Retirement Redesigned

Our online course is live! See the menu for details.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Retirement Redesigned

HomeRetirementWe Need A New Definition For Retirement

We Need A New Definition For Retirement

The act of retirement has evolved substantially over the years but the connotations of the term remain stuck in the past. How can we update the term to mean more than the old image of withdrawing from productive life and withering away?

Increasing numbers of people baulk at the perceived negative connotation of the term retirement. The word conjures an image of someone withdrawing from life and society when they reach the prescribed age of retirement. It conjures a picture of no longer being useful or productive. And for some, the term is taboo because the connotations don’t resonate with their values. Even if they do want to retire, they don’t want to call it that.

We are already redefining what it means to be old. Perhaps we can also encourage ourselves to find a more realistic connotation – or an entirely new word – for retirement.

Increased longevity has changed the game

Many, if not most people who are in their sixties are often healthy and well enough to work and be competent in a job, so it can feel like an insult to press permanent pause. In past generations, retirement was linked to a perception of old age that went hand in hand with decrepitude. A few decades ago, people in their sixties were not as fit and agile as their cohorts are today. So, the definition of ‘old’ is changing rapidly. Actuaries now say that if a person is reasonably fit and healthy in their sixties, they are likely to live for another twenty, thirty or more years. 

This negative image of retirement, as it is perceived from the past, is compounded by our increased vitality. Throughout industrialised populations, people are benefiting from increased longevity. Folks are well and active enough to be productive well beyond the prescribed ‘best before’ date.

In search of new definitions

Although retirement simply means the end of a working life the concept also seems to contain the hopes and fears of many people have for this phase of life. And this is where it gets complicated. It has become a complicated catchall for multiple concerns. So many people have as many different notions of this time and what it might mean in their lives. Would replacing the word with a new one solve the negative image that people sometimes associate with it?

We are already redefining what it means to be old. If we can encourage ourselves to find a more realistic connotation for retirement, do we also need an entirely new word? Some people have already tried to redefine retirement with terms such as the ‘Third Age’ or ‘Refirement’. To date none of these has stuck, and some of the old connotations still remain. As Ken Dychtwald’s article in the Harvard Business Review states “It’s time to retire retirement”. His view is based on the idea that we shouldn’t hire and retire based on an arbitrary age cut off. If so, shouldn’t the term then also be, erm, retired?

There are other factors to consider. The word retirement is heading for further challenges of definition. Increasing numbers of younger people are facing the wave of technology which will predictably make even more people redundant. With the increasing levels of joblessness, they are less likely to keep their careers on track. They will also be defined by retirement – or even retirements.

Retirement does not conform to cookie cutter notions

But it is not a negative concept for everyone. There are folks that have looked forward to their retirement and see it as a welcome time of release from the responsibilities of full-time working life. They relish their free time and make plans to be independent and to do what they feel like. This can be a satisfying life if you have enough to keep you engaged and occupied.

Then there are many other types of retirement that lead to renewed productivity. Society is replete with examples of people who come into their own after retirement. Either due to necessity or simply because they had time to live for their dreams or re-engage their career skills in new ways. Grandma Moses rose to fame after taking up painting in her seventies when arthritis left her incapable of holding a crochet needle any longer.

Resetting the notion of retirement by encouraging people to think of many new opportunities available to them, suggests that retirement could be an ‘encore’ to working life.

Retirement also has a ‘life design’ element. Scaling down existing arrangements to live in a more manageable house, or mobile home. Or even live on a boat! It could also mean becoming more involved with grandchildren or caring for aged parents. Several options like this may even involve moving to another country. Such moves could be the exciting new face of retirement. This can be a time of exciting new ventures.

Changing the act of retirement is what will redefine the term

There is no doubt that retirement is now being redefined. Many of the growing cohort of ‘baby boomers’, who are retiring in numbers, want a different identity for the process. Retirees, especially the healthier ones, want to continue to work and be productive and stay engaged. They relish the opportunity to consider new options available to them since shaking off the restrictions of full-time work. Now is the time to take a look at their deferred personal longings. It may be rediscovering creativity, tackling a long put-off personal project, travelling extensively, or a combination of several of these options.

Retirees, especially the healthier ones, want to continue to work and be productive and stay engaged.

Taking all these scenarios into account, it becomes clear that we may not dispense with the word retirement just yet. Rather, we have to change what happens in retirement. Retirees need a new sense of meaning and better use of our time in retirement. Retirement is not working for the majority of people as it is practised today. We can reset the notion of retirement by thinking of the many new opportunities available to us in retirement. This period can be an ‘encore’ to working life. It can be a time to engage in an entrepreneurial venture, study again or curate a satisfying portfolio life. Not a time to withdraw or regress, but a time to re-engage.

Significant emphasis should be placed on the fact that retirement is not a destination, but a process of transition. This process could take several years and will be more meaningful as an on-going process as opposed to an arrival. Now is the time shake off the long held image of a withering withdrawal from life. Script your retirement story according to a new vision. In this time of life transformation, let’s create our own way of describing it and let it settle into the mainstream of new thinking.

Johann is the founding partner of Reset Retirement where we focus on assisting people with planning for the non-financial aspects of their lives after full-time work. He had a long career in executive search and leadership as the founding partner and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles in South Africa where he was the head of the company’s board practice.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here