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Leaving Early

Catherine Horiuchi

LIKE OTHERS, I TOOK my first part-time job as a teenager and, once working fulltime, stayed at it steadily for decades. Being an adult meant being a worker, affiliated with some firm or another, one industry or another.

My plans for ever exiting the labor force were vague: “Save for the future, so someday you will retire with honor and dignity to spend your waning days as you desire.” I saved steadily, putting me on track for future retirement. The past 15 years at work have been rewarding, challenging, and required every bit of skill and effort I could muster, and I loved my work. As friends and family retired before me, I began wondering if I’d be one of those people who never stop.

But that changed in 2019. I spent most of the year dealing with my husband’s death and a spell of accident-induced temporary disability, before returning to campus last fall. But even before the first day of class, I notified my dean that I was considering early retirement at year’s end—assuming a suitable exit package could be structured.

Due to my injury, my commute by car and train was difficult to manage. I was still grieving for my life’s partner and the future we had anticipated, with little clarity about the alternate future I was now creating on my own. Additional responsibilities as a single parent added to my worries.

Whenever we discussed retirement, my husband—who was retired at the time of his death—encouraged me to continue working as long as I felt effective and engaged in my duties. Before he passed away, our plan had been for me to work another five years. By then, our youngest would be out of high school and we could unwind as empty nesters.

But after my husband’s death and my injury, ongoing employment hindered my efforts to rebuild my physical strength and precluded the proximity essential for dealing with the needs of three teenagers. I simply would pay too high a personal cost to work five more years at the university, where—in addition to teaching—I had served as a program director and an associate dean.

I knew my tenured status would protect me, should I decide to soldier on for five or even 15 more years, but I had no interest in being that professor who hangs on way beyond his or her “best by” date. Tenure and years of goodwill had—I hoped—set me up to arrange a financially attractive early exit, one that could mitigate the drawbacks of retiring early.

Negotiating my retirement package took months. But by the end of the semester, we found enough common ground to cut a deal. Reaching an agreement with my employer then freed up mental space to begin contemplating my next big decision: when to claim Social Security. As with retirement generally, Social Security is a topic where mental mistakes often can lead to poor choices.

What did I learn from both my own retirement and that of my late husband? Here are six key lessons.

  1. Neither you nor your partner may work as long as expected. Nearly half of us retire earlier than we anticipate.
  2. To get your best exit package, you need to be prepared to walk away from the negotiation. For me, Plan A was severance. Plan B, I would continue working and ask again the next year. Plan C was simply to separate without severance. I could have coped with any of these three outcomes—and that allowed me to be calm and careful in negotiating my preferred Plan A.
  3. Leaving any position is stressful. It’s helpful to have a sounding board, whether it’s a family member or a professional advisor, such as a lawyer or accountant.
  4. No matter how much your career has meant to you, it’s ultimately a job, not your life. Similarly, negotiating an exit package is a business deal. It isn’t a valuation of your worth as a human being. As others leave your employer, pay attention to what happens. Are voluntary separation packages ever available? What’s typically in them?
  5. Few things make a retiree happier than a spouse who has a fulltime job. That continued employment often comes with health care and other benefits, along with a salary.
  6. Leaving your job at the right moment and on a high note ought to feel good. If the idea of being “retired early” feels bad, let that be the impetus to begin seeking out your next act.

Catherine Horiuchi recently retired from the University of San Francisco’s School of Management, where she was an associate professor teaching graduate courses in public policy, public finance and government technology. Catherine’s earlier articles include Good Company, From Two to One and Missing a Step.

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R Quinn
R Quinn
11 months ago

Could you clarify the exit package idea? I assume you have a pension or 403b or similar plan from your employer. I never heard of a person voluntarily retiring and negotiating an exit package, let alone severance.

Catherine
Catherine
11 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

With your background you probably have had plenty of experience with larger reductions in force (RIFs) and also individuals who for one reason or another a firm neither wants to involuntarily separate nor have still around. Probably even a few people who considered leaving but were persuaded by a raise or other perks or change in position responsibility to stay for a while at least. The employer/employee relationship, except in completely closed environments (fully unionized, for instance), is not as fixed as one might seem, in my experience.
It seems at the highest level, many chief executives enter their jobs with the end package already in writing! My point here is to suggest that many people might have more chance than they think in ending a position (whether an ordinary separation or a retirement) with a little something extra.

parkslope
parkslope
11 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Having a highly paid senior employee retire early is often viewed as advantageous by an organization. Rightly or wrongly, many academic administrators think they can build their reputations by replacing a tenured faculty member who isn’t a superstar with a newly minted PhD from a prestigious institution. I assume that similar reasoning applies to non-academic jobs.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
11 months ago

Catherine, congratulations and best of luck with your decision. I hope your health continues to improve and you find much happiness.

Catherine
Catherine
11 months ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

Thanks!

Charlie Warner Jr
Charlie Warner Jr
11 months ago

Thanks for sharing, I retired 5 years ago, the dynamics in some ways were similar to yours and other ways different. I was blessed with my career and at 62 felt it was just time. Of course I let my manager know first and then everyone else about my desire to retire. I opened a dialogue with HR and while it did not happen immediately, it all worked out great for me…….I miss my colleagues and customers other than that I have no regrets. Take away message for me was to “have the conversation with your employer” to completely understand your options and be prepared to negotiate.

R Quinn
R Quinn
11 months ago

I worked in HR and employee benefits in a large corporation for 49 years. Help me understand what is negotiated when a person wants to voluntarily retire.

Catherine
Catherine
11 months ago

Thanks for your comment, as it’s a big change for sure to have retired. My brother once recommended a book to me, “you can negotiate anything.” I also read a book called, “women don’t ask”. Between these two books and a few others I practiced having conversations as you note. And I continue to learn from watching and listening to the experiences of others. That’s one reason I check out this website every day, to learn more!

Bob
Bob
11 months ago

Very well said! Every school should have a required course in the merits of personal responsibility, work ethic and self reliance. No one knows what’s around the next corner in life, good or bad. You were able to carry on because of the thought and planning you and your husband initiated years ago.

Catherine
Catherine
11 months ago
Reply to  Bob

Thanks.

medhat
medhat
11 months ago

Over 10 years ago I sustained an accident that put me out of work for 15+ weeks (thankfully with no long-term health consequences). It was during that downtime that I really put some thought into a life where I was unable to work, and what I needed to do to protect myself and my family. As a family we’ve always lived well below our income level, so that wasn’t too much of a consideration. But setting up for our kids’ educational funding, taking a more formal assessment of our retirement assets, and finally making an honest look at what kind of work my spouse and I wanted to do, In the intervening decade both my spouse and I had switched jobs (in my case twice) and find ourselves frankly working almost as hard, but enjoying both work and life significantly more. From this position of hindsight I’ll offer that, 10 years ago, I would never have predicted where I or my family have ended up today. Never, not even close. We had the good fortune of making a pretty sensible plan back then and otherwise went with the flow. Thus far it’s turned out pretty well. So my comment would be not to try and predict your own future; just try and make the best decisions for the road immediately in front of you.

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