Home Health How Do Americans Mark Retirement? A New Project Captured the Transition.

How Do Americans Mark Retirement? A New Project Captured the Transition.


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A surgeon in Rochester, Minn. A TV-news traffic anchor in Chicago. A church organist in Ellwood City, Pa.

For a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine themed around retirement, the writer Charley Locke and the photographer Victor Llorente wanted to answer one question: How do Americans mark the end of their careers?

In February, Kathy Ryan, the magazine’s director of photography, and Shannon Simon, a photo editor, pitched an idea for a photo essay documenting the final working days of Americans. They joined forces with Ms. Locke, Mr. Llorente and Mark Jannot, an editor at the magazine, to see it through.

Beginning in March, Ms. Locke and Mr. Llorente set out to capture a momentous transition in the lives of seven individuals who shared stories of joy, regret and bittersweet enthusiasm about leaving the work force.

“Their jobs are a huge part of who they are,” Ms. Locke said in a recent conversation. “This is a transition with a lot of complicated emotions — fear, excitement and feeling like their identity is changing.”

She interviewed the almost-retirees over several weeks. Mr. Llorente spent about a month traveling across the country to photograph the subjects on their final days on the job. In mid-April, he observed a professional D.J. spinning his last songs. Just two weeks later, he shadowed a Postal Service worker on her final delivery route.

In an interview, Mr. Llorente and Ms. Locke discussed the extraordinary challenges of finding sources and why the article meant so much to the new retirees. These are edited excerpts.

How did this project come together?

CHARLEY LOCKE I mostly write about kids and elders in America. When Mark reached out to me about this idea for the Retirement Issue, I was really excited about the possibility of doing something around what retirement looks like for most Americans. We first talked about the story being about retirement rituals — I was looking for today’s version of how employers used to give longtime employees a gold watch to mark their last days. But the reporting and the sourcing were really surprising.

Fewer people work at the same company for decades, and fewer jobs are covered by union protections, which often have those traditions. Most Americans don’t have a set ritual around the end of work, so their loved ones figure out a way to honor them. This story ended up being about individual experiences of retirement.

How did you find sources?

LOCKE This is the most challenging story I’ve ever reported. I talked to hundreds of people for this article — union leaders, fire and police chiefs, public relations representatives and media spokespeople. I did a lot of cold calling. I would call people and say: “I’m working on a story about retirement. Do you happen to know anyone who’s retiring?” I found Sheila Giuntoli, the Postal Service worker, because I was searching on Facebook for events in different cities that had the word “retirement” in the name of the event. Sheila’s daughter was throwing her a surprise retirement party, so I messaged her.

Victor, what did you want to capture with the photography?

VICTOR LLORENTE There were two kinds of shots that I had in mind: a celebration moment and people doing their jobs. The celebration moment was a little harder because some of the subjects didn’t have anything big or eventful planned, like Arthur Jay, a fabric-store owner. But you never knew what was going to happen because it was their last day. For me, it was just about showing up.

You shadowed a TV-news traffic anchor in Chicago, a D.J. in Cincinnati and a firefighter in Dolton, Ill., on his final 24-hour shift. What was it like spending a day at a fire station?

LLORENTE I’ve been doing a lot of portraiture recently, so my photo shoots are usually pretty short. But this was going to be 24 hours. I got there early, at 7 a.m., because the firefighter started his shift then. There was a lot of downtime, and Dolton is a small town. The firefighters weren’t getting a lot of calls. They responded to three or four calls in 24 hours. I went to sleep around 11:30 p.m. They told me, “You got to sleep with your clothes on in case the alarm goes off.”

Were there any stories you wanted to include, but couldn’t?

LOCKE There was the director of the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage who just retired. We weren’t able to include him because of timing issues. He told me that on his last day, he planned to walk around the zoo, saying goodbye to his favorite animals, including Oreo, a female brown bear who he had raised since she was a cub.

You both captured personal moments in these retirees’ lives. Were people generally eager to open up and share their stories?

LOCKE People were really excited to talk about their long careers and proud of what they had accomplished. A number of subjects told me that they had been disappointed retirement hadn’t felt like a big deal. But being part of this — talking to me about it and spending time with Victor — marked a transition into a different time in their lives.

I had some really poignant, moving conversations with people, including some about their regrets around work. Arthur Jay, the fabric-store owner, talked a lot about how he hadn’t thought this was how he would spend his life, and how he had missed time with his sons who were growing up at home. A number of other subjects shared those feelings, and felt really unsure about what comes next.

LLORENTE Mr. Jay was one of my favorites. He took me to lunch on his last day. We got his favorite roast beef sandwich. But to Charley’s point about marking the moment, I definitely felt that. Roz Varon, the TV-news traffic anchor, kept introducing me to people as “her photographer.” You could tell she was really happy I was there. And I was really proud to be there, because she’s going to look back at those photos.

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