November 18, 2021

Planning Your Own Retirement Party

For the last 20 years of my career, I worked for myself. So, I never had a retirement party. Frankly, I don't know they are still a thing. I'm pretty sure the gold watch cliche is history. But, a party of co-workers gathering to wish someone well as retirement begins probably continues.

What I want to do with this post is to use our imagination. Plan what others would say about you as you turned in your name badge for the last time.

What would fellow employees remember most about you? What uniqueness did you bring with you to work? Would clients miss your weekly sales calls?  Would people you see every day be happy for you...or envious? Will your former students stay in touch through the years?

I completely understand the idea of thanking someone for years of work, for dependability, for putting the job (whatever it is) before personal concerns from time to time. We all like a pat on the back and a "thank you" for a job well done. Even so, the concept of what retirement is and what it can be has changed so much over the last generation that a farewell party may be passe. 

Driveby teacher thank you.

When my parents retired, for example, they were about to start what every one of their generation expected after years of work. Whether it was my dad's engineering and sales positions, or mom's decades of teaching, their parties made the standard jokes about rocking chairs, long vacations, and sleeping late. 

Schedules and requirements were seen as ending. The hidden, or unspoken message was implied: "Your productive life is over. Relax and enjoy your sunset years."

Today, that is not how most people I know, those who I interact with on this blog or read about on the Internet, think about retirement. Yes, there is a major life shift after leaving the world of work. For too many their personal identity is so wrapped up in their employment status that they feel adrift, without purpose, and invisible.

But, I would hope that those who read this blog, and others, have come to the conclusion that not only is retirement not the end of anything, but actually the start of a stage of life filled with a sense of freedom and possibility that most of of us have not experienced since early childhood.

If this is true, then how do we plan our own retirement party? I think there are a few elements that should be included. Firstly, if you have worked for a company and with other people for a period of time, it is proper to thank them for what you have learned, been allowed to contribute, and being made to feel valued. 

If your co-workers want to throw you a farewell party, by all means, allow it and react with graciousness and good humor, even if there are foam tombstones and old geezer baseball caps presented as gag gifts. Likely, there is affection and a feeling of loss at your departure. A retirement party can be a form of grieving for some people. Your presence will sincerely be missed. The party is also a reminder that time is passing for all of us and someday we will be the person being given a desk plate and silly coffee mug.

The second part of your own retirement party should be a period of reflection. What parts of yourself were well utilized at work? What skills and talents did you develop? Importantly, what did not get a chance to shine, to be explored, to be exposed? What parts of you were left on the shelf?

Why dredge up those thoughts? Because, starting now, you have the permission, the freedom, even a strong need to bring those parts of you out of hiding. Open the storage door wide and allow the parts of you left in the dark for too long to shine, to be put to use, to be explored.

Part three of your retirement party comes later. It starts on the day you stop defining yourself by what you once did and frame the narrative around what you want to be, what you could be. This is when the retirement phase of life truly begins.

After any "official" going away party, I urge you to throw your own retirement party.  The most fascinating, creative, and fulfilling stage of life deserves nothing less.


  1. Bob, I thought this was an excellent post. You may not have written it with this intent, but I believe that parts two and three may be particularly meaningful and beneficial to those who did not retire by choice. I escaped from the workforce on the date of my own choosing. Alan's IT position was eliminated after a 35+ year history of stellar employment with his company. Our experiences and our perspectives are quite different. Although he's happy and content now, his initial adjustment to retirement was difficult. This post serves as a reminder to all of us of what we brought to the table during our working years and to celebrate those contributions - and the skills, experience and relationships that facilitated them.

