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Karen and Erica
March 14, 2022

The Word "Retirement" Sends The Wrong Message. Let's Change That.

Retirees have totally changed, and so must the language of this new status.

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

This piece was originally published on Lustre.

According to the Harvard Business Review:

[B]ack in 1889, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck invented the idea of retirement, establishing the concept for the rest of us. “Those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state,” he said at the time. He wanted to address high youth unemployment by paying those 70 and older to leave the workforce, and other countries followed suit with retirement ages around 65 or 70.

1889 was over 130 years ago.

Of course Bismarck’s idea, a good one for the times, was taken up in the United States, somewhat later, by both governmental and private enterprises, and the concept became entrenched. In the U.S, retirement as we know it today was invented in the 1950’s, still serving as both a reward for a job well done, and as an enticement for older workers to make room for younger ones.

In that era, public health 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 at least one world war. Many oil them were disabled from work by age and invalidity, Bismarck’s criteria. After they stopped working, pensions and Social Security gave them disposable income they could spend for fun in the sun, with other retirees. The remaining few years of their lives would be their golden years, a term coined to market the lifestyle in Sun City, Arizona, America’s first large retirement community.

And fun they did have. Movies and TV created new kinds of entertainment. Airplane travel was becoming affordable. Cars could go long distances on newly built nationwide highways. Fuel costs were low. Retirement was pretty great. And still extremely short-lived.

But then something happened.

Imperceptibly at first, retirement became more of a stigma than a desired status. By the time we retired--the first large group of career women to stay in the work force for four decades--retirement had totally lost its lustre. To us, the 1950s vision of retirement seems more like a death sentence than a golden goal. So using the word to describe what we were going to do after our long careers came to an end was demoralizing.

What happened?

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

First, the work experience of today's retirees is very different from that of those early retirees. Technology changed jobs from mainly physical labor to laboring at a desk. The knowledge economy took hold as we moved from telex and multigraph to computers to mobile phones to personal devices. From local we went global. We had friends and colleagues all over the world with whom we were in constant communication. We saw everything through a much wider lens. We enjoyed operating in a landscape that was expansive, complex, and engaging.  

Second,  public health advances gave people longer and healthier futures. We are not disabled from work by age and invalidity at the time we retire and our runway is not five or ten years. It is closer to thirty. A person who lives past her 50s is likely to live until her 80s or 90s and remain mentally and physically fit. 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—way too long to be in retreat.

Finally, for the first time many of us are women. Women who fought for our careers, women who reshaped the workforce, 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 wider world. We also have the wherewithal--mental, physical and financial--to shape that next phase.  

So retirees have totally changed, and so must the language of this new status. The word retirement does not describe what we intend to do now that our careers are over. We mean to give the concept of post-career life 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 can look like.

We would love to come up with a new word to go with our new image of post-career life. We’ve heard a few ideas, but nothing that has captured our imagination. We’ll keep looking, but meanwhile let’s reclaim the words starting with retire. We leave the field as champions, winners who have nothing left to conquer in our chosen profession. We are ready to go through the gateway created by the end of our careers toward a creative phase with new challenges to be met by using what we have learned and achieved over the past decades. It is an exciting time of growth and creativity.

130 years after Bismarck, it’s time to update his vision.

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