The Word Retirement: Keep It or Bleep It?
At a recent gathering of extremely illustrious women, many in our cohort, we were explaining the mission of Lustre. Many people spoke emphatically about the need to abandon the word "retirement," expressing the view that it was a hopeless relic that could never be updated to express a positive picture of the post-career stage for women like us.
We had this same argument when we started. We had never liked the word, or related words like “retiring.” We knew we were not alone. AARP used to be the American Association of Retired Persons, but no more. The root of these words is the root of the problem. “Retiring” is not what we are doing. Quite the opposite. We see ourselves as moving forward.
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. People--mostly men--who reached retirement age could expect to live a few more years after they reached 65, the age at which social security kicked in 65. These men had been through two world wars and the Depression, their jobs were probably a lot physically harder that ours were, and they looked forward to getting their gold watches, leaving their working lives behind, and playing for a few years, with other retirees.
And playtime had improved. Leisure was becoming 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. The "Golden Years" could be spent in retirement communities popping up in sunny places like Florida and Arizona. Marketing to these retirees was simple--spend your last few years in these new communities having fun with each other. In the 1950's, and for a while thereafter, retirement seemed pretty great.
But then something happened. The working world changed in fundamental ways, and as a result, imperceptibly at first, retirement became more of a stigma than an honored 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 people of our vintage and experience, the 50's vision of retirement seems more like a death sentence than a golden goal. And we were a major cause of the changed perception.
So what are its causes?
First, for the first time a very large number of us are women. Women who fought for their careers, women who reshaped the workforce, demanding that it accommodate them, women who worked until retirement and are now experienced, connected and financially independent. We are at the top of our game. We want to spend the next few decades doing interesting and purposeful things in the wider world. We have the wherewithal--mental, physical and financial--to shape a new kind of retirement.
Second, all of today's retirees have had an experience of the working world very different from that of the retirees of the 50’s or 60’s. Technology was a driving force that 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 had to be seen through a much wider lens. We enjoyed operating in a landscape that was expansive, complex, and engaging.
Third, our runway is not ten years. It is closer to thirty. A person who lives past her 50's is likely to live until her 80's or 90's. We will likely be mentally and physically fit for a long time. Our focus is not on what we need to keep going--our focus is on what we want to move forward. 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 spend all of our time at play. Or to be a potted plant.
So back to the word. Is there a reason to update and own it?
We think so. We think the word and the concept of retirement need a massive overhaul, that's for sure, but we don't want to run away from either. We see retirement as a great achievement, one that gives us a platform for rocketing into the future. Just as we tailored the working world to fit our talents and needs, so too will we refashion retirement. A new image of what modern retirement looks like, especially for modern women, will take hold. Retirement will be properly seen as 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.
So we mean to claim and update the word “retirement.” 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. Do it with us. The sky's the limit.