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Maybe We Should Retire The Word 'Retire'

The official portrait of retirement has changed, and it didn't change to this.
The official portrait of retirement has changed, and it didn't change to this.

Retirement ads are everywhere these days. The Villages lures retirees to come live, love and golf in Florida. USAA offers financial counsel to retiring military personnel. Hollywood stars such as Pat Boone and Tommy Lee Jones dole out all kinds of retirement advice in 30-second sermonettes on television and the Internet.

"Thousands of seniors have turned to One Reverse Mortgage to take control of their retirement," intones Henry "The Fonz" Winkler in one earnest spot.

Old actors don't retire; they just make retirement ads.

But the more talk there is of retirement — on TV, in pop-up ads, in news stories — the more you begin to wonder: What is retirement anymore anyway?

Backyard Hammocks

Time was, the official portrait of a retired American included a steady, dependable pension; leisurely mornings puttering about the house in soft slippers — maybe replacing the chain on the toilet tank ball or knitting a doorknob cozy; slow-driving from drug store to grocery to TV repair shop — back when TVs could be repaired. Afternoons were for penning letters to faraway friends and checking on the backyard hammock hooks.

Oh sure, there was plenty to do — foursomes of bridge and long weekend fishing trips. Perhaps for the more privileged — a beach house, a houseboat, that long-delayed trip to Mexico City.

No mas.

"I think the word 'retired' needs to be retired," says financial writer Kerry Hannon in her 2012 book,

"Baby boomers are either continuing to work much longer or approaching work not as an afterthought, but as a pillar of their retirement plans," Hannon says, "as oxymoronic as that sounds."

Many older people are continuing to work — some out of choice, some out of necessity. "Unlike many of our parents," says Hannon, "most of us don't have pensions to fall back on to fund not-working for a decade or more."

She notes a few statistics: Between 2010 and 2020, people ages 55 and older are projected to be the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force, according to the 2012–2013 Occupational Outlook Handbook,a jobs forecast by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And, according to recent findings by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, more and more workers say they are planning to delay retirement.

"Today's 60-year-old might reasonably plan to work at least part-time for another 15 years," Hannon says. "That changes the entire definition of retirement today and what it really means. For many retirees, working in retirement is quickly becoming a new stage in career progression."

Doesn't the phrase "working in retirement" render the very notion of retirement — and the word — obsolete?

Persistence Living

As a word, retirement "has already undergone substantial change in its lifetime," says Katherine Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. "Its earliest known use in English — 1536 — referred to withdrawal or retreat in a military context. By the early 17th century, it had taken on a new meaning, referring to the state of living apart from society in seclusion. Then, by the middle of the 18th century, the use that is now most familiar had become common, referring to the action of leaving office, employment or service permanently, now especially due to age."

As many Americans are discovering, however: Nothing is permanent. "The entire concept of you-work-and-then-retire is over for most people," says Hannon. "Retirement is a process. People gradually fade out of the workforce. About 60 percent of the career workers take on a job after exiting their main career. They ease their way into what we used to consider retirement."

As older people stay in and return to the workforce, we are seeing social dominoes fall. Employers are having to make new decisions — should they hire younger or older folks? Families are seeing the ripple effects as job-seeking young people move in with job-keeping parents. And many older people, Hannon says, really do want to keep working for reasons of mental engagement and social interaction. "The money makes it even better," she says, "even if it's not a lot."

So if we retire the words "retire" and "retirement" what should we call that phase of life when people leave office, employment or service permanently — especially due to age? Should we have "longevity funds" instead of "retirement funds"? Should we say she's "re-engaging" instead of "retiring"? And what will we call those living areas that are so popular for American seniors — "endurance communities" perhaps?

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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