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Retirement gifts: A matter of timing

Cash Gift

By Joel Dresang

A former coworker informed me of a gathering at a bar for our old boss, who’s taking a company buyout. That got me thinking about retirement gifts.

When my dad retired from the paper mill where he worked for 42 years, the company gave him a clock with a plaque on it. The same for my brother who retired after 31 years as a public schoolteacher. My brother who retired after 40 years as a state university professor got a gold wristwatch.

It’s ironic that a place where you’ve been marking time gives you a timepiece at the moment you no longer have to care what time it is.

As more of my cohorts reach retirement age, I wonder how to send them off. How will our retirements be different from those of our parents or older siblings?

On the internet, I see clocks and watches prominent among suggestions for retirement gifts. I even find hourglasses—like the wicked witch uses to show Dorothy how fast her time is running out.

Gift sites also show a lot of office supplies for retirees—just as they’re leaving the office: paperweights, pens, business card holders, a desktop slingshot.

Instead of gifts grounded in what folks did before they retired, items relating to what they plan to do afterward seem more appropriate. Along those lines, I find a lot of recommendations related to traveling, drinking and playing golf. Occasionally, the pursuits are combined, as in a portable urinal that masquerades as a golf club.

Sometimes, I turn to a golden rule of gift-shopping: Give to others what I wouldn’t mind receiving myself. I’m five or six years younger than my former co-worker, but I try to imagine what it will be like when I eventually retire. What gift would I hope to get?

Web-based etiquette advice says if you’re invited to a retirement party, you should go, and you should take at least a greeting card.

The “Retirement” section at the nearest card shop is sparse. It’s beneath the shelf labeled “Children’s Birthdays” in an area called “Congratulations.” Retirement cards are tucked between sections themed “Good Luck,” “Good Bye,” “New Home” and “Bar Mitzvah.”

While scanning the cards, I think of the college classmate I ran into the week before. She informed me that she had just left her job after 35 years.

“So, you’ve retired,” I said with a congratulatory inflection. No, she quickly corrected, it’s just time for something else.

The line between work and retirement increasingly is blurred. I know more people calling it quits at a long-time job only to go on to do other work. By far the fastest-growing segments of the labor force are those aged 65 and older.

labor growth by age

We’re living longer, for one thing, and as much as we might complain about our jobs, they provide opportunities for activity, socialization and purpose.

Also, not everybody is ready for retirement financially. A 2017 survey by the Federal Reserve found that 13% of us who are 60 or older have nothing saved for retirement. Social Security estimates that its benefits cover 90% or more of the income of 21% of married couples in retirement—44% for unmarried retirees.

A dimmer aspect of working into so-called retirement years: Opportunities. In January, 767,000 Americans 60 and older were looking for but couldn’t find work. My college classmate, who quit without another job, asked me to keep my eyes open for her.

I’m the first to arrive at the bar for the retirement party. The second is the guest of honor.

He was as much my mentor as my boss. He demanded work of me but also took care to make sure that what I did reflected well on me. He showed me respect and compassion. He watched out for me when I needed surgery and made it easy to be with my family when my father was dying.

Turns out, the party is not for his retirement. He doesn’t like the “r-word,” he tells me, because it makes him feel old. He explains that he isn’t leaving his old job as much as he’s being drawn to other work, including teaching and book writing. Although he expresses eagerness for what’s ahead, he admits anxiousness about leaving a profession that has been his lifework.

And, I know, it’s unsettling separating from people with whom it feels you have spent more waking hours than your own children.

Gold watches and golf gear, of course, aren’t the only sorts of mementos to offer to folks who are leaving their jobs—whether they’re retiring or because it’s time for something else.

Thoughtful gifts include personalized scrapbooks or videos celebrating the person’s work life, tickets to a cultural or sporting event they would enjoy, gift cards to restaurants or spas to help them celebrate or for classes, lessons, memberships and subscriptions to help keep them busy and engaged.

I hand my former boss the greeting card I selected. Just in case he wasn’t really retiring, I voted for versatility and chose a more generic card from the “Good Luck” section. But I don’t want the message to be good-bye.

I tell him, as I have written in the card, that I am grateful for our time together and our relationship as colleagues. I invite him to lunch with me (my treat), and I hope that meal becomes a first step toward carrying our connection beyond our past work together—to whatever may lie ahead.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

Learn more
Retirement plan: Working longer (or not), by Joel Dresang
Trying to transition off a treadmill, by Joel Dresang
Working longer to fatten Social Security, a Money Talk Video with Lisa Lewitzke
When it’s time to retire, by Joel Dresang
Retirement 101: Having a plan, a Money Talk Video with Tom Pappenfus
You need a budget, by Tom Pappenfus
Knowing the number, by Brian Kilb
Having the confidence to retire, a Money Talk Video by Art Rothschild
Retirement investing: Where to begin, a Money Talk Video by Kyle Tetting
(initially posted February 27, 2019)

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