We have had a continuing war with ourselves and our friends and our advisers—should we ever use the words beginning with “retire”? Until now we have said yes.
A couple of years out, we’re not so sure. Everyone’s first thought is that these words connote withdrawal and defeat. A desire to spend time only with our own kind--people who are happily detached from the real world and want to spend their days playing golf or gardening. “Retirees” are boring, dowdy, oblivious to the world, needy and greedy.
Where did this shrunken image of retirement and retirees come from? It was different when retirement was invented. In the 1950s it sounded great to workers who could expect to live for a few years after they reached 65, when social security kicked in. These retirees, mostly male, had weathered the Depression and a world war. People envied them. They had enough resources for a few years of play, and they rightly felt they had earned those years.
And playtime was very playful. Leisure time had come to the masses, and with it excellent new toys, no longer reserved for the wealthy. Movies and TV. Airplane travel. Driving all over the country on a spanking new highway system, in flashy new cars, to places like Florida and Arizona. There, retirees might enjoy their few “golden years,” a term coined to describe the lifestyle in America’s first large retirement community.
Retirement seemed pretty great. But then something happened. Imperceptibly at first, retirement became more of a stigma than a goal. Decades years later, by the time we retired--the first large group of career women to stay in the work force to the end--it had totally lost its lustre. To us, the 50s vision of retirement seems more like a death sentence than a golden gift. What happened?
What happened is that work, and workers, changed dramatically.
First, today's retirees experienced the working world very differently from people of the management-focused, male atmosphere of the 50’s, and even those of the self-actualizing 60s. Technology was a driving force. From local we went global. Everything was considered through a much wider lens. We enjoyed operating in a landscape that was expansive, complex, and engaging.
Second, our runway became dramatically longer. It is no longer 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. She will likely be mentally and physically fit, and continuing technological advances--like self driving cars--will help overcome previously limiting conditions. She can’t be in retreat—”retired”—for 20 or 30 years.
Finally, many of us are women. Women who fought for their careers, women who made the workforce accommodate us. We are not going to be pushed into a corner. We are at the top of our game, and we want to spend the next few decades doing interesting and purposeful things in the wider world. Not for us the isolation of retirement communities where we would wither away unseen and unheard. Because of our careers, we have the wherewithal--mental, physical and financial--to shape a new kind of retirement.
But maybe we’ll call it something else. “Post-career life” is a bit clunky, but it’s what we mean. We want to use our careers as a starting point, a the platform upon which to jump off to new accomplishments. To pivot, to put experience and skills to advanced uses, to learn new things through the lens that four decades of experience provides.
It is the Lustre stage of life, when the patina of our lives deepens and we leap fearlessly forward. We need a really good word.