Retirement: The dreaded “R word” and a potential alternative term

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A topic I’ve danced around since the very first post on this blog is whether I consider myself to be retired. Many will note that I tend to use quotation marks when I write about early “retirement”. And Two Sides of FI, the YouTube channel which has become an increasingly important part of my life, doesn’t even acknowledge the “RE” part of “FIRE” – at least in name. I’ve also mentioned on that show that when I meet new people who ask what I do, I most often respond that I’m a consultant. Why is this topic so tricky? Let’s dig in!

What does the word retired actually mean?

“withdrawn from one’s position or occupation having concluded one’s working or professional career”

-Merriam Webster

In my mind, if we’re talking about the biotech career I chose and worked in for more than 23 years, then I suppose that definition is largely correct. I say largely because I still occasionally take brief consulting calls for which I am paid. So that work is certainly adjacent to my former career. But even outside of that, I haven’t ceased “working”. As I wrote about recently, I’m also working one day a week at a winery tasting room. I also used to volunteer one day a week at our local vaccination clinic, and am about to start another volunteer opportunity elsewhere. Are those things work, or does working require pay?

So, the definition above – and several others I consulted, don’t really help me gain any clarity. I did stop working in my chosen career and have no plans of going back. I feel reasonably confident about that though am also honest that it’s only been 15 months since I left my job. Things could change, even if I don’t foresee it. That said, I’m current working part time and have no hesitation in speculating that I may well do other things down the road that earn money, whether in my own business or for others, that qualify as work. I love the idea of creating a small business, in fact. So am I retired?

Retirement and societal expectations

From the many (often uncomfortable) conversations I’ve had to date, there’s clearly an element of work tenure i.e. years of duration that plays into people’s expectations of when you “can” retire. In the US, unless prevented by illness or injury, or they hit the lottery, most people work until age 60-65 – and many even longer than that. This is for a variety of reasons, though most often out of sheer necessity (i.e. to pay the bills or to maintain employer-provided health insurance) or love of their job. If you cease to work sooner – at least in a standard full time role, this can be met with a variety of responses, many of which are rather negative or even hostile. This side of FIRE admittedly sucks.

On the increasingly rare occasions where I’ve used the “R-word” with people of a variety of ages, I’ve received a broad range of responses:

But you’re so young! (thanks, but no)

What will you do with your time? Sit around and do nothing?

Surely you’re just taking a break and will go back.

Are you sure you don’t just hate working?

and my all time favorite: Must be nice

We talked a lot about these responses on a popular episode of Two Sides of FI and several other shows. I get it. FIRE and the concept of intentional early retirement isn’t terribly common. Leaving the workplace prior to age 50, as I did, is quite rare – less than 1% of Americans retire before this age, according to many sources I’ve seen. So I completely understand that it’s still an unusual concept for many people. However, some of those same people then go on to overtly state or at least suggest that doing so is “wrong” or at least “not normal”. The former is unfairly judgmental to say the least, with the latter being closer to factual. It’s certainly not common, but does that make it abnormal?

I propose we consider an alternative, using a very familiar concept

Maybe the issue is the very word itself. As my wife Lorri stated recently, retirement is a loaded word with lots of expectations. Why should it be a bad thing for someone to choose a path outside of the most common one? Is it simply yet another opportunity for our brains to fall back on the logical fallacy of appeal to tradition? If one is meeting all their obligations and doing their best to continue to grow as a human and contribute to society – what’s wrong with taking a different course via early retirement? Maybe it’s time we rephrase things entirely…

I hosted a lovely couple in the tasting room last week during a quiet time – so they had my complete attention. I would estimate that they were in their late 50s to mid-60s. I learned that the husband retired from his career eleven years ago and the wife is retiring next year. The man’s wife described his transition from his law enforcement career to his current state, one filled with charitable work and yes – plenty of leisure time, as graduation: “Eleven years ago he graduated from his career to where he is today”. I understood and embraced her meaning from the get-go though it was the first time I’d considered it. He was very fulfilled by and enjoyed his former career. But he had other things he wanted to do! So he graduated to the next phase of his life. That sure sounded familiar to me!

