When Roxanne and I teamed up to write a book about retirement for women, we wanted the content to be about the social and emotional aspects of this transition, based on the experiences of women who had already retired. So we created a questionnaire and invited women to respond. To our delight, we heard from 282 women from 11 different countries.
One of our first questions was: How do you define retirement, and how do you feel about the word itself? While some responses were neutral or ambivalent, many expressed intensely positive or negative reactions that go far beyond the word’s literal meaning. In fact, the strength of some of their feelings about the word was surprising.
Some women joyfully embrace the word, while others want to banish it from their vocabulary. Some find the word reassuring; others resent its implications. Some feel retirement connotes a grand new adventure full of possibilities; others feel it represents loss and irrelevance. Perhaps some of their comments will resonate with you.
Some women are just plain-old thrilled to be retired. They feel they’ve earned it and are happy to own the word “retired” when referring to themselves—for a number of reasons.
Many of our respondents equate retirement with freedom and flexibility. One said:
- Ideally (given financial stability), retirement is when you get to choose what you do, when you do it, and how much you do it. It is living life on your own terms and your own schedule. I feel that I am living on my own terms. I continued working because I loved what I was doing, but when it was no longer a joyful experience, I gave it up. I have given myself permission to let go of that which does not make me happy. (Teacher, retired in 2009 at age 55, Neenah, WI)
Another upside to retirement that women express is the ability to focus on themselves, to have “me time.” With no work obligations, they now have the time to cultivate their own interests and put themselves first.
- I describe retirement as “maximum me-time.” I’m proud that I chose to retire and “do me” early in life. So few people ever get that chance and by the time they do, they’re half dead sometimes. I didn’t want to retire and then drop dead a few months later. I wanted to take some time for myself, finally, after years of giving. (Journalist and educational administrator, retired in 2010 at age 58, Tucson, AZ)
A number of women see retirement as a time to discover a new or renewed sense of purpose and meaning—to excavate their long-dormant authentic selves.
- Before I retired, I felt that my real self was in the shadows, always shoved aside for the demands of work and home, motherhood and volunteer commitments. Some of this was self-inflicted, but the feeling grew stronger in recent years. I felt ready to retire, to face up to myself and to think about living purposefully and joyfully, not just getting through each day. (Paralegal/admin for pro bono referral program, retired in 2018 at age 60, Meredith, NH)
On the flip side are the women who articulate negative views of retirement. They equate retirement with obsolescence or loss. Some found themselves forced to retire by circumstances they couldn’t control, which also colored their perceptions. Others say they won’t even use the word “retired” to describe themselves because of the negative connotations the word holds for them.
Having exited the workforce, some women feel obsolete, useless or invisible. One said,
- Although I readily admit to being retired when asked, I don’t like to think of myself that way. The concept of retirement makes me feel like I have passed my expiration date, my usefulness no longer valid, and my identification revoked. I realize this is a state of mind over which only I have control, but that doesn’t change the perception. (Independent clinical social worker/ psychotherapist, retired in 2010 at age 67, Homeland, CA)
And when retirement isn’t a woman’s choice—when she’s forced out of her job sooner than she planned due to corporate restructuring or layoffs, for example—it understandably contributes to a negative view.
- Until recently, the word retirement was full of positive connotations. After years of working, you could finally relax and enjoy life. Lately, that’s changed. Too many people have been retired against their will. They haven’t really retired; they were thrown away. When we were used up, we were tossed out. (Various positions in information technology, retired for second time in 2018 at age 62, Yarmouth Port, MA)
Health issues also forced some of our respondents to retire earlier than they wished, contributing to a sense of loss—and negative perceptions of what retirement means—on multiple levels.
- The word retirement is irritating. It conjures a time of travel, grandkids, sipping wine, and security. For me, it has been very different. My health suffered from neglect during my work life, so for me the first six years of retirement have been filled with numerous surgeries, cancer, and a loss of who I was before. (Teacher and school administrator, retired in 2012 at age 65, Saco, ME)
What does this mean for you?
First, whether you’re contemplating retirement or are already there, coming to terms with the term itself may be part of the transition. But the bigger, more meaningful issue has to do with your perceptions of being retired, not just how you feel about the word. So it may be worth exploring your feelings toward retirement and how they might affect your expectations of what this stage of your life can and will be like.
Second, as you can see from this sampling of women’s wide-ranging personal beliefs, values and experiences around retirement, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to defining what this transition means. Each of us gets to define it for ourselves.
Finally—and perhaps most importantly—we need to remember that while we may be retiring from the workaday world, we don’t have to retire from life. This chapter of your life is in your hands.
How do you feel about the word “retirement” and about referring to yourself as retired (either now or in the future)? Whether retirement holds positive or negative associations for you, why is that? Please share!