Can I Retire Without Being a Fossil?

How to stay with it after you’ve left it

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

April 16, 2014

Question: When do I know it’s time to retire? I’m old enough, as are half the professors in my department. Some are decrepit, even doddering or dotty. I’ve still got my mental powers, mostly, and enough money and good health to ride off into the sunset. But will I miss academe? Will I become a blithering bore? How do I know if this is the moment?

Answer: Some of Ms. Mentor’s consultants claim that "I Must Retire!" came to them as a light-bulb moment.

"Earl" was in a faculty meeting, discussing implementation of new procedures to facilitate the newly required, extended assessment process when, like Cupid with his arrows, some force from on high struck Earl with a blinding headache. He wanted to run from the room, shrieking, "Eureka!" (or regress to the Three Stooges version from his youth, "You don’t smell so good yourself"). Instead, as a well-socialized academic, he said politely, "Excuse me," and left the room. The next day he began preparing his resignation letter.

"Linda," similarly, was teaching a class in introductory Spanish when she calculated that she’d taught the same course more than 100 times. Sometimes she would find herself thinking, "I taught them that already. Why don’t they know it?"—only to remember that 99 classes had been through the same ritual, and so had she. She thought it might be time to do something else.

"Rhoda" developed an allergy to chalk. She took that as a sign.

Sometimes bureaucratic balderdash brings out that strangled cry in the wilderness: "Quit now or abandon hope!" Maybe you also hear, in your heart of hearts, the main character’s rant in the movie Network: "I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!" Maybe you are seized with ennui. Melancholia. Weltschmerz.

Maybe you’ve even written a bold, intense epistle: "I have decided to pursue other interests." You’re itching to hit "send."

Few academics retire at the height of their powers—unless they are, say, high-powered government consultants or Nobel Prize winners who’ll automatically have something else interesting to do. More often, burned-out professors move from mild discontent to mental rebellion: "I will not grade any more papers misusing ‘they’re,’ ‘there,’ and ‘their.’ I will not do it."

The nonfamous but fortunate retirees have things they’ve always wanted to do. Once "Corinda" signed up for National Novel Writing Month, she finally wrote that Regency novel she’d been mulling for half a century. With the books that had been on her nightstand for years, "Clara" created a mystery book club at her local library. "Paul" rediscovered his zest for teaching in a lifelong-learning program for adults ("no papers to grade!").

Mainly, it’s time to quit—as "Marshall" said—"when it stops being fun. When you are not learning anything new."

Once you do retire, there are at least three ways you can torment and bore the people around you. Ms. Mentor has seen them all:

  • "Kids Today." Rail about the failings of today’s youth. They are lazy, selfish, drug- and sex-obsessed slackers, and there is no hope for the future of the world. That has been a constant refrain since Socrates’ day, and Ms. Mentor regrets that he was put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. Maybe they corrupted him, since kids always know the latest ideas, fads, and irritants.
  • "Organ Recital." Spend social gatherings with friends, fellow retirees, and—this is especially fiendish—young people, describing in detail all your aches and pains. Show them your newly arthritic fingers. Talk about your regularity and your prunes. Chatter amiably about your kidneys, eyesight, lumbago, gout, and sciatica. Complain about greedy doctors. You’ll always find someone to join you in a news roundup of "Who’s Sick and Who’s Dead." Ms. Mentor loathes such gatherings, and much prefers that people of sound mind talk about what’s in their minds.
  • "Fruit of My Loins." Ms. Mentor’s correspondent "Sarah" wonders why "people who’ve spent their lives in their heads, in the world of ideas, suddenly turn gooey over grandkids and can’t talk about anything else, except maybe their hydrangeas." Sarah is not against grandchildren (or hydrangeas), and is glad that many people do have them. But she cringes when retired professors get together and no one talks about ideas or tells jokes in Hittite. Instead, they all pull out their phones. Everyone is expected to "ooh" and "ah" (a universal language) about how beautiful and smart the grandchildren are. Ms. Mentor reminds her flock that all grandchildren are beautiful and smart. That is their job.

"Wilton," a curmudgeonly retired engineer, got fed up with seeing such photos, especially since all babies pretty much look alike ("studies tell us so," he would point out.) Wilton equipped his phone with pictures of his new kitten and puppy. He passed those around, and everyone said, "How beautiful and smart they are! Are they twins?"

Wilton had shown, inadvertently, that many people of a certain age do not bother to wear their reading glasses. He’d also strengthened his own determination to find out what his retired colleagues were really doing—not what their descendants were up to. He kept saying, "What are you reading?" and "What are you thinking about [some current event]?" and "How would you teach your subject now?"

Those who responded in kind became his late-in-life friends and colleagues.

Ms. Mentor reminds her flock that even the most dedicated academic has years of life both before and after school—longer years if you don’t get an academic job. But whether you retire out of disgust, or desire to pursue other interests, or because you’ve inherited a windfall, or gotten a new, much younger life partner, you still owe it to the world to use the uniqueness of your highly educated mind.

What do you know that no one else knows? How can you improve the world with your intellectual powers? Can you resist the temptations to groan and whine, and instead continue educating and celebrating?

That’s what will make your last years truly golden.

Question: Some youngsters are calling me "spry," as if it’s a compliment. I think it’s offensive, and it really means, "Congrats on being able to move and not being dead yet." Who’s right?

Answer: You.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor would like to hear from readers about retirement, would-be retirement, or retirement-not-yet-happening, for a follow-up to this column. You may, if you wish, nominate colleagues or types of colleagues who should be retired already. Ms. Mentor has no power to make that happen, but you may feel better afterward. Venting is good for the scholarly soul.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes nominations of academic novels for a future column, as well as the usual rants, queries, objections, and gossipy flourishes. She hopes that, by now, most of her flock are no longer snowed in. Weather-wise, we live in dire times. The end, as always, is nigh.

Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, anonymity is guaranteed, and identifying details are changed. No one will know that you’re the one who recommended that half your colleagues take a buyout "because they’re half-wits." You may be on their lists, too.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her email address is