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The Word Retirement: A Modern Meaning

The Word Retirement: A Modern Meaning

 

We never liked the words “retirement,” or “retired.” We are not alone. Even the American Association of Retired Persons has dropped “retired” from its name--it’s just AARP now. The root of these words is the root of the problem. “Retiring” from the world for the next several decades makes no sense to us.

How did the whole concept of retirement begin? It seems that retirement as it is now understood was invented in the 1950’s, as a reward, and as an enticement to older workers to make room for younger ones. Medical advances meant that people who reached retirement age could expect to live into their 70s, for the first time exceeding the social security retirement age of 65. These retirees, mostly male, had weathered the Depression and a world war. They could stop working and still live comfortably, on pensions and social security. They looked forward to getting their gold watches, leaving their working lives behind, and playing for the five or maybe ten years ahead.  

Other felicitous developments were occurring as well. Leisure time became a middle class commodity, no longer reserved for the wealthy. Movies and TV were creating new kinds of entertainment. Airplane travel was becoming affordable. The nationwide highway system was being built. Cars could go long distances. Fuel costs were low. Retirement communities popped up in places like Florida and Arizona. The term “golden years” was coined to market the lifestyle in Sun City, Arizona, America’s first large retirement community. Retirees, who had plenty of disposable income, could have fun in the sun, with other retirees, for the remaining five or ten years of their lives. 

In the 50s, and for a long while thereafter, retirement seemed pretty great. But then something happened. Imperceptibly at first, retirement became more of a stigma than a desirable status. By the time we retired--the first large group of career women to stay in the work force until retirement--it had totally lost its lustre. To us, the 50s vision of retirement seems more like a death sentence than a golden goal. What happened?

What happened is that the working world, and the people who work in it, changed dramatically.

First, today's retirees have had an experience of the working world very different from that of the management-focused male atmosphere of the 50’s, and even that of the self-actualizing 60’s. Technology was a driving force. Moving from telex and multigraph to computers to mobile phones to personal devices impacted not only the way we worked but also our perspectives. From local we went global. We had friends and colleagues all over the world with whom we communicated constantly. Issues were considered through a much wider lens. We enjoyed operating in a landscape that was expansive, complex, and engaging.  

Second, our runway is not ten years. It is closer to thirty. A person who lives past her 50s is likely to live until her 80s or 90s. For at least twenty of those years, she will likely be mentally and physically fit, and technological advances--like self driving cars--will help overcome previously limiting conditions. We are no longer talking about what we are going to do for a decade or less. We are talking about what we are going to do for the next 20 or 30 years. That is way too long to be in “retreat.” Or to just play. Or to be treated like a potted plant.

Finally, many of us, for the first time, are women. Women who fought for their careers, women who reshaped the workforce to accommodate us, a new kind of worker, and women who worked until retirement. We are at the top of our form, and we want to spend the next few decades doing interesting and purposeful things in the middle of the wider world. Because of our careers, we also have the wherewithal--mental, physical and financial--to shape a new kind of retirement.  

So what do we mean to do?  We mean to give the concept of retirement a massive overhaul. Just as we tailored the working world to fit our talents and needs, so too will we refashion retirement to make it fit us. We will put forth a new image of what modern retirement looks like, especially for modern women. When modern women retire, they use those careers as a starting point, the platform upon which to jump off to new accomplishments. Retirement is an opportunity to pivot, to put experience and skills to new uses, to learn new things through the lens that four decades of experience provides.

We can't escape the word “retirement.” So let's claim and update it. Make it modern, resplendent. An achievement that is a gateway to many different things, a status marked by fluidity, energy, activity and engagement. Bring back its lustre. If we decide to do this together, the sky is the limit. 

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