How is graduation used most commonly? Outside of the strict definition of the conferral of degrees or certifications, it describes a transition from one stage to another: finishing high school and moving on to college, or perhaps finishing vocational school and undertaking your first paid job. It follows logically to me that irrespective of your age, exiting your chosen profession to move on to “whatever comes next” is similarly a graduation. Perhaps we can remove the weight and seemingly finality associated with the term “retirement” and look at it for what it is: yet another of many transitions we undergo in life. In that way, age (a proxy for years worked) can be removed from the equation and the whole matter viewed more objectively.

I find that idea rather appealing. What do you think?

image credit: Photo by Pang Yuhao on Unsplash

8 Replies to “Retirement: The dreaded “R word” and a potential alternative term”

  1. Very timely post, I found you through the Money Guy podcast. I too am struggling with what to call my next phase or chapter as I will be selling my company at the end of the year and will be FI too at 50. the definition I found in an old dictionary- Retirement: to withdraw from battle. I already have my Father-in-law (77) telling me I’ll be bored, but he doesn’t have any hobbies and I do, so we’ll see…

    1. Thanks! I love those guys and have been following them for years. Finding purpose and motivation post-career is certainly important. The concept of “retiring to something” is valid in my experience. As you’ve seen mine is not a super concrete plan, but it does include making lots of space to explore things of interest to me. I wish you luck in your own journey.

  2. Jason.

    Great post. There is certainly power in words. We are 3 years from RE and playing with the terms “Freedom Years”, “Jubilee”, Extended Leave”, “Long Service Leave” and now graduation is on our list. We have only told a couple of friends and received a wide spectrum of reactions from ver negative to elated. I found it mainly reflects where they are will money/finance/wealth.

    Keep well,

    1. Thanks, Matt! I appreciate the feedback. I’m sure it is very exciting to have your goal so closely in sight! I like those ideas, and there’s certainly a lot of merit to your thinking. Best wishes to you.

  3. i’d like to ask about your wife’s comment about ‘Retirement’ being a loaded word… you’ve discussed often, what lifestyle you want to live predicates how much or which FIRE you are trying to attain, but do you find in post-RE that people (and family) assume you are fat FIRE and hold you to an unrealistic standard of helicopters, porsches, boat, paying for meals and showering lavish gifts? Or do you have to explain the difference in everyday convos? RE at 51 in 5 months and your posts/videos on telling family, friends resonates as I will firmly be in chubby-FIRE group. Thanks in advance!

    1. That assumption hasn’t come up overtly (yet). I have wondered if people might be thinking that though. Of course as we know it’s still important to keep expenses to our budgets else RE won’t last very long. Thanks for the comment.

  4. I love the idea of graduating, although to me it has associations with university / professional qualifications rather than other stages of life. Being UK-based that might be a subtlety of language – or just me! I’m leaving my paid career later this year as I approach 50, and I’ve had similar comments around the concept of retirement (which I have signposted to close friends for a while) – the ‘must be nice’ comment is sometimes in the form of raised eyebrows. Ah well, not so bad a problem to have.
    I have started thinking of my own FIRE as a ‘next phase’ (unrelated to your domain name, but I obviously chime with it) because I can absolutely see me pottering in my profession (finance), but on my own terms. I’ve heard you describe ‘work’ for you or Lorri as something you would choose to do for free, and I’m in the same headspace. I do want/need something new, invigorating, challenging and probably creative to do, which is perhaps why I’m thinking about the next decade as a transition to a new path / phase / career. Gah, too hard to describe to anyone who isn’t dialled in to FIRE (i.e. nearly everyone else).
    Anyway – thanks for scribing your thoughts and posted videos on Two Sides, once to know we’re not completely alone. And vineyards in Southern England are very numerous and welcoming should you feel the need to travel!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Stuart! Sounds like we are very much on the same page. Best wishes to you.

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