When Should You Retire?
My husband retired last week from 30 years of working in one place. Well, almost 30 years. My husband began retirement a little early because 30 years of standing and walking on the cement floors of a warehouse for 8-12 hours a day, day after day, many times six days a week, sometimes seven, and all of them tedious—have worn out his body. Things are breaking down.
I remember our excitement when he got this job at Merillat. He had gone through a year and a half of too-frequent job changes after a five-year stint at another wood working factory, Padgett Manufacturing. Some of those were new opportunities that came along, some didn’t work out. All of them a huge step up from his first job out of high school—working in one of the many poultry plants in this Shenandoah Valley Poultry Capital of Virginia. Merillat makes high quality kitchen cabinets, and had pre-employment testing, training, and perks—company trips to amusement parks for the families, company picnics with nice door prizes like bicycles (one daughter won one), TVs, grills, Christmas banquets at ski resorts, Christmas parties for the kiddos with Santa and nice gifts/gift certificates. All these little niceties now long ago disbanded, a victim of company hard times. They even stopped giving rocking chairs to longtime workers who retired.
Merillat Cabinets (now Masco Corporation) opened a new plant in Mt. Jackson, Va. in 1986, one of more than a dozen Merillat plants across the U.S. at its height. The housing crisis of 2007-08 and accompanying recession led to half of those plants closing, one sad shut down after another. Earlier recessions had also taken their toll. The Mt. Jackson plant itself had over 500 employees in its heyday, down to perhaps 300 today. Each wave of layoffs and plant closings sent tremors through the ranks at the plant; no job was safe. Would my husband’s be next? He greatly feared for his job many, many times.
My husband used to tell our daughters, “Stay in school and do your best. You don’t want to end up in a job like mine.” I think they would have stayed in school without that fair warning—college graduates all and one graduate degree among them. All working office jobs in their chosen fields. Like mommy.
But from their dad they learned to keep one foot in the hard-scrabble life of a factory worker whose days were made or ruined at the whim of sometimes hard or inept bosses and lately, computer systems.
His biggest issue was simply never really being able to plan his weekends unless reserved as much as a year in advance, (submitting vacation plans in January)—because the company could require them to work on any given Saturday or Sunday unless they had off the Friday before or the Monday after. So if we were invited to a 2 p.m. Saturday wedding in June that we didn’t know about in January, if he ended up needing to work, too bad.
Like coal miners or field hands, the drudgery and back breaking work was made lighter by the camaraderie of coworkers; some of the guys became good, long time friends. They shared in-jokes, bad jokes, gossip, too short of breaks, fishing trips while camping overnight along rivers, and occasional birthday parties or helping each other out moving, cutting wood, or other projects.
In these later years, they were so short staffed that the company began working them overtime at whim rather than hiring and then letting go workers—sometimes 50, 60 and 70 hours a week. When you’re in your late 50s and on your feet all day except for brief 10 minute breaks and one 20 minute lunch period, that would wear almost anyone down. Arthritis from injuries sustained when you were a kid come back to haunt you, make you stiff, hobble you. It takes a minute to stand up, get out of a chair or out of bed. In this last year, my husband’s ankles were so stiff he went to a podiatrist and then an orthopedic specialist who recommended therapy—which has been somewhat successful and brought him relief and more agility.
He could tolerate a normal eight hour day—and his supervisor these last years, female, was an angel who often had him sitting down to run something they call a hiester—like a fork lift. But if he was on his feet all day—the next day he walked like a very old man. The last Wednesday of his last week he worked nine hours, all on his feet, and in the next morning he was hobbling like a 90 year old—at least until his bones and joints got moving again. It was definitely time to retire.
Two years ago when he first started scheming whether he could take early retirement at age 62— he began counting down the days. At first it seemed like a forever sentence—would he make it? Would the day ever come?
A week before he quit, he started saying “This whole thing is just surreal—is that the right word? Unreal? They’re talking about whether they will be working Saturday, and I don’t even have to think about it.” He’d say, “If I’m this close to tears now, what do you think my last day is going to be like?
He took several of his four vacation weeks in these last months, and worked one final long week. On Friday his colleagues surprised him with a beautiful pecan rocking chair (shown above) with all their signatures on the bottom, plus a card they’d signed.
Stuart and his coworker load out the rocking chair they gave him.
We were both tremendously moved: these coworkers—none of them rich or they wouldn’t be working there—had come together to bless him with a sweet token of their respect and good wishes for a proper send off.
On his final day he took a customary “walk around” the entire shipping department where he worked, chatting with coworkers, saying goodbye, amid jokes and comments like they wished it was themselves leaving or retiring, and Stuart saying, “I’ll miss you guys but I won’t miss this place.” To me, at home, he added, “I just feel so sorry for the ones who are still there.”
My hat is off to all those millions who sweat and freeze in shops or outdoors in working conditions that seldom offer a comfortable temperature, using their bodies to bring home a paycheck (well, make that a direct deposit into a bank account).
So, he survived 30 years and wore the “Plant Start Up Survivor” T-shirt on his last day of work for his last walk around. We are thrilled he made it.
So what he is going to do next?? Have some surgery, of course, to fix a torn rotator cuff.
Meanwhile, he’s begun wiring the “barn” or large storage building we had built five years ago and never had the time to electrify. But that’s another blog post—what he pushed for us to do as a sort of retirement present to himself. Coming up soon! And yes, of course we hope to travel. We’ll be freer to visit the grandchildren, with another one on the way this summer! I hope to continue working a few more years. Eventually he may look for part time work, or volunteer, or who knows? He enjoys working with his hands and coming up with creative and useful projects to weld, build, or repurpose. He will enjoy a lot more flexibility of schedule and hopefully, suppleness of his joints.
So far he feels like a kid left out of school on summer vacation. And I feel about 50 percent less stressed. No more lunches to pack for 4 a.m. departures.
Happy retirement, honey!
How do you know when it is time to retire? What is your best advice for retirement?
Did you ever leave a job you thought you hated–and end up missing it?
What do you remember your mother or father telling you about working, jobs, education? Or what did you learn from your parents about the same?
Any advice for me as I continue working?
For a book I helped edit a few years ago, check out Reinventing Aging.