When He Retires and She Still Works, What Happens?


My generation – the Baby Boomers – are beginning to retire, particularly the very successful ones who can afford to retire earlier.  They have stayed at work late, risen early, traveled more than they wanted when their children were young, survived under different bosses, ascended through the ranks, and attained ever increasing responsibilities.  Now, many of them have decided to slow down, play more golf or tennis, volunteer, and travel for pleasure.  But that’s mostly just the men.

I’m seeing a surprising new phenomenon when it comes to career arcs and transitions, with women happily and successfully working longer than their husbands.  As Julie, a high profile investment manager, told me, “instead of wives who raised children and managed the home waiting for their spouses to finally retire so they can travel around the world together, there are now a slew of husbands waiting for their wives to retire.”

How did that happen?  In large part, this is both because the career path for women has been slower than that of their male peers and the fact that women have historically been younger than their husbands, although that is changing.  A recent study of CEOs by Terrance Fitzsimmons of the University of Queensland found that male CEOs generally had full-time stay-at-home wives who could take primary responsibilities for the family and household, allowing the men to focus fully on their career.  Not only did the female CEOs in the study report that they were the primary caregiver when their children were young, but that “their families took precedence over their careers.”  Combining the longer time of ascent with their younger relative age can result in female executives often lagging several years behind their spouse in real career terms, hitting their professional peak when their husband has already retired or is scaling back.

This subject has been on my mind for years.  At age 48, in 2004, I decided to leave my great job as a mutual fund manager to co-found an asset management firm.  I was worried about how much more additional time I would need to devote to this enterprise.  Our children were grown, but I was concerned about the impact of my busier work schedule on my husband. As our company expands, I occasionally revisit questions such as when I might slow down (not for quite a while!), how my husband will feel if he works less in a few years and wants me to travel and relax more. (What’s relax?)

And so I decided to ask a number of very successful women around my age, several of whom are CEOs of their companies, about this topic.  I asked them to describe their husband’s work status, whether there was any friction around the amount they worked, their own plans for retirement, and what, if any, compromises they have made for their spouses’ sakes.  All the women surveyed have children and almost all experienced some career interruption or slowdown when their children were young.

Sixteen women responded, and there were several common themes.  All reported that their husbands were very proud of them, whether or not there was friction about their work schedules.  As Alexa, the CEO of a health care services company, put it, “my husband doesn’t love when I travel and wants me to slow down, but he is really proud of me and I know he adores me.”   There was a strong sense from all those surveyed that these couples had, over decades, reached a comfortable balance, where even men who had not originally expected their wives to continue to thrive professionally were now comfortable with this aspect of their marriage.

Some women had taken years off when their children were young and then gone back to full time work, with their husband’s support.  As Naomi, a managing director of a major law firm, put it, “my husband totally supported my desire to work part time or not at all, and then my return to full time employment.  He’s given me confidence to push ahead and tells me that he takes pleasure in my success.”  Her husband also works full time and she feels no pressure to pull back her career now.

About half of the husbands were fully or semi-retired but, somewhat surprisingly, they did not exert more pressure on their wives to work less than the spouses of men who worked full time. Three common reasons emerged:  they were extremely independent men; they had serious hobbies or non-profit affiliations; and they appreciated the value of their wives’ financial contribution.  In all cases, whether it was a first marriage or a second marriage, these relationships had evolved over the years so that, as Clare, a CEO of a design company, put it, “We are well beyond the point of friction.”

All respondents who did feel pressure from their husbands to work less –slightly over half of my sample — said that they made compromises to accommodate their spouse.  These included leaving the office earlier than they would otherwise, partaking in leisure activities that their husband chose, and making an effort to take off more time. All reported having primary responsibility for domestic tasks including groceries, cooking and cleaning, even if they had outside help fulfilling them.

Rather than resenting their spouse for interfering or being controlling, many women understood their husbands’ frustrations, perhaps recognizing the downsides of being driven.  They acknowledged that non-work experiences with their spouses were important and necessary diversions, good for their marriages, and often intellectually broadening.   As Trina, a senior executive at a service company, explained, “I am very sensitive about finding time with Rob (semi-retired). He encourages me to do many cultural events outside my comfort zone, which is really good for me.”

I had originally expected more women to report that their husbands, who were retired or semi-retired, would be very anxious for them to retire.  What I found, however, was more negotiation and cooperation than conflict.  As they move, even slowly, toward dual retirements, they seem to trust, respect, and mutually support each other, which, at least for the women, may be one contributing factor to their success.