In the minds of many people, “retirement” still carries its old cliche-ridden meaning: Poolside indolence. Lost men in fedoras dying early. Irrelevance in herds. The Early Bird Special. Big foamy shoes. Big foamy chairs. Shrinking horizons. Fade to black.
If you’re in the privileged position of getting close to retirement today, those thoughts can be discouraging, even frightening. (Especially the shoes and chairs.)
And they are nothing to worry about.
Those days are over for most of us. We are healthier and more active, we live longer, and we should know better because retiring has changed like most other things. Work is less linear and rigidly defined. Gender stereotypes are exploding. Life is less predictable and more opportune in so many ways.
It’s a great time to have time on your hands.
So what do we do with the word “retirement”?
Having thought about this for too long, I’ve concluded the word probably has to stay. It says: not working full-time anymore; off the career path. Most people understand that. They know retirement is the big stretch of leisure after a life of work. And it’s generally for older people.
But that’s all “retirement" says that accurate.
In fact, the entire underpinning of that word should be tossed out. Retirement is typically defined in terms of work. And that doesn’t make sense to a growing number of people. Some want to do some work because it keeps them pleasurably occupied. Others want to not work at all for the same reason.
Retirement is more about time and how you want to spend yours in the last third of your life.
(Yes, younger people “retire" early. They choose to do less work or no work. They often escape from careers. But retired people are by and large older people.)
So age factors into the meaning too.
As with work, aging has changed tremendously. My paternal grandparents were old-looking people in their sixties. They died not long after. My grandmother was lovably loaf-shaped, preferred calico house dresses, and wore her hair in a matronly bun. My grandfather smoked a pipe and wore cardigans. It’s as if they assumed a role.
We are so different it's startling. We stay trim, get hipster haircuts, and wear stretchy fabrics in case we feel like hopping on a bike and riding a few dozen kilometers.
My grandparents were winding down. We are cranking up.
And because so many people in their sixties still have so much energy and potential, retiring from full-time work is like opening a new well of natural resources that can be devoted to whatever makes you a better person. Or gives you meaning. Or thrills you.
You no longer work for other people. You work for yourself. There’s no money. But there’s excellent compensation.
So back to that troubling word “retirement.”
It’s time to invest it with new meaning that reflects the changes in work and aging, and the opportunities of living three more active decades in a miraculous state of freedom to do whatever you want.
Coined alternatives seem uniformly lame to me: Third Act, Victory Lap, Inspirement, Refire. They are aiming at the new meaning, but along with being cheesy, no one knows what they mean.
If asked right now, “What are you doing these days?” I’d feel silly answering, “I’m doing my victory lap.” or “I’m refiring.” or “This is my third act.”
So how do we breath new life into an old word?
Let me give it shot.
To me, retirement is freedom from worrying about making money, a luxuriously long stretch of free time to grow, learn, experiment, explore, hone new skills, develop relationships, become more aware, have more fun, relax, reflect, train ourselves to age gracefully, clean up stubborn neuroses, test our edges, and generally do things we've put off for years because we were working so hard at one thing. Retirement is not one thing. It's a lot of things. I will be dead long before my ever-expanding checklist is ticked off.
So, “What are you doing these days?”
How about this: “I’m not working anymore. Well, sometimes I work a bit if I feel like it or to make some extra cash. But I’m lucky. I'm in a new phase of personal growth and enjoyment in my life. I’m having some great experiences, meeting new people, trying new things all the time. You know, living a bit larger. Oh, and relaxing a lot more.”
Who wouldn’t envy that?
Notice the word I didn’t use. Retirement.
I also didn’t use the word “personhood.” But that's a word I like when it comes to what the big project can be in this phase of life. It’s a word full of promise. It means, "the quality or condition of being a person.” A quality person. A better person. A growing person.
If my goal can be reduced to one idea, it's using retirement to practice personhood.
Few projects pay such generous dividends.