“Retirement means the lack of engagement; it is total disengagement,” the 40-something woman declared on the phone. As if that wasn’t off-putting enough, she continued, “People in your world should realize that once you retire, you’re no longer vital.”

What? I would have laughed out loud if I hadn’t sensed during the first 20 minutes of our conversation that she was leading up to something. And here that “something” was.

We’d discovered each other through social media, and the purpose of our conversation was to see if there were any collaborative opportunities between a new venture she just started and Roxanne’s and my Retirement Voices initiative.

I’d briefly told her about our blog and book-to-be, and how we’re creating a community to help women navigate the social and emotional aspects of retirement. I mentioned that I’d retired three years ago, and how that transition was the catalyst for these efforts. So it wasn’t as if she didn’t know who I was and what I was doing when she offered her judgment that I and other retirees are “no longer vital.”

After my brief introduction, she had treated me to a lengthy monologue about her new business venture. She stressed that she “optimizes for impact” and “I only build out my platform with concepts that resonate or provide virtual experience”—corporate-speak that she no doubt acquired when earning her MBA from Harvard (something she mentioned so many times that I started making hashmarks in the margin of my notes; I got up to six).

And then she wrapped it all up with her disdainful comments.

Why so judge-y about retirement?

This conversation happened a couple of weeks ago, but it still sticks in my craw. Not so much her overselling or need to impress, but her view of retirement and retirees. I’ve been mulling it over—with a less-intense emotional response—trying to figure out why she said what she did. Ignorance? Self-absorption? Ageism? Fear? Envy? And her reference to “people in your world”—don’t we both live in the same world? She apparently doesn’t think so.

I’m keenly aware that each of us views the word “retirement” through different filters. In fact, I blogged about this topic last May [here], and how our unique beliefs, values and experiences about retirement can cause us to embrace the term joyfully or vow to never use the word.

These differences are valid and should be honored. It’s an individual decision whether we want to apply the term “retired” to ourselves (or not). But this (relatively) young woman’s words were so judgmental and dismissive of people at this post-work stage of life. She maligned all of us who are retired, calling us disengaged and not vital.

Understanding where she’s coming from

I won’t ever know for sure the rationale (or emotion) that lay behind this woman’s remarks, but I’ve found myself conjecturing a variety of possible reasons:

  • She’s in her peak career-building years and feeling powerful, invincible and purposeful—and can’t fathom walking away from that. (I remember that at-the-top-of-your-game euphoria.)
  • She hasn’t yet reached the tired and burned-out-from-working-decades-of-long-hours stage where retirement is viewed as a respite and an opportunity to explore different aspects of yourself.
  • Her financial picture is dire—maybe she’s still paying off her Harvard MBA, has adult children living with her, is concerned about supporting her aging parents, or doesn’t have a pension and isn’t able to save enough to even begin thinking about a time when she could reduce her income.
  • She’s envious of those who can afford to retire.
  • She has older relatives who retired and spent their “golden years” living a life of leisure in a retirement community, with no apparent purpose or direction (in her eyes), and she knows this isn’t how she wants to spend her post-career years.
  • She has no friends or family who are retired and living purposeful, fulfilling lives—no role models.
  • Her perceptions are rooted in ageism (unconscious or deliberate). For some reason, she has a negative attitude toward older people, old age and the aging process, hence retirees.
  • She’s scared and afraid of getting older—and doesn’t want to be thought of in the same way that she thinks about older people.

No matter the reasons for her comments and how she chose to express them, my shock and anger have subsided, replaced with a vague sadness. Sadness for her and her limited perspective, sadness for us older retired folks who continue to be underestimated or, worse, dismissed, and sadness that has nothing to do with her comments directly but is a response to one more example of how divided (and divisive) our world has become.

How I responded 

You’re probably wondering how I responded to her. I held my own, but it was truly one of those conversations for which you create clever retorts two days later and wish for a do-over.

In the moment, I chose not to engage and debate with her—I was both a little too stunned by her vehemence—if not arrogance—and could also sense the rigidity of her position. I did say that I disagreed strongly with her take on retirement and that hers wasn’t the only definition of engagement and vitality. I told her that, based on my experience, millions of retired people would find her words offensive and that she was two decades away from understanding what life post-career was truly like. I said that I felt our views were so different that there was nothing more for us to discuss. And I quickly ended the conversation.

But it does still bother me—not the conversation itself so much as her entrenched position. If I had the do-over, I would work on opening her mind—to the idea that each of us has the right to design our own retirement and not be judged. To see that engagement and vitality are personal and defined by what is meaningful to us, not by an outsider.

Now that I’ve vented, I can let the conversation go. I may never understand her, and I won’t deliberately cross paths with her again. But I do have a positive wish for her—that as she ages, she will soften and gain wisdom, tolerance and acceptance of others. And that she will be accepted and honored for exactly who she is in her older years.

What’s your take on this conversation? Please share.