Editorial: It can be hard to know exactly when to call it quits

Published: 05-24-2024 10:00 PM

Modified: 05-26-2024 3:30 PM

Many baby boomers can probably identify with the Dick McCormack dilemma: Should I stay or should I go?

McCormack, who has represented Windsor County in the Vermont Senate for 30 years, has decided to go. He announced in March that he would not seek re-election this year and would retire when his current term expires in January. But as our colleague Nicola Smith reported in a perceptive profile last weekend, his emotions are mixed, and regrets — well, he has a few.

McCormack, who will turn 77 this summer, told Smith that when he decided to run a final time in 2022, “I wondered whether I was making the right decision. Having now decided to retire, I am grieving over leaving. I’m not entirely sure who I am other than Senator Dick McCormack. And this is my place, this is where I live, where I work. These are my people. Why should I retire?”

This ambivalence seems to be widely shared in the postwar generation. Ironically, the baby boomers of the ’60s and ’70s, or at least a reasonable segment of them, were derided then as lazy hippies who needed a haircut, a shower and, most of all, a job.

Now, they can’t seem to — or don’t want to — quit, even though they have reached retirement age. They are working longer hours, too. Vox.com reported this winter that 19% of Americans age 65 and older were still working last year, a nearly twofold increase from the late 1980s, and their annual work hours were almost 30% higher than in 1987.

Some of that higher labor-force participation among older people is certainly attributable to the generational collapse of retirement savings, with the end of defined-benefit corporate pensions and their replacement by defined-contribution 401(k) accounts. (As of 2022, 43% of Americans ages 55 to 64 didn’t even have one of those.) People with little savings have to eke out a living by continuing to work to supplement their meager Social Security benefits. They very likely are not still working by choice, particularly if they are engaged in demanding physical labor, but by necessity.

But those still working because they want to may be doing so for some of the same reasons that McCormack is reluctant to say goodbye: Their work is meaningful and their identity is inextricably bound up with their career, as the senator indicated to Smith.

Still, his decision to leave the Senate is a sound one and sets a good example. No matter what field you are engaged in and what you have accomplished, there will always be more to do and at some point it’s time to give someone else a chance to do it.

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And there is this consideration: McCormack did not want someone else to tell him he had stayed too long (for a politician, that someone is usually the voters); and he did not want to embarrass himself. This is a nod to the reality, all too often denied these days, that energy, mental acuity and physical power inevitably decline with age, as does the capacity to keep pace with technological change.

To its detriment, American society no longer prizes as it once did the hard-won wisdom of accumulated experience, which may make those who sense that their store of knowledge will go to waste once they leave their job reluctant to do so. McCormack is fortunate in this regard to have as a much younger Senate colleague Becca White, a former student of his for whom he has served as mentor and who will be in a position to carry on his work in consultation with him. This kind of inter-generational connection strikes us as an important prerequisite to making peace with retirement.

Knowing when to leave also can preserve a legacy that might otherwise unravel. One only has to look to the fate of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to grasp the point. Ginsburg resisted calls from legal scholars to retire from the bench in 2013 or 2014 when the Democrats held the White House and the Senate and could have nominated and confirmed a worthy successor. She lost her bid for immortality, dying at age 87 in 2020 while President Trump was in office. He appointed another conservative justice to the bloc that is now busy dismantling her life’s work.

Recognizing when it’s time to go also requires a certain amount of humility, a quality embodied in the final quotation of Smith’s story. “I have the consolation, well, I did what I could,” McCormack said. “And the haunting sense that, yeah, I could have done more; I could have done it better.” Couldn’t we all?