    I do have to disagree with you on part one and, by way of explanation, I'll share this story with you . . . I was working in the business office of our local school district at the time I decided to leave the workforce. I gave my notice well before the four weeks that were required by my contract. Unfortunately, I knew that would give the department secretary (our in-house party planner) plenty of time to put together a retirement party for me. Based on my work ethic and the excellent relationships I had developed with staff throughout the district, I had an inkling that a party would be well attended. So I asked our secretary not to plan one. She wasn't happy; I had to make her promise - no party, no flowers. I know it sounds callous, but my mental health was more important than the district's party. As an introvert, the thought of dealing with that many people for an entire evening was enough for me to break out in a cold sweat. Knowing that I was the reason for the gathering and would be the focus of the event was too stressful for me to even contemplate. So, no party. People stopped by during my last week of work to wish me well and that was perfectly enjoyable. I visited with all of my colleagues in the business office before I left, and then I quietly walked out the door at the end of my last day, perfectly content. I have been delighted to attend many retirement parties over the years to celebrate the milestone with and for others. I'm just glad I didn't have to attend my own. We all have different perspectives.

    1. Your insistence on not having a full-blown retirement party is completely understandable, and one scenario I never considered. That ability for people to validate you, one-on-one was important for them, and you.

      In my case I had a collection of clients spread all over the country. As my industry changed they just started to slowly not renew my services. By the time I pulled the plug there was only one left. Small party!

      So, as the post says, I had to turn that negative ending into a positive by reminding myself of all I had accomplished over the years, and the good people I had met and worked alongside. I guess it isn't that different from the situation your husband went through. He had to self-validate all he had accomplished to feel positive entering a new period of life.

    2. Bob,

      I too declined a retirement party after nearly 40 years as an academic. In my entire life I have been uncomfortable being singled out for attention--even for praise. I was always acutely aware that whatever contributions I made, my success and acomplishment was always tied to a long chain of others who had helped me along the way--and a large dose of luck. My colleagues were stunned, several were even a bit angry at my decision, but I came in on a weekend, cleaned out my office, shut off the lights and closed the door. I still am called upon to give advice or provide historical perspective to my old department on occasion (which I am happy to provide), but I have politely declined offers to teach or serve on committees--responding with "retired is retired." I have moved into my retirement content with my own list of accomplishments that I can quietly celebrate. Every morning I pour my cup of coffee and listen to the traffic noise of people commuting to their jobs is a retirement party for me. The best kind. And I am grateful.

      Rick in Oregon

    3. I had to drive an extended distance in rush hour traffic last...and thanked my lucky stars this was not how I normally spend my time. Why is everyone in such a rush to go nowhere very slowly?

      I am interested in the handful of comments so far that indicate retirement parties are a turnoff, though not really shocked. They seemed more appropriate when it was common to spend many years with the same company.

      I will be surprised if they don't fade out completely with the generations that followed us. Their employer-employee bond is quite different.

  2. Hmmm, you got me thinking. Maybe next spring I'll throw my wife a retirement anniversary party. It'll be five years.

    1. Great idea! Any excuse for validation and a party...a double win.

  3. Hey Bob! Similar to you both Thom and I have been self-employed our entire lives so it is doubtful there will be a retirement party, if and when the time comes for us both to officially "retire." But with that said, I am game for just about any kind of party! Besides, just like some funerals there are some that choose to make "celebration" a big part of the experience...and rather than making it a long slog, I think it is possible to share periods of reflection and gratitude. Wouldn't that make a good party? Hmmmm...maybe I should start planning now. ~Kathy

    1. If you throw your own party you get to control both the guest list and the content!

      Seriously, I believe there can be a real benefit in celebrating the contributions you made in whatever field you worked, as well as appreciation for those you met along the way.

  4. I enjoyed my retirement party. I told them to keep it simple as there was a number of temporary staff that could not afford to go to an expensive party. It was a luncheon in the office and everyone was able to come. I returned a few weeks later with cake and cookies for everyone. I have been retired 11 years and still keep in touch with people who continue to work and other retirees. I made good friends there. I was there almost 30 years. I could never just walk out, although one person left after 25 years without saying goodbye to anyone.

    1. 30 years with one organization is quite an accomplishment. But, so is staying in touch this long after retirement. Clearly, you developed some lifelong relationships.

      The cake and cookies was a very nice touch.