What Does It Mean to Retire?


It's a deceptively simple question: “Are you retired?” But the answer can be far more complicated.

Elul has arrived —- the Jewish month of transitions, of reflection on the year gone by and preparation for the new year ahead.  For me, 5773 has been a year of illness and dependence, of pain and depression and finally, during the last few months, of burgeoning hope. As I contemplate 5774, the year to come, I know that one experience will recur that never fails to throw me.

It begins like this: “Are you retired?” they ask. And I, who usually plunge into conversation, hesitate to respond. How to answer this particular query? I muse; a simple “yes” or “no” just won’t do. My life has changed, but am I retired? Seeking a grounded answer, I checked out some dictionary definitions of the word. After all, the hesitation in responding might be due to personal misunderstanding rather than the actual implications of the word.

According to the dictionary, to retire means to retreat, to withdraw, to move away, or — in the case of baseball since 1874 — to be put out. It was back in 1648 that the term was first used to indicate that one had left an occupation. Until then, it meant that you had gone to bed or withdrawn to another room. Antonyms to retiring include: advancement, rebuilding, staying and revamping. Ironically the antonyms seem more suited to my current situation than the synonyms! If the term had the sole connotation of transitioning from one occupation or life focus to another, I’m sure that its use would not be so disturbing to me.

Once fully engaged in the search for a pithy and accurate positive answer to the “Are you retired?” question, I consulted family and friends over lunches and dinners, in the United States, London and Jerusalem, seeking the perfect rejoinder. Here are some of the suggested possible responses, with their weaknesses spelled out:

No, I’m rewired — sounds too mechanical;

No, I’m freelancing — used at all life-cycle stages;

No, I’m a consultant — catch-all used by anyone out of work;

No, I’m retreading — sounds like I am a tire;

No, I’m recalculating — sounds like I am my own GPS;

No, I’m between gigs — or working but not getting paid;

No, I’m in never-ending pre-retirement transition — sounds contrived;

No, I’m transitioning for a better tomorrow — sounds like a discount broker commercial;

No, I’m looking for what God wants me to do — sounds presumptuous;

No, I’m resting on my laurels — sounds self-satisfied;

No, I’m a pensioner — Israeli & European term — most of us in the United States don’t have pensions anymore (Can you even say I’m a 401Ker?);

No, I’m choosing the color of my parachute — too 1970s and 80s;

No, I’m looking for what I want to do when I grow up — too flip;

No, I’m rebooting — I sound like my own computer;

No, I’m reinventing myself — not bad but not just right, either;

And so, dear reader, whether you are a baby boomer, part of generation X or Y or even a millenial, I need your brainpower and ingenuity. And if, by chance, you find yourself day dreaming three or four hours into the Rosh Hashanah service, try thinking about transitions and how you cope with them. Then put your thinking cap on and help me and my generation find a way to craft a positive, forward-looking and concise response to that deceptively simple question: “Are you retired?”

Rela Mintz Geffen, Ph.D., was president of Baltimore Hebrew University. Currently, she is an adjunct professor at Gratz College. Responses to this column may be sent to [email protected]


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