Asking people what they do is a standard conversation opener. If you are in the paid work force, you might answer, “I am an engineer.” Or you might provide your company name and department, “I work for Telus in marketing.” And if you’ve left paid work behind, you’ll likely answer, “I’m retired.”

According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, retire is from the French: “re” meaning back; and, “tirer” meaning to draw. “Retirer” became retire – to withdraw to a place of safety or seclusion – and that does not reflect the lives of most people in retirement. Declaring you are retired doesn’t reveal anything about how your time or effort is spent. Some retirees fill in details of paid work left behind, yet what good is that? A healthy retirement is about looking ahead to possibilities.

The challenge when approaching retirement is figuring out how you want the future to look. And for those already retired addressing the disappointment you may be feeling with your newfound freedom. Envisioning an authentic future self is no small task. Drs. Lee Chaiwoo and Joseph Coughlin asked 990 adults in the United States “to write up to five words describing their life after career.”1 Lee, Chaiwoo, and Joseph Coughlin. 2018. “Describing Life After Career: Demographic Differences in the Language and Imagery of Retirement.” Journal of Financial Planning 31 (8): 36–47.

Words like “hobbies,” “travel,” and “relax” were favored by older men and “peace,” “calm,” and “time” were popular with older women. Chaiwoo and Coughlin point out that “[retirement] remains an elusive vision rather than a tangible product or experience that can be tasted, worn, driven, or lived in.”2 Coughlin, Joseph and Chaiwoo Lee. “The Revealing Words People Use to Describe Retirement. The Wall Street Journal 17 November 2019. Accessed 2 December 2019 at https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-revealing-words-people-use-to-describe-retirement-11574046240.

How then to create a vision for your retirement? A good place to start is acknowledging that paid work provides many benefits: financial remuneration; time management (structure to the day); a sense of utility or purpose; status; a social network; and, not insignificantly, intellectual stimulation. Planning how to fill the void that opens up with either decreased or complete disengagement from paid work is a required task.

Dr. Richard W. Johnson3 Johnson, Richard W. “The case against early retirement,” The Wall Street Journal, 21 April 2019. Accessed 2 December 2019 at https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-case-against-early-retirement-11555899000. has noted that “without the purpose of fulfilling work, retirees can feel adrift and become depressed. Without the camaraderie of their co-workers, retirees risk becoming socially isolated. Without the intellectual stimulation that work can provide, retirement can accelerate cognitive decline.”4 These health benefits are not “generally shared by people with especially stressful, boring or physically demanding jobs.” That said, purpose, camaraderie, and intellectual stimulation can be realized with unpaid work and other pursuits.

People worldwide are redefining retirement. Canadians 55 years of age and older include those who have never retired, are partially retired, have fully retired, and those previously retired who have returned to work. The top reason for retiring is financial feasibility. Almost three-quarters of those who returned to work were between 55 and 64. The top reasons for going back to work: wanting to be active, liking work, money considerations, interesting work opportunities, and not liking retirement.5 Park, J. Retirement, health and employment among those 55 plus, Perspectives on Labour and Income, Statistics Canada, Spring 2011.

All of this to say that your retirement does not have to be an all or nothing proposition. That buys time to create structures and systems to support your next phase of life. This reflection can happen before or after retirement, particularly once the retirement honeymoon phase wanes.

In the meantime, let’s work to change the conversation. Instead of asking “What do you do?” how about “Tell me a bit about yourself?” Or try the literal translation of the Spanish A que tú dedicas? – “To what do you dedicate yourself?” or the French Qu’est-ce que vous faites dans la vie? – “What are you doing in life?” In this way we begin to create that tangible product or experience that can be tasted, worn, driven or lived in.

References

1 Lee, Chaiwoo, and Joseph Coughlin. 2018. “Describing Life After Career: Demographic Differences in the Language and Imagery of Retirement.” Journal of Financial Planning 31 (8): 36–47.
2 Coughlin, Joseph and Chaiwoo Lee. “The Revealing Words People Use to Describe Retirement. The Wall Street Journal 17 November 2019. Accessed 2 December 2019 at https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-revealing-words-people-use-to-describe-retirement-11574046240.
3 Johnson, Richard W. “The case against early retirement,” The Wall Street Journal, 21 April 2019. Accessed 2 December 2019 at https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-case-against-early-retirement-11555899000.
4 These health benefits are not “generally shared by people with especially stressful, boring or physically demanding jobs.”
5 Park, J. Retirement, health and employment among those 55 plus, Perspectives on Labour and Income, Statistics Canada, Spring 2011.

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