Charlotte Frank

(WOMENSENEWS)–At a time when many baby boomers are too worried about economic uncertainties to mention the “R” word, Liliane Kates can’t stop talking about hers.

Part of the reason may be that her retirement doesn’t fit the typical idea of reclining at home in an easy chair. After taking courses to certify herself as a fitness trainer for mature adults, Kates is beginning to work in that newfield.

“The hours are flexible,” she says. “And I knowhow intimidating working out can be for women who haven’t done much exercising. And the pay is competitive.”

Two years ago Kates wasn’t feeling so upbeat. At that point she had closed the New York employment agency she’d owned since 1981 because of the economic downturn that followed the Sept. 11 attack on New York.

“I felt lost,” Kates says. “I loved meeting people and helping them make employment connections. I knew I needed to get out from behind the desk. But I couldn’t imagine what else I could do that would give me the same satisfaction and comfortable lifestyle.”

Then a friend introduced her to The Transition Network, an organization that began about four years ago. Composed of women over 50 in New York, members help each other plot the next chapter of their lives by working in small peer groups. That’s where Kates found her answer. Her experience–as a female wrestling with a major career transition late in midlife–is not one for which she has many role models.

“They are the first generation of women to define themselves by (paid) work as well as personal roles,” says Nan Bauer-Maglin, co-editor of the 2003 book “Women Confronting Retirement: a nontraditional guide.”

Identities in Flux

Women have always worked hard in some capacity or another, Bauer-Maglin points out. But for today’s crop of 50-and-60-plus career women, the psychological terrain that looms beyond the office walls can be baffling. Even if they are wives and mothers, years of meetings and business trips have left them with an identity that goes beyond those roles.

How do they continue an identity beyond the domestic sphere?

Many of these successful women aren’t sure. This uncertainty doesn’t surprise Anita Lands. A pioneer in non-financial retirement planning, Lands believes that retirement is the biggest transition adults face.

“While we are still working and raising families,” she says, “society gives us the script. But after retirement, we have to write our own. That can be very threatening for people whose (paid) work is a major part of their identity.”

Over the next three decades, 29 million baby boomer women who work for pay will reach their 60s, according to Census Bureau statistics. Forty percent are in managerial and professional careers. Many can look forward to spending as much as 25 percent of their adult life in retirement. As women live longer, according to Maglin-Bauer, what is now a demographic blip could become a major social issue.

Drafting the Script

The Transition Network is one group’s answer to the problem.

Christine Millen

The group is the brainchild of two friends, Charlotte Frank and Christine Millen. Frank,69, is former director of procurement for the Port Authority of New York. Millen, 61, is a former partner with Deloitte Consulting. The two women realized the importance of the issue while researching what they needed to consider in ending their careers.

Then they did what businesswomen do: They networked. They enlisted friends with similar concerns and started working out a model for how to proceed. They conducted surveys to identify individual women’s specific concerns and met with professional women’s associations to brainstorm on the topic.

It took a year to define the basic approach: a network of small peer groups.

While some peer groups grapple with the transition from a full-time career to other types of paid work and schedules, others explore such issues as changing family relationships. Others focus on ways to adapt their skills and experience to special projects and volunteer opportunities in education, theater, mentoring and other community activities.

Kates testifies that support from her peer group was crucial. “My group gave me the courage to think out loud because they accepted my quest. We all came together with a clean slate. No one had a hidden agenda.”

Peer-Group Model Takes Off

“Once we started the peer groups, The Transition Network just took off,” says co-founder Millen. “People were intrigued with the concept.”

In less than four years, the group’s mailing list of less than 100 names has grown into a community of more than 600 women.

Sharon McGavin, a former marketing executive, remembers being impressed by the group’s upbeat attitude at her first meeting. She still feels that way today.

“We don’t solve each other’s problems or do therapy or career counseling,” she says. “What makes peer groups effective is that they help members stay focused on their issues.”

The group’s membership also includes so much expertise–marketing, law and so forth–that it provides a one-stop resource for members. And this is a key ingredient, according to co-founder Frank. “Unlike similar organizations that market third-party services to members, we don’t need to bring people in to tell us what to do,” she says. “We are the experts.”

Transition Groups Catch On

The idea of creating communities of like-minded women to deal with the transitions of late middle age is catching on. is a Web site based in Orange County, Calif., aimed at midlife women eager to exchange information about their lifestyle changes. The site–which fashions itself as a virtual neighborhood center–is the online branch of a membership organization focused on becoming the information and support resource for mid-life women. In addition to its Web site, it publishes a quarterly newsletter and sponsors an annual convention.

The alumnae association at Barnard College, the women’s college in New York, sponsors a project to help alums over 50 navigate the next stage of their lives.

“We’re amazed at the response,” says Wendy Reilly, the project director. “Our events are oversubscribed and we’re getting many more younger women than we expected,” she says, referring to women in their early 50s.

Ann Michell is a free-lance writer in New York City with experience on both sides of retirement.

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