Don't wait until it's too late for a graceful exit

Posted: Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fortunate are those who comprehend the art of bowing out.

As we were reminded again this week, the consequences of staying too long can be disastrous.

Journalist Helen Thomas closed out a 50-year career of reporting from the White House in a blaze of scandal, caused by her comments that Israeli Jews should be returned to Germany and Poland - nations they fled during the Holocaust.

Thomas' forced retirement as a columnist for Hearst News Service was a sorry exit for a legendary newswoman who broke barriers and stories in her heyday as the White House correspondent for UPI wire service. But the truth is, she was a flameout waiting to happen. Her column of recent years had limited readership and her behavior was viewed as increasingly strange.

Pity she didn't write a definitive farewell column five years ago and enjoy a round of banquets in her honor.

We're all familiar with athletes who couldn't call it quits. A declining Muhammad Ali came back from a two-year layoff to be battered into retirement by Larry Holmes. Willie Mays, the acrobatic outfielder and blazing base stealer, limped through his final seasons on a bad knee. Quarterbacks Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas stuffed their old legs and aching backs into new team uniforms and took a beating along with their legacies.

And then we have the politicians who labor under the false impression that no one else can fill their shoes.

Arlen Specter, 80 years old and a survivor of two bouts of cancer and an incident of cardiac arrest, switched political parties in an attempt to win a sixth six-year term in the U.S. Senate. Democratic primary voters in Pennsylvania last month filled him in on a harsh reality - no one is irreplaceable.

One can see how it happens. These are people in the spotlight. They are known by the public, and perhaps even by their friends and families, not by who they are but by what they do. They may not even know themselves in any other context.

But what about the rest of us, who sport no titles or particular claim to fame? The baby boomer generation is getting a bad name for sticking around too long and hogging the jobs and opportunities that should be going to the young and talented. Never before have so many people remained in the workforce past age 65.

Of course, recent events have made it difficult for many to bow out gracefully.

It's hard to contemplate retirement or a new venture when one's retirement savings have been decimated, one's pension has disappeared and the family's access to medical care depends on Mr. or Ms. Boomer hanging on to his or her job. A huge plus for the new health care reform act is that people can strike out on their own without fear of being denied affordable coverage because of their age or a past health problem.

But will we? Jobs, after all, bring stability. Sometimes they bring relevance. Celebrities aren't the only folks who define themselves by their work.

Overstaying doesn't always end badly, but the law of averages says that if one sticks around long enough, the odds of pulling off a command performance yield to the probability of falling flat on one's face. The trick is to recognize the tipping point.

Fortunate are those who understand the art of bowing out. Even more fortunate are those who have the resources to act on it. And most fortunate of all are those who find that life goes on, and maybe even gets better, after the bow.

• Barbara Shelly is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board.

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