Retirement needs a new definition

Posted Sept. 16, 2010, at 9:47 p.m.

A year ago, I was struggling to compose answers to the question, “What will you do after you retire?” A year later, it is just as difficult to answer the question, “How are you spending your retirement?”

There must be a better word than “retirement” for the time when life opens up to your own decisions about what to do and who to be. “Retirement” suggests that you work, then you don’t work. The reality is far more diverse.

I knew I was not alone in my discomfort with the term when I overheard a recent “retiree” respond to a query about her new life.

“Well, I am no longer in banking,” she said. I sensed she was trying to correct the idea of retirement as a time of leisure, even idleness. She was moving on to other things, but she was far from retired. I had made similar responses to the same questions, and was delighted by an e-mail from a colleague responding to an announcement that I was “retiring” with “No she’s not. I know her well — she’s not shy at all.”

I have loved every job in my career, from teaching to newspapering to running a regional congressional office to magazine publishing and “deaning” at the University of Maine. Each job contributed to my life, but none was a sole source of identity. Now that the last job has ended, I am back to rediscovering and redefining who I am. The experience is more like a job change than a cessation of work, but because I am suddenly eligible for a pension and Medicare, I am forced to call this change retirement.

The past year has felt a lot like previous times in my life when I was starting out on a new venture. It feels most like the year I moved to Maine, leaving my job as an English and journalism teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire to experiment with rural living and practice the journalism I had been teaching. The future was opportunity.

I had learned that if I did what felt most appropriate for the moment, the future would evolve naturally. The important thing was to stay in touch with those inner feelings that would lead to the next best thing.

High school teaching had been rewarding, but when I started writing for Maine newspapers, I could not believe I was actually being paid to ask people questions and write about their lives, not to mention chase down news and take pictures. It was the next best thing for that time in my life.

When those inner feelings stirred me to move on again a few years ago, I had to swallow my pride and admit I was old enough to retire. I tried to disguise my three-year “partial phased retirement” by saying I was “working half-time,” but the dean who signed the papers exposed my deception immediately in an e-mail announcing my “retirement” to the entire faculty. Many colleagues missed the “partial-phased” part of the message and wondered why I was still in my office during the next three years.

The inevitable questions about plans evoked a variety of answers. “Read, write and exercise every day before noon,” was typical. That was a certainty. Beyond that response, one or two things from my list of possibilities satisfied most people: “Spend more time outdoors. Make my business profitable. Live more sustainably. Finish restoring an old house.” Those who were still curious heard about my anticipation of the time and freedom to be open to opportunity and to engage the unexpected.

Similarly, since I have retired, I limit my descriptions of what I am doing to the current week or month, rather than recite the adventures of the entire year. No two weeks are the same, and the opportunities are limitless. More curious questioners might get a bit of philosophy about self-discovery through decision-making when you are the only one responsible for the choices you make.

As an academic adviser for college undergraduates, I often initiated a discussion with, “What do you want to do with your life?” It was a stunning question, and, “Get a job,” was not an acceptable answer. “Be happy” or “Make the world a better place” held potential for a meaningful discussion about goals and ways to attain them. I assured students that whatever they planned would change and that they could not possibly envision the opportunities that would evolve. They could only be fully aware of the present with faith that authentic decisions based on that awareness would lead naturally to the next best thing.

These students might not experience “retirement” as we know it today. A demographer quoted in the Christian Science Monitor says most children born after the year 2000 will live to be 100. Even today, people in their 90s are highly productive, evidence that work continues long after retirement and probably adds years to an individual’s life. Perhaps we are on the edge of a new era in which the idea of retirement gives way to a broader definition of work encompassing all the activities that provide personal fulfillment throughout life.

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