A New Novel, a Fresh University Pass: A Look at Women Empowered in Retirement

By Nancy Ripton

Retirement can mean different things for different women. For Phyllis Smallman, it meant the time to relax, explore new pastimes and forge lasting relationships. It also meant finding a new part-time career as a mystery writer.

Before retiring, Smallman worked in a construction office for 40 years. Upon her retirement, at 61, she picked up a pen. One year later she had published her first novel, "Margarita NightsMargarita Nights. Opens a new window in your browser."

"Once I no longer had to do what I needed in order to survive, I could focus on what I loved," Smallman said. In retirement, Smallman found she had the time to explore her craft. As it turns out, other people enjoyed reading her mystery novels too.

In 2004, Smallman was a finalistfinalist. Opens a new window in your browser in the Debut Dagger Awards, hosted by the Crime Writers Association in the UK. By 2007, she had won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel and was approached by McArthur & Company to publish her work. Today, at 69, Smallman is working on her ninth novel.

“For me, retirement was about finally having time to explore my passion," Smallman explained. And while Smallman's creative success may feel like an outlier, research shows she's not alone.

A woman in a classroom, raising her hand

Paving an avenue for freedom

Women across North America are saving more throughout their careers to enjoy creative liberties later in life. They're taking notes in new lectures halls, and exploring new philosophies, libraries, and museums.

Most importantly — they're showing the world that retirement is anything but a quiet cliché and instead demonstrating a new zest for life.

Today, 40 per cent of Canadian universities offer programs specifically targeted toward older adults. And, according to Dr. Bill Kops, Director of Education at the University of Manitoba — who is writing a book on education in retirement — almost 80 per cent of the attendees are women.

Women are enrolling in courses ranging from literature and art history to neuroscience and foreign language and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they are full. “Our registration has quadrupled in the last 7 years," Dr. Timothy Pychyl, Director of the Centre for Initiatives in Education at Carleton University, said about his program.

According to Pychyl, investing in a lifestyle shift during retirement, like pursuing further education or developing a new hobby, is not only enticing. It can also aid mental and physical stamina. Learning for the sake of learning, he explained, is very different than going through the motions of a job you've been doing for years.

“Learning about new things improves mental clarity," he stated.

Pychyl's findings are backed by 2016 researchresearch. Opens a new window in your browser from Harvard Medical School, which found that the process of acquiring new information can stimulate brain cell growth at any point in a person's life. Having the ability to learn something new, the Harvard study found, can keep individuals cognitively strong. For those in their later years, this can also mean enhancing the retirement experience.

Money in the creative bank

Financial freedom, of course, can be a double-edged sword. While more North American women are saving enough to take advantage of retirement adventures, they're also putting in more hours on the job.

“According to researchresearch. Opens a new window in your browser by the Wall Street Journal, 1 in 7 women now works past the age of 65 — that number is expected to grow to 1 in 5 by 2024. This is in stark contrast to figures from 1992, when closer to one in 12 women worked into the latter portion of their sixties.”

A woman sitting on a desk and on the desk a laptop, a lamp, books and food

These statistics, while not alarming, are something for women to consider when it comes to planning for the Renaissance art history class they've always wanted to take, or the ability to tackle that half-finished screenplay that's been sitting in the closet since their MFA.

While women working through their sixties and seventies can mean a commitment to careers and signs of longevity, it can also be a result of financial pressure more prevalent among women than men. The 2016 Transamerica Retirement Survey found that women and men tend to enter retirement with different financial liberties. While the average American male saves $211,000 for retirement, the average American woman saves $109,000.

As women prepare for the retirement of their dreams, it's important not to be spooked by these figures but to instead keep in mind that creative freedom isn't always as simple as picking up a paintbrush. Most times, it's painting the luxurious retirement you want by first putting money in the bank.

A woman holding a tablet

Cashing in on self-discovery

For Smallman, saving throughout the course of her career allowed her to find her true calling as an author. And while not everyone will find fame in retirement, financial freedom can mean an opportunity to explore new ideas and improve health.

Today, women who plan for their financial retirement are more able to tackle their creative and intellectual passions with the vigor of an individual who is certain that, for them, this only the beginning.

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