By Dr. Thelma Reese
“I’m Retired!” What does that mean? The word has definitely lost its meaning. In fact, it’s time to retire the word “retired.” Retirement used to immediately signify either an arbitrary age — usually sixty-five, or whether or not one was still being paid to work. It could imply, however, any one of a whole range of conditions, from having the wealth to maintain one’s lifestyle to physical or mental senescence forcing an end to life in the
workplace; or unwanted termination from a successful career to voluntary withdrawal from a no-longer satisfying one. The term definitely brought with it the suggestion of removal from something and of an endpoint in one’s life — perhaps the signal of a final stage of life.
Today, retirement generally means leaving some kind of paid work — in other words, retiring from something. But using the term is insufficient, however, when it is applied to a time in one’s life. Today, the word needs the accompanying preposition: “to.” We don’t just retire from something; most of us retire to something else. It may even be to another income-producing activity. In fact, just describing oneself as “retired” is embarrassing. It says, “I’ve stopped. I have nothing to do that’s worth talking about. I’ve
disengaged from activity that matters or would be of interest to anyone else.”
What Does Being Retired Look Like?
Images fade slowly. We still can see in our minds’ eyes (and in well-aimed commercials) happy, even complacent old people rocking contentedly; or in more recent ads, vigorous grey-haired seniors playing contentedly, reflecting an inner sense of well-earned serenity and fulfillment, passing time until Forever arrives. And definitely not making waves. Pretty pictures, just before Forever peeks over the horizon, assuring us of our
idealized place and role in society.
For most of us, things changed a few decades before the current upheaval became manifest. The images of being retired were shattered by:
- Longer life expectancy
- Increased visibility (our burgeoning numbers)
- Continued mental energy and emotional development
- Recognition of the value of our own life experience
- Concern for future generations
- Awareness of critical problems affecting everything from our neighborhood to outer space
- Connecting and contributing in ways we never dreamed of (except in science fiction)
- Ageism rearing its ugly head Anger at being ignored
In these times, when the world needs all hands on deck, the disengagement that “retirement” once evoked seems wrong. We need to seize the opportunities and meet responsibilities that are here for each of us.
If We Aren’t in Retirement, Where Are We?
Now that we have worked at jobs and/or careers we loved, hated, or tolerated; have raised families or helped others do it, or made our own way on our own; have searched for, found, lost meaning, found it again, or search still; marvel at all we survived; loved, lost, mourned, and loved again, we have arrived at seniority. Not that we earned it; we got here by living. We have arrived at the state of privilege the term suggests.
This place of seniority carries with it an aura of respect — even esteem — that acknowledges experience. The senior partner, the senior officer, the senior student: status and rank are implied in seniority. Also implied is responsibility.
In this age of upheaval, the emerging presence and voice of seniors can be a source of strength, inspiring and merging with the power of the generations that follow. When we listen, engage, and demonstrate the capacity to change we have learned from experience; and when we model resilience, embrace new ideas, and apply the lessons of experience, we are necessary central players in the change our world needs.
Retirement is over. The idleness of retirement is over. The action of seniority has arrived.
Dr. Thelma Reese is the author of The New Senior Woman and The New Senior Man and creator of the blog, www.ElderChicks.com. She’s a retired professor of English and Education, the former spokesperson for Hooked on Phonics, and has long been active in national and Philadelphia-based educational and cultural initiatives. She is the author, with BJ Kittredge, of the new book, How Seniors Are Saving the World: Retirement Activism to the Rescue!
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This article is republished with permission from the author. It was originally published at New Spirit Journal and in Thrive Global.