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Redefining Retirement Has Become a Movement

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am 65 years old and have just been “excessed” from a school where I have been for 31 years.  I am restless while feeling pressure from my friends who tell me I should just get another job or formally retire.  Although I can afford it, I don’t want to retire and not sure I am ready for another job.  I am in between.  What’s bothering me most is identifying as a retiree.  How do I describe this situation to my friends? 

Answer: There are reasons why many are not comfortable with the retiree identity. Let’s begin with the word “retirement.” It comes from the French word “retirer,” meaning “to withdraw.”  The term “tirer” also refers to drawing out or enduring, which is related to the French word “martir.” The English word is martyr, one who is tortured and voluntarily dies for something of great value.   Clearly on an etymological basis, “retirement” isn’t very positive.

Those who object to the term have their reasons.  Retirement has been referred to as an outdated form of social engineering, a concept that isn’t a natural part of the human life cycle. Others suggest it is a word that means too many things to too many people.

Almost 20 years ago, Lydia Bronte, in her book “The Longevity Factor” (HarperCollins, 1993), wrote that the old concept of retirement as the American dream is gone.  Retirement as a time of exclusive leisure is based on false assumptions.  These assumptions include:  people don’t like or need their work; the ability to perform inevitably declines with age; and older people always find leisure more satisfying than work.  These unrealistic beliefs are part of the current retirement revolution as some people continue to work full time in later life and work during their retirement years, while others seek a new sense of purpose.

Others argue that the word “retirement” is the problem.    What is needed is a word that conveys continuous participation, not withdrawal – at least for the many who want to remain actively engaged.  When students complete college or graduate studies, they participate in commencement, not retirement.

The French solved the terminology problem by using different words.  They refer to retirement as La Troisiéme Age, or The Third Age.  This period of life is viewed as a time to give back to society, to share one’s experiences and resources, and as a time for reflection rather than retreat.  Elders are seen as a living bridge between yesterday and today.  In the U.S., Fordham University formally adopted this concept by naming its department on aging The Third Age Center.

AARP is sensitive to the word “retirement.”  It changed its name from the American Association of Retired Persons to AARP, purposely omitting “retirement.”  This change is in response to the increasing millions of AARP members who continue to work and to the many baby boomers who do not identify with traditional retirement.

New words are emerging.  For example, “renewment” was created by a group of Southern California mid-life career women who are part of Project Renewment, a grass roots movement whose members are creating a new kind of future for themselves. They felt “retirement” did not convey their vision and approach to the next 30 years.  A future of vitality, passion, meaning and opportunity was better conveyed through “renewment,” a combination of “retirement” and “renewal.”   (I am co-founder and co-author of “Project Renewment: the First Retirement Model for Career Women,” Scribner 2008).

Authors Jeri Sedlar and Rick Miner reject the term and meaning of “retirement” in their book, “Don’t Retire, Rewire” (Alpha, 2003).   And noted gerontologist Ken Dychtwald and co-authors in a Harvard Business Review article write, “It’s time to retire retirement.”  Their advice is directed to employers who are facing skill shortages and will need the talents of their current retirement-eligible employees.

Here’s an alternative to “retirement.” Tell folks that you are on a sabbatical, a wonderful opportunity to test what is interesting and rewarding in the next chapter of life.  Sabbaticals are part of higher education as well as many corporations.  It’s a positive term that means opportunity for change, experimentation, and pursuing what’s important without a long-term commitment.  Try it out on your friends.

Thank you for your good question and have a great sabbatical.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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