age always kept the brass ring just out of reach. The professor emeritus title bestowed on me at retirement — the thing I was proud of (and still am) — became an apparent turnoff to younger faculties looking for younger candidates.

I can still recall a former dean telling me, when I tried to hire a 64-year-old talented journalist for the department, “Well, I think we’d rather have someone more at the start of their career than at the end of it. And, by the way, that’s cheaper, too.”

(Photo by Gabriel Guillen/Pixabay)

So I’ve realized that if schools wince over someone who is 64, what chance does a guy in his mid-70s have? And, in truth, that realization has liberated me to focus more on my work itself than worrying about my marketability.

Working it out

I’ve been officially retired for three years now, and I think I’ve gotten the hang of it. I’m learning that the relevance I was so worried about is achievable by doing the work I love, and doing it on my own schedule. And I don’t have to worry about:

  1. Academic meetings that go nowhere and take hours getting there.
  2. Cell phones in the classroom that waste my time, the students’ time, and the money their parents paid to put them in the classroom.
  3. Artificial intelligence programs writing the kids’ papers and tricking out monitoring systems like

Who’s not busy?

I can be as busy or as lazy as I want, and I’ve found both of those to be complementary.

I read and write a lot. I love writing for Retrospect, and I’ve just finished one 350-page memoir of a crucible period in my life, and begun work on the next book I’m calling Tinkertown. I play my guitars daily and, since retirement, have recorded some 25 songs and uploaded them in videos to YouTube. And three years ago I started selling guitars downtown and have the only guitar shop in town.

When my self-directed career gets too busy, I put on my bathing suit (or not at night) and do laps in my backyard pool.  I love spending glorious hangout time with my wife Anne who knows how to make me laugh. A lot.  Or I just wrestle with my three dogs. (Oops…Anne tells me No. 4 will be here tomorrow.)

And, recently, I’ve even given myself permission to take naps.

About that talk

So now, after writing all this about retirement, I think I’ll go have another talk with my son. If he hasn’t come up with a good response to that retirement question I asked last year, maybe I can help him answer it now.

Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."

Characterizations: funny, moving, well written


  1. Thanx for this wonderful look at your own retirement(s) Jim!

    Now Retro – and the Retro Admin Team – is so lucky to have you!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Bravo, Jim, for finding so many careers (interests?) in retirement. Like you, I knew it was time to hang it up when I agreed to join the board of my preschool after I had retired as director. I encountered the same thing from the young folks who now dominated the board. Maybe they wanted my “wisdom and experience,” but they often blew me off when the vote came. After a year, I left, which was a wise decision.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Excellent and revealing summary of the wisdom of when to (and NOT to) retire for you and your son. Yes, ageism is a thing and yes, one must find interesting ways to stay occupied once you have free time on your hands. You have to stay/feel productive. But it seems you’ve worked that out for yourself, and we, your fellow Retrospect writers, are the better for that!

  4. Your essay made me feel good about my own career (because in the university where I worked, none of those three issues you identified plagued me), and about my retirement (because I just did it once and it felt good the first time and I haven’t had to rethink). So if you trying to achieve writing-as -affirmation, you are very successful at it! Applause!

  5. Jim: Your comments provided me new oxygen for my own memories.
    I had always spoken at orientation centers to parents and students that they should not only think of their future careers, but also of how to prepare for their retirement.
    I noticed our shelf of published books. I wish I had had read them for a class I had taken in a philosophy course extraterrestrial epistemology by a very out of the box professor named Justin Good. Half the class took the class because they believed in alien life. Class discussions were definitely out of this world.
    I have red about your love for music. I wanted to share the following by the Jewish Czech writer Milan Kundera. (You may already know this.)
    “He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world and make friends.”
    ― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

    Yes, I was an upstart junior faculty member. I was advised that first year faculty did not speak during faculty meetings. My major contributions to the curriculum was a class in historical methodology and a minor in East Asian studies (which was offered in 4 neighboring colleges.) Within a year of my retirement, both were canceled. My college eliminated the teaching of East Asia (which included Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan). Although I received a generous federal grant to establish the teaching of the Korean language, the University turned it down.
    Turing my retirement I published my third book and am working on the fourth.
    Being an emeritus professor has given me more public recognition than being a tenured professor.
    I, too, have finally accepted taking a nap without embarrassment.
    I look forward to your prompts. I plan to add your books to kindle or audible.

  6. pattyv says:

    Reading this, I was utterly stunned by all your diversity of passion and creativity. Your obvious affection for work probably comes from all this. Sounds like you inhabit a non-stop lust for learning, along with a deep-rooted devotion to the arts. I think your return to school was more about missing the students. I know I do. Every public school in the country needs teachers right now. I don’t know if we’re out of the woods with the COVID right now but I’m considering returning as a sub because I really miss them.
    In whatever your future holds Jim, you undoubtedly have so much more to give, especially to the next generation of American leaders. Hope they find you ❤️.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Wow, Patty. You made me blush! Thank you, and you’re right about returning for the students. Their passion and idealism is contagious,indeed. I’ve discovered it can be found in the arts, however, whether as a practioner or patron.

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    A wonderful reflective piece. Retirement seems to be a process lots of times–it is for me. It is a change in perspective to be cast to the side but, as you discovered, it doesn’t mean you can’t engage on your own terms, doing things you care about. Retrospect is a nice opportunity to share. Also, I’m just writing this after taking a nap.

Leave a Reply