After I retired three years ago, after 40 years and with a secure post-employment income, some well meaning people asked me how I was filling up all of my free time now. I felt vaguely uncomfortable with these questions, so I decided to seek out why I felt this way. It seemed to me that the noun "retirement" carries a negative valence to me, and in the larger western society, so I decided to look for various reasons and definitions. I learned that, until the mid-20th century, people died within two years of formal retirement, and many people worked until the day they died. It seems then, say the historians, that retirement simply became synonymous with old age, frailty and impending death. Well, where are we now? I first looked at present definitions of the word "retirement."
The dictionary defines "retirement" as… to withdraw from action or danger; to retreat; to withdraw especially for privacy; to fall back: recede; withdraw from one's position or occupation. A thesaurus search came up with … to sleep, depart, leave, and give up work. Some retired academics use the term emerita or emeritus professor (however, some people outside of the academic setting don’t know what this means), though this word does not necessarily put a negative valence on retirement, I believe in general perception, it is. Today, the word "retirement" conjures up a negative rather than positive impression. Presently, retirement seems to conjure up loss, or moving away from society. The mainstream mind’s eye image of a “retired person” seems to be generally old, frail, and unproductive.
However, there is a glimmer of positive movement away from this image. For example, what is your mind’s eye image of baby boomers? Vital? Engaged? Powerful? Of course, the oldest of this population is now only 62; however as they age, it is possible that the "look" of the retired person will continue to be vital, engaged and powerful. Another positive turn is the term "early retirement." The Beatles immediately come to mind—so do people who made millions in the computer industry in the '80s and '90s, cashed in their stock and left. They also project: vital; engaged; powerful. And magazine ads for “retirement living” homes usually show active, attractive, over-50 men and women playing tennis or golf
(the other extreme?).
So, I believe that there is the beginning of a shift in societal perceptions of what retirement means in our larger society. Perhaps some day soon, dictionaries will add "moving on" to its list of definitions of retirement.
I just wish people will stop asking me, "Now that you are retired, what do you do to keep busy?"