As retirement nears, working couples tugged in two directions

November 08, 1993|By Tamar Lewin | Tamar Lewin,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- John Synal, a county school superintendent in New York, was 56, burned out and bored when he told his wife he was going to retire. But Jean Synal, at 49, was just reaching the peak of her professional life.

"He was adamant he was going to retire," said Mrs. Synal, who reared three children before becoming a teacher and then a principal. "I wasn't too thrilled, because I wondered what he would do with himself. But I never had any doubt that I was going to go on working, because I was in my prime."

So Mrs. Synal worked full time for six years after her husband retired -- and even after she joined him in retirement, she initially felt so restless that she did part-time consulting for several years.

The Synals, like other couples of their generation, took it for granted that women would stay home to care for babies and that wives would move to follow their husband's jobs.

But with the advent of the women's movement, economic necessity and the opening of job opportunities, many wives joined the labor force. And with both husband and wife working, the decision about who should retire, and when, has become a complicated one.

If the issue of the 1980s was how two-career couples would handle child-rearing, the issue of the 1990s may be how two-career couples will handle retirement.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, half of all men are out of the labor force at age 62. Women's retirement patterns are less clear, because it is only recently that large numbers of women have been in the work force.

So while the bureau's surveys show that in 1992, half of all women were out of the work force at age 60, it is unclear how many had retired and how many had never worked.

A 1992 bureau study found that the number of working women nearing retirement had increased to 6.2 million in 1989 from 5 million in 1968. But, it said, "while the retirement behavior of women is becoming an increasingly important issue, little is known about their retirement decisions."

One study of retirement decisions, based on the National Longitudinal Survey of Mature Women -- a survey of women who were 30 to 44 when the study began in 1967, and 52 to 66 when last surveyed in 1989 -- found that when both husband and wife had retired, about a quarter of the women did so the same year as their husbands.

Another 44 percent retired before their husbands, and 30 percent retired after. Data on the larger group of couples in which either husband or wife was still working in 1989 are not yet available, and the authors of the study caution that the couples who retired early may not be fully representative.

For many working couples, the stereotyped image of retirement -- the husband who leaves his job and joins his wife at home to travel, play golf or move to a retirement community -- no longer reflects reality.

And even if women, on average, continue to retire at slightly younger ages than men, many will be working after their husbands' retirements, since most men are several years older than their wives.

In many cases, husbands and wives find themselves troublingly out of sync as they approach retirement age. Husbands who have worked for 40 years may be eager to leave their job pressures behind, while wives who entered the work force late find those same pressures exhilarating.

Financially, women who took jobs after rearing a family may also be reluctant to drop out before they accrue substantial pension and social security benefits. For whatever the emotional calculus, retirement is also an economic decision.

"Many women still decide to retire when their husbands do, but I think the wives' continuing to work is a growing trend," said Lou Glasse. She is president of the Older Women's League, an advocacy group based in Washington.

"That's a positive thing, since the median income of women over 65 is less than $8,200, and most older women do not have the income they need to last through their lifetime."

For many couples, retirement prompts a renegotiation of marital roles, with husbands who find themselves home all day taking on more of the cooking and housework, while wives who made dinners for decades rejoice in getting out of the kitchen.

For the Synals, and many others, retirement has become a staggered process. Mr. Synal retired as assistant superintendent Westchester County at 56, but for several years he took a part-time job as a lobbyist for the Westchester and Putnam county schools.

And Mrs. Synal kept working, as she wanted. But while she became more and more interested in moving on to some districtwide job -- perhaps following in her husband's footsteps and becoming a superintendent -- Mr. Synal became increasingly interested in spending the winters in Florida.

The year that Mrs. Synal turned 55 -- and, not coincidentally, became eligible for early retirement -- Mr. Synal announced he was going to Florida for at least a month, and Mrs. Synal decided to retire.

"If I were doing it again, I would love to have tried to go on from my position as principal to something districtwide," said Mrs. Synal, now 65. "But I think a woman has to understand the man's position. He worked and supported the family, that was his responsibility, and after doing that for years, he had the right to the retirement life he wanted."

Some women who have kept working after their husbands retire say they believe their husbands would rather they stayed home, but others say they think their husbands are happy to have time to themselves.

"If I were under his feet all the time, it wouldn't work," said Mary Dunn, a 65-year-old San Francisco woman who is a concierge at a retirement community. "At our senior community, the happily married older couples are the ones where each has built an independent life."

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