In winter 2007, John V. Siebel, an oncologist with a busy office in San Mateo, California, was feeling restless.
While Siebel, then 64, found satisfaction in helping cancer patients, he felt burdened by the endless administrative tasks that are a part of a modern medical practice.
“It felt like it was time to retire,” Siebel, now 74, recalls. “I wanted to do other things.”
But what? After announcing his retirement, the physician began sketching out a new life. Always athletic, he loved the outdoors, particularly in Alaska, where the land and culture fascinated him. One thing was certain: He wanted to keep on seeing patients, though part time.
Siebel’s answer was to become a kind of oncological “temp,” covering for vacationing doctors with practices in interesting places — including Alaska.
In many respects, Siebel represents a new type of retiree, the professional who, late in life, deploys his or her training in some new way. In doing so, this person is blurring the lines between work and leisure, and redefining traditional ideas about the nature of retirement.
For up to three months of every year — the limitation is Siebel’s choice — a medical employment agency books him for short stints in remote parts of Alaska, California or Idaho. He will only accept assignments near wilderness areas.
Weekdays, he sees patients. On weekends, he heads to the mountains and explores.
“I work for doctors on vacation or maternity leave,” Siebel said. “It’s easy for people with my particular training to get these jobs. What oncologists do is more or less universal, so you can easily integrate into an ongoing practice.”
What’s different now is how Siebel practices. “I have more time to find out about the patients’ lives, which helps me clinically,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about ‘the office,’ which can be consuming. Now all I do is sit there and be with the patients, which is one of the beauties of the new situation.”
This type of work flexibility isn’t possible for everyone. “You need in-demand skills, good health and some financial security,” Siebel said.
Despite the caveats, a small but significant cohort of older Americans is experimenting with variations of a self-designed retirement.
According to a 2015 census study, 8 percent of Americans over 65 are full-time workers. Another 12 percent work part time.
Some do it because of financial need. Others find themselves liberated by their new pension checks, which they use to underwrite a redesigned work life.
Joel Dreyfuss, a 71-year-old Haitian-American journalist and editor, had long sought to write a book about his family’s 300-year involvement with Haiti’s history.
Dreyfuss (who is not a known relation to this writer) was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Though the family is prominent there, he was aware of only fragments of his back story.
“I knew that my Jewish grandfather, Emmanuel Dreyfuss, was born in France and immigrated to Haiti in 1893,” Dreyfuss said. “My grandfather was taciturn. He didn’t tell the kids much about the past.”
Over the years, Dreyfuss interviewed relatives and collected bits and pieces of family lore. However, intense career demands — he was at various moments the top editor at publications like InformationWeek, PC Magazine and Black Enterprise — kept him from the concentrated research such a book required.
An epiphany came in September 2011, while Dreyfuss was serving as managing editor of The Root, an online news site that covers black culture, and his 66th birthday rolled round. Suddenly, he realized, “the clock was ticking, and that there were things I still wanted to do — like the book.”
In that moment, he decided to gather up his savings and retire.
By February 2012, Dreyfuss and his wife, Veronica Pollard, had moved to Paris, where many key documents of Haitian history are stored. (The flat they purchased, in the Parc Monceau district, was in the very building where author Graham Greene had once lived.)
The last few years have proved a mix of pleasant strolls, fine dining and historical research. “What I do now is a lot like journalism,” Dreyfuss said. “You’re tracking down records, cross-referencing them, figuring out the story behind the numbers.”
On the whole, he said, his time has been productive. “I’ve learned of a colonial ancestor who I’ve traced back to the early 1700s,” Dreyfuss said. “His grandson was the only white signer of the Haitian Declaration of Independence in 1804. I have one or more African ancestors. With one, I found a document from the 1770s saying he was born in Benin and sold into slavery in Haiti.”
Last winter, Dreyfuss finished a first draft of the still-untitled work. In it, he shows how his family’s multicultural story is linked to the larger story of the New World; he expects to send a final version to his literary agent by New Year’s Day.
“I couldn’t have done it,” Dreyfuss said, “if I hadn’t retired, or rather, semiretired.”
Similarly, Michael Gerrard, faculty director of Columbia University Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, isn’t quite sure he can be defined as retired.
“This is the furthest thing from retirement,” Gerrard, 65, said with a laugh. “In the years since I’ve ‘retired,’ I’ve produced five books on climate change.”
For 14 years, Gerrard was a partner in the New York office of the Washington law firm Arnold & Porter (recently renamed Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer). He headed the firm’s New York environmental practice, where he still works one day a week.
When, in 2008, David Schizer, who was at the time dean of Columbia Law School, invited Gerrard to jump-start what would become the Sabin Center, he opted for an early retirement.
Back then, he was 57 and, by his own description, “nowhere near retirement.” And, he said, his law firm “wasn’t thrilled.”
But Gerrard said he “felt almost a duty” to make the move because “climate change is an existential threat. There are legal tools that can be deployed to fight it. I wanted to train students and lawyers how to use them.”
From his university post, he has a platform to do some of that fighting himself. For instance, as director of the Sabin Center, Gerrard serves as an adviser to the government of the Marshall Islands, the Pacific nation that could disappear because of rising sea levels.
Gerrard advised its delegation during the negotiations at the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris. “There was some controversy on whether countries damaged by climate change could get compensation from damagers,” he said. “We beat back some potentially bad language.”
Gerrard admits that taking early retirement was “an unusual move. A lot of people thought I was crazy. But, I’d done very well financially. The kids were out of college. Columbia’s pay is fine, and I get to do some very interesting things. Last year, I went to a meeting with the pope!”
And there’s a bonus: “I don’t have to fill out a time sheet every day, which I had done for 30 years.”