Thursday, February 12, 2009


I have a problem with retirement—not doing it—naming it. Why?

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?"

Amy Hittner


Fran said...

Thanks for that thoughtful and very accurate assessment of how retirement is (negatively, for the most part) viewed. Being a freelance writer still occasionally paid for doing what I love I am happy not to be retired; but 30-40 years ago, despite front-page bylines and assorted publications, the fact that I sat at home at my typewriter was seen as proof that I didn't really work --- so I got fingered for all the PTA committees and generally disrespected as a layabout. There is no justice.

susan swartz said...

I'm a retired newspaper reporter and when people ask me, "What do you do now?" I say "I write, of course." which is what I'm doing now, gathering stories for a collection called "Are You Still Somebody?" the way, the Spanish word for retired is jubilada.. which puts a much better spin on the word.

Fish'sBicycle said...

I like the Spanish word, "jubilada," for retirement, which Susan Swartz mentioned in her comment. I'm a wordsmith.. Re-tire-ment to me refers to retreading your tires.. Or giving your life a new purpose, a new focus.

I feel "work" as a priority belittles the fundamental necessity of meaningful functioning relationships. Very often the family only gets the leftovers in time & attention. After retirement, finally we can focus on the people we love, care about, and the society in which we live - if we haven't forgotten how, or they haven't long gone.
Of course some high energy folk can do it all simultaneously..