Think about this: The first big generation of high-powered career women is contemplating "retirement" or already grappling with it. Better yet, call it “renewment,” as Helen Dennis does. Dennis had no name for this landmark societal shift in 1999 when she and co-founder Bernice Bratter and a handful of other women in Los Angeles threw together a potluck dinner to talk about their futures. How would they feel about losing their workplace identities? Their paychecks? Their missions? Their ambitions? How would they spend their time?
They had so much to talk about that they kept on talking, gatherings that in 2008 led to a book Project Renewment: The First Retirement Model for Career Women and what Dennis calls a “movement.” There are no dues, no board of directors, no marketing, no money. Just the book, a website (Project Renewment), and some 20 to 25 loosely affiliated groups that have sprung up in Florida, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., with the biggest critical mass in Los Angeles.
“This kind of thinking did not occur before,” says Dennis of the effort to come up with a retirement model for career women. “It’s really unrealistic to think that you’re going to leave your career and three days later it will be clear to you what that next chapter looks like.”
These are glass-ceiling-breaking women who in their youths asked themselves, “Is this all there is?” then launched into careers. Now many of them are leaving their careers. Again they are asking, “Is this all there is?”
“How do we think that a homemaker role could be sufficient, if we didn’t think it was sufficient before?” Dennis says. There could be 30 more years to think about, without that workplace identify or business card.
The early potluck group was made up mostly of “people in their 60s looking for new careers, not necessarily retirement,” said Dennis, a gerontologist, who writes the syndicated column, “Successful Aging.” The idea took off, spreading to Chicago and the East Coast. “It’s like an amoeba,” says Dennis, joking that she is “aging in the field of aging.”
A men’s group has just formed in LA – the “Life Transition Group.” “These are men who are highly accomplished. They meet once a month with a speaker and talk about transition issues,” said Dennis. Younger groups are forming, too, trying to deal with balance, among other issues. And one of the most recent groups consists of women in their 80s, who’ve taken the name “La Troisieme Age.”
On a personal level,” says Dennis, “work continues to be very important to me, but I am vigilant of the need not to be totally consumed by work.” She makes time for her children, grandchildren, her book group and friends, and admits that if her husband were alive, “this life stage might be different.” She refuses to stand still. “I’m more keenly aware of the need for new experiences, that my base is broad. I feel strongly in this notion of renewal and potential.”