Joseph Coughlin, Senior Contributor
Aug. 15, 2022
Tennis star Serena Williams announced her ‘retirement’ from tennis this week while challenging the very idea of retirement.
In her interview with Vogue Magazine, Williams commented, “I have never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me....Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”
Williams is not alone. Many people, far older than her 41 years, are declaring retirement a dated term best left to past generations and another era.
As I observe in my book, The Longevity Economy, the concept of retirement was made up. Yes, hard to believe, but that period of life seemingly ordained by the laws of physics — as sure as gravity — is a story.
Retirement, its very meaning, to retire, to pull away, to withdraw was first invented in the 19th and early 20th century to remove older workers from the workforce as you would a broken part in a machine. Just like a worn cog in the machinery of construction, manufacturing or farming, older workers that were no longer physically fit or fast were deemed inefficient in a world of work that required physical labor. In short, worn tired pieces had to be ‘retired’ and replaced by younger newer parts.
Ideas alone do not become real on their own. They are adorned with imagery, institutions, products, and government policies that together reflect and reinforce a powerful narrative that over time becomes so ingrained in society that it becomes an unquestioned assumption of life. Despite longer lives, advances in technology, and the changing nature of work itself, we have forgotten that it is the dead hand of a 19th century idea that reaches out from an era long gone to define nearly one-third of 21st century adult life.
Retirement is anchored into our idea of older adulthood with public policies that define, seemingly with Newtonian precision, when a worker is ‘old’ and to be retired —regardless of the type of work they do. There is no science to 65-years old being retirement age, it is simply a 19th century legacy ratified by the sausage-making decision processes of legislatures and corporate boards.
We are taught how to live in this imagined phase of life with well crafted imagery. Retirement days are filled with beach walks, travel to exotic locales, grandchildren, bike rides, golf courses, and recently, pickle ball. For those that can afford it, entire ‘active aging’ communities offer a reward after decades of work. Financial products, and for a lucky segment of the population, pensions, were developed to finance and entice retirement with promises of economic security and new found freedom.
Serena Williams is a society icon as much as a tennis star. Her words bolster a new social narrative that is slowly, but surely, eroding today’s idea of retirement despite all the positive imagery. Even with her fame and fortune, Williams admits in Vogue that she “hates it...I’m torn: I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next.” She’s not alone, all of us need help to discover what’s next at any age.
While I am unsure of Williams’ word ‘evolution’ to replace retirement, her idea of an ever-evolving life is on point. Certainly there is a time, either by choice or by circumstance, when someone may choose to retire in the classic sense. However, as people live longer, and the context of life and work changes, all of us need to prepare for our own evolution not just in older age, but across the life course.
Just as the idea of retirement was cultivated and promoted over the last century, government, business, employers, and society generally, must now recognize the need for a new narrative of evolution across the life course — one that provides options for everyone. Here are a few areas to get started.
Rather than framing career as the choice of a single profession, how might schools prepare children for a life of constant change? How can technical schools, colleges and universities develop programs to enable people to change professions many times across a lifetime? What strategies should employers implement to effectively recruit and manage a fluid multi-generational workforce? How might public policy enable portability of benefits? Should there be policy incentives for education and professional change across the life course? How might financial products and advice enable longevity planning for evolutions in work and life — not just in retirement, but in younger adulthood and middle age?
Transforming an ingrained social narrative is about more than innovative policies and products, it includes introducing novel rituals, imagery, and storytelling. We have retirement parties, why not ‘evolution parties?’ Where are the Hallmark cards to celebrate leaving one profession to begin another? Can we envision a new story of midlife sabbaticals becoming the norm, not just to recharge, but to evolve? How might the storytellers of advertising imagine and show what a lifetime of evolution might be like?
Serena Williams called out today’s narrative of retirement and life course. She has the brand, social gravitas, and above all, the courage to do so. And, doing so on the popular pages of Vogue means that how we think about personal change across the lifespan, particularly in retirement, is no longer an academic, business, nor policy discussion alone. People of all ages are now looking for a new story. In lieu of imagination and leadership from institutions, particularly since the pandemic, many people are improvising.
Similar to younger generations, older workers are now demanding flexible hours and days in jobs they have had for decades. We see ‘retirees’ joining younger workers in the on-demand economy. Many are filling critical labor gaps as part-time workers in the health, education, retail, and hospitality industries. Some have evolved fully into entirely new professions. Others of ‘retirement age’ have started new businesses, gone back to school, or volunteer with verve.
Why? For many it is about income, for others it’s about satisfying the desire to do something with the many years in that life stage we currently call retirement. Even if you find joy cashing in your longevity dividend relaxing with a good book, or reading this article, it is time to evolve a new societal narrative that celebrates and enables all of us to define life and retirement on our terms. Or as Serena Williams defines her ‘retirement’ — to move “toward other things that are important to me.”
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