If you look up the work “retirement” in a dictionary you will find – to withdraw, go away, retreat, become unsociable, seek seclusion from the world. Is this how we view our later life? Not me, for one. This definition is as bad as “The Twilight Years”, another of my pet hates. Ernest Hemingway called retirement “the ugliest word in the language”
Diana Crossan, recently “retired” (!!) as Retirement Commissioner (!!), felt the same way. In a talk she gave as part of the TOWER lectures in 2004 she confessed to being perplexed by her title. “Retirement” didn’t fit with her perception of what people were doing with their lives after full-time employment. She called for a new name for a stage of life likely to last around 20 years. This should be a more positive term which encapsulates choice, freedom and fulfilment.
So what is “retirement” in the general understanding? Is it an event to mark the end of working life? This is what we mean when we talk about going to someone’s “retirement”; a ceremony at which everyone mouths compliments (whether sincere or not) and at which, traditionally, a timepiece is given and received? R.C. Sherriff pointed out the irony:
When a man retires and time is no longer a matter of urgent importance, his colleagues generally present him with a watch.
Is it a process, a transition? In an article entitled Second Adolescence? The transition from paid employment”, Schuller(1) discussed the increasingly complex transition between work and retirement. There is no longer a simple transition from education to work; young people often move in and out of paid work, with spells of education and training and travel. In the same way, there is another heterogeneous and ambiguous stage at the end of working life, which could also last up to a decade or more. He called this “work-ending” and likened it to the adolescent transition. In both stages we may move in and out of different circumstances until we settle into a more permanent situation.
Retirement could be a life stage. A hundred years ago, people entered the workforce about age 14 and left at 65, but then had only five years, on average, before they died. Now the average age of entry is 22, given the expansion of tertiary education and training. People still tend to retire around 65, but this leaves 20 years of life, on average, before death – a significant life stage. Linked to this is a definition of retirement as an alternative lifestyle. We hear about “retirement housing”, “retirement activities” and “retirement travel”. Advertising of “retirement” products and services usually depicts affluent older people, able to enjoy years of leisure and recreation.
For most of our adult lives, paid work meets a range of our needs, for income, mental stimulation, social contact, and so on. Leaving paid work means we must make a range of adjustments:
• A drop in income
Retirement: It’s nice to get out of the rat race, but you have to learn to get along with less cheese. ~Gene Perret
The challenge of retirement is how to spend time without spending money. ~Author Unknown
• A decrease in social contact and an increase in discretionary time
Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save.~Will Rogers
A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell. ~George Bernard Shaw
• Possible decline in social status
What could help us adjust? Research shows that whether retirement is compulsory or voluntary seems to be important in influencing the success of the transition and subsequent wellbeing in later life. People seem to do better if retirement is self-initiated – at a time chosen by the individual– rather than being triggered by an outside event such as redundancy or retirement due to ill-health. The amount of control we have over the process is very important. There is also evidence that a gradual transition may be more positive than a sudden departure from work.
I think we should try to see retirement in a new and more positive way – as a time of choice and opportunity. Then, if we still enjoy good health and have an adequate income to live on, we can put together a portfolio of activities which will be different for everyone. Our portfolio could include:
· Paid work, probably less than full-time and with many options for hours, time and place of work;
· Unpaid work – voluntary work in our communities, local and communities of interest;
· Unpaid caring work – caring for family members and friends (old and young), and often grand-children;
· Hobbies and travel;
· And with time for reflection and reminiscence.
In Spain the word for retirement is “jubilacion”. I was in Spain recently and noticed a sign in a shop window which translated as “Closing down – Jubilation” i.e. retirement. What a wonderful idea. My friend and I had great pleasure in approaching ticket counters at historic sights and asking for “dos jubiladas, per favor”. I very much liked being a jubilada – a retired lady – much better than a pensioner or even senior citizen – especially as it meant a concessionary charge. Could Jubilation be our new word for Retirement?
1. Schuller, T. (1987) “Second Adolescence? The transition from paid employment”, Work, Employment and Society, 1(3):352-370.)
Dr Judith A. Davey
Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor
Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington