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Leaving Early

Catherine Horiuchi  |  September 24, 2020

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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