Retirement: It’s all in how you look at it
Once upon a time, retirement was about gold watches, golf and trundling off into the sunset.
You served your time. Now you can kick back and do everything your way, on your schedule.
No more awful bosses. No more commuting. Just endless smiles and jelly doughnuts, all day, every day.
Of course, the reality of retirement is a lot more complicated, and always has been. If health issues don’t sidetrack you, financial issues might. If 9-to-5 seemed like drudgery at the time, you might miss the camaraderie and the water-cooler debates.
And what if your spouse trots out that oldie about “for better or worse, but not for lunch?”
Maybe he or she isn’t so delighted to see you, all day, every day. Maybe you haven’t planned as well as you should have for a second career or an engaging hobby. Maybe retirement is seriously short on hunky and dory.
And maybe it’s all a question of attitude.
The proof is in a pudding named Betsy.
She is a friend of more than 40 years (the best kind). We have one of those relationships where we are sometimes in very close touch and sometimes totally out of touch. But (cliché alert) she’s the kind of friend with whom you can pick up a conversation right where you left it.
Betsy was born in Honduras. She is fluent in Spanish and English. I ran into her the other day, and after the usual how’s-your-family, I asked if she was retired yet.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m loving it. And you, Bob?”
I replied, a bit defensively, that I would never retire and would never welcome it. If I had to be out of the flow, out of the game, I’d hate it, I said.
Whereupon Betsy taught me a lesson. It has to do with the language she learned as a girl.
“Bob,” she said, “do you know what we call retirement in Spanish?”
“No clue,” I said.
“We call it jubilación,” she said.
“Wait a minute, Betsy,” I said. “You mean everyone who speaks Spanish is jubilant about retirement?” I ticked off for Betsy all the concerns that you just read at the beginning of this column. Plus more: loss of self-esteem, loss of stamina, loss of teeth, loss of engagement.
Betsy launched into a long defense of jubilación-to-describe-retirement.
She said the Spanish word implies that you have to maintain a positive attitude when you’re not a wage slave any more.
She said that your friends and family will be jubilant with you and for you, because you’ve reached such an important moment.
She said that people in her native country hate Grumpy Gusses. So, they are always looking on the bright side, and encouraging retirees to do the same.
Being a word guy, I poured myself a fresh coffee later that day and pondered our well-worn word for after-employment.
“Retirement” accentuates the negative, doesn’t it? It suggests that we walked away from something, rather than toward something. It suggests that we shrank from a challenge. It implies that we were no longer tough enough to take a punch.
There’s also an implication-within-an-implication. “Retirement” suggests that those of us with highly energetic, highly driven personalities should suddenly become wet noodles. As in docile. As in retiring. As in go sit in the corner and don’t make waves.
Then there’s the question of being an engaged citizen. Too often, retirement in America means that we over-65s cease to care about social and political issues. To say the least, I and thousands like me would resist that as much and as long as we could.
Yes, there are other ways to describe retirement in English. But those expressions are either loaded or mawkish. Please spare me from “the golden years” and from “your next act.”
But Betsy has given me — and now you — a better path. The next time someone asks me if I’m retired yet, I will simply smile and say:
If I’m met with a “huh?,” or with a puzzled frown, I will explain that Betsy, and all Spanish speakers, have the right term for those later years.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.