They say, “When you know, you know.”

That phrase is often about romance. It’s also used for every other aspect of life. It’s a Justin Bieber song. A Kesha song. A TikTok meme. It’s everywhere. And everything.

But does it apply to retiring?

Do we know when it’s time to retire?


Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a classic American story. A feminist icon. An extraordinary crusader for women’s rights. All before becoming a Supreme Court justice. Yet her refusal to retire led to President Trump appointing Amy Coney Barrett to replace her. A life of great work. And a legacy of helping close the curtain on reproductive freedom in America.

Tom Brady

As befits the greatest NFL quarterback of all time, Tom Brady married the most beautiful woman on earth. They had two children. But 14 years later she left him because he didn’t know when to retire. Because she couldn’t bear to see him collect one more concussion.

Diane Feinstein

As one of California’s two U.S. senators, she represented, in theory, 40 million Californians. Yet she clung to office far beyond her physical and cognitive limits. She refused to resign. Then capitulated and said she wouldn’t run for another term. Then couldn’t remember that she’d said she wouldn’t run.

The ravages of time move us to tears. We have friends and family in Feinstein’s position. We have compassion for them as human beings. But, at that stage of life, they shouldn’t be a city council member. Let alone represent 40 million people.

Biden & Trump

Divided Americans agree: they don’t want to suffer through another Joe Biden vs Donald Trump presidential campaign. While Trump is ahead in the polls, it’s close. Why? Because the disdain for these two crotchety old guys is so great. A Jan. CBS News / YouGov poll had Nikki Haley defeating Biden 53% to 45%.


Why didn’t Queen Elizabeth II step down at any point in her 70-year reign and allow her son to be king? Can you be the world’s greatest mom if you never let your son run the company? When she passed at 96, her son became the oldest person to accede to the British throne. Crowned at 73, King Charles III reigned for 16 months before having to scale back his duties due to a cancer diagnosis.


And then there’s me. I’m a current ELAC student. And I teach art at Long Beach State. I’m 68. When do I retire? I feel vibrant and relevant. I believe that I help my students. If that’s true, how much longer will it be true? Do I teach till 70 and then retire? Or continue on till 75 and retire then? Or keep going? Till when?

I love what I do and feel valuable to my students. I also know that I never want to be Feinstein or Biden. Like everyone I hope I don’t experience more than minimal cognitive decline. But what if I do? How do I know when time is up? And, even if I don’t, is there some point at which I’m too old and out of date to best serve students? At what point would someone closer to their age be more relatable?


My mom worked until she was 90. Within six months of retiring she fell and broke her hip. She had 90 pretty good years. Followed by three rough years. She passed at 93.

Art & Fear

In their book “Art & Fear” David Bayles and Ted Orlander note that, “at age ninety Frank Lloyd Wright was still designing, Imogen Cunningham still photographing, Stravinsky still composing, Picasso still painting.”

I don’t want to be Feinstein or Biden. Yet human culture would never give back even one of Wright’s architectural masterpieces. Prolific as he was, we’d never choose to part with even a single work by Picasso.

Ginsburg, Feinstein and Biden should have retired years earlier. Yet we want Wright, Cunningham, Stravinsky and Picasso to keep working forever.

Feinstein and Biden stayed in office long enough to become incompetent. Yet for my mom, and Elizabeth, continuing in their job may be what kept them alive.

How do you know, when you don’t know?

At what age would you retire? And what would you do after that?

2 thoughts on “When is it time to retire? And why do so many old people refuse to do it?

  1. What does “retire” mean? I think I will eventually like to leave the field that I have worked in for over 35 years even though I love it. Why? I guess I look at it this way – I love sushi, but I don’t want to eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. I think there will be a time when I am “full” of the career I have had. One definition of retire is to “withdraw to or from a particular place.” But even if I “retire” from my chosen career I think that there will be many avenues to explore. More and more I feel that my time on this earth is truly finite and I have only tasted a small portion.

    1. Agreed!

      I think the piece started in part from the frustration of having another Biden v Trump election cycle forced upon us. But in the end, I thought more about, as you say, “I feel that my time on this earth is truly finite and I have only tasted a small portion.”

      If you think about all the possible lives you might have lived, paths walked, things tried, and careers pursued, we can only live a small fraction of all those possible lives. I’m with you on that.

      Honestly, I’ve also been contemplating physical and cognitive decline. Everyone’s path will be different. Still, whatever ravages you might escape, you’ll grapple with others. I turn 69 this summer and 70 in the summer of 2025. I feel fully capable of continuing to teach art. But at what point am I not? Will I know it then? And is there a time to simply step back and make a little room for younger hands, hearts, and minds?

      I think often of that Y2K Disney Fantasia bash you invited me to. It’s unimaginable that it was a quarter of a century ago.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Previous post This Metallic Coccoon
Next post Edie Markovich: Swimming + Philosophy