Going Out in Style

After working for an appliance manufacturer for three decades, Martin was looking forward to retirement--and his retirement ceremony. But the climax to his career left something to be desired. A cookie-cutter speech from the boss, the usual gift, and everyone headed for the buffet table. "Even the laughter sounded canned," Martin says.

All too many retirement parties follow this pattern. But such halfhearted ceremonies strip the event of its meaning. And that deprives retirees of a ritual that helps them negotiate their new identity, laments Ithaca College anthropologist Joel Savishinsky, Ph.D, who has studied retirement ceremonies.

"American culture has retained a lot of rituals, but they have become extremely watered down," he notes. "The rituals that tend to be most meaningful to people are the ones that family and friends create for them."

So what to do when a family member or coworker calls it quits? Savishinsky offers the following tips for a truly meaningful ceremony:

* Make gifts relevant to the guest of honor's future plans. One of Savishinsky's subjects, who intended to concentrate on painting in her golden years, received a hand-carved easel. Generic presents like gift certificates or cash are a no-no.

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* Let the retiree prepare the guest list. Sorting through the candidates can be the interpersonal analog of cleaning out one's desk: It lets retirees figure out who and what was meaningful in their lives.

* Rituals should incorporate a degree of fantasy. Many retirees, in the company of cherished friends, find it satisfying to reveal what they'd always wanted to say to that overbearing (and uninvited) coworker. Or they might want to share with a sympathetic audience their dreams for their postwork life.

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