On definitions: Retirement

In economics, “retirement” has no definition.  Or rather, it has several definitions, none of which are any good.

First off, there’s self-defined retirement.  When do people say they’re retired?  Turns out it depends, and it depends on a lot of things.  Women in certain cohorts, for example, will have their retirement status depend more on what their husbands are doing for work than what they’re doing.  Their self-defined status will also depend on whether or not they have children still living at home, and so on.  People can still be working and say they’re retired.  People can be out of work and say they’re not retired.  As people get older the lines between unemployment and retirement start to blur.

So then there’s working vs. not working, (sometimes not including those who self-identify as unemployed), but that doesn’t capture people who have ramped down considerably, now working a part-time job or a retirement job.  And, of course, how unemployed folks are treated matters as those lines between unemployment and not in the labor force start to blur when you’re open to new employment opportunities but you’re a discouraged worker.

Earlier versions of retired might include whether or not you’re receiving a pension or drawing down social security money.  Of course, with defined benefit pensions disappearing, that’s going to exclude a lot of people who aren’t taking social security just yet.  And there are plenty of folks who retire from a law enforcement kind of job in their 50s and go on to an entirely full-time new career following that.  And what about folks who never got to have a job that offers a pension?  Or who didn’t work long enough to vest?

Finally there’s all sorts of hybrid definitions that researchers use.  Working at a “career job” for at least 10 years, then stopping working at that job and now working fewer than 30 hours per week or less at a different job (or at no job) or moving from working for an employer to self-employment.  And variations on that theme.

Anyhow, this is all to say that we at grumpy rumblings think it is lame when early retirement bloggers argue about what the definition of retirement is.  There is no technical definition.  They don’t own the term.  Nobody really does.  Except, of course, the self-defined version, and we social scientists know that the self-defined term means different things to different people.

And that’s ok.

(Seriously folks, the term “financially independent” was invented for a reason.  It fills that void.  It’s not a dirty word.)

When will you consider yourself retired?

35 Responses to “On definitions: Retirement”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Assuming I remain in academia, I will consider myself retired when I voluntarily relinquish my tenured faculty position and become professor emeritus.

  2. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    Hmmmm…..I would much rather be financially independent than retired. I’m not sure that I will ever completely retire because our hobbies bring in money. What I would really like to do is leave my 9-5 job and make my own way from there.

  3. Belle Says:

    Becoming emeritus, moving abroad to live, defining retirement in my own way.

  4. Debbie M Says:

    Hmm, I prefer the term “financially independent.” Around my co-workers, I’m retired when I’m collecting a pension. Around my friends and family, I’m not sure what I’ll call myself. Dabbler? Maybe just, “I’m done working for money.” Even though I suppose I might not be. I don’t want to say I’m retired because I don’t want people thinking–oh, good, you’re not doing anything, so I can start asking you for a million favors. Or making me feel guilty for not visiting family a lot more. I don’t want to say I’m financially independent because I don’t want people thinking–oh, good, I can start asking you for a million loans. (Heh, that’s where saying I’m “living on a fixed income” comes in handy, though it’s not really fixed, probably.)

    This is no worse than being employed, where my answers to what do you do include being a “bureaucrat,” a “pink-collar worker,” a “cube farmer,” a “desk jockey,” a “liaison between programmers and users,” “not a professor,” and “not a programmer–more like the people who use equations in Excel than the people who created and maintain Excel.” My official titles have included Information Specialist (my favorite–sounds like I specialize in information!), Information Analyst (even though I’m not a programmer), Senior Administrative Associate (even though I don’t supervise people) and now Assistant Academic Advisor (even though I don’t advise students) and Administrative Assistant (even though I’m the world expert on my little piece of software). At work I call myself a Degree Audit Specialist. I tell the IRS I’m a computer information specialist.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Great point!

      I bet those different job titles have different payscales as well, even if they’re essentially the same job.

      • Debbie M Says:

        Yes, I learned to quit thinking “That’s so stupid,” and instead say, “Thanks for the raise.” Yes, it’s all about the pay range. When one department is richer than another, they give higher titles for the same duties. And when your duties have evolved to such a degree that your current title becomes embarrassingly inaccurate, sometimes they’ll switch your title–especially after you’ve reached the bottom of the pay range for the new title.

  5. chacha1 Says:

    I will consider myself “retired” when whatever work I do is *not* for the purpose of paying my living expenses.

  6. J Liedl Says:

    Rather like CPP, although I can add that the earliest I would see this happening may be when I’m 67 but 69 sounds attractive if only to get the 40-years service pin.

  7. Jacq Says:

    Sort of like a certain judge commenting about the obscenity (or not) of French movies, maybe it’s one of those “I know it when I see it” things.
    DQYDJ had a good post about this topic today:
    http://dqydj.net/what-does-it-mean-to-be-retired/

    Ordinarily, my criteria would be not working for pay any longer with no intent to work for pay in the future (just adding that because my work life is yo-yo-ish and will probably continue to be). But under that definition my dad probably retired at about 75 when he sold his land, but technically still worked for free for about 15 years after that. I didn’t think he was retired and I don’t think he did either until he quit getting out on a tractor every spring.

    Guess it doesn’t matter – although it probably does for SEO.

  8. First Gen American Says:

    My first thought is that I’d be retired when I no longer had to work a full time job to support myself…but then I thought, well, I can easily see myself going into a role that is full time but pays crap because it is community outreach or something else I really enjoy like being a kickin party planner. I don’t know. I really don’t see myself retiring until after my children are out of college.

    Retirement…the time in life when all your big predictable expenses are behind you.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Some folks definitely define it that way– once their kids are out of college they’re more likely to say they’re retired than people in the same work etc. situation whose kids are still in school.

  9. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    What if you’re financially independent but still working? Possibly even full-time in whatever it was that made you the money in the first place? I wouldn’t call such folks retired, and while that’s not a huge percent of the population, certainly many people who’ve been in well-paying jobs for a while would likely be financially independent.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m not sure I understand the question. Plenty of financially independent people still work– see Paris Hilton, for example. Financial independence just means you don’t have to work (see link to post on that topic).

      Retirement is self-defined. What is *your* definition of retirement? It seems to be one that doesn’t involve working. That’s not the only definition though. Plenty of people in surveys say they’re retired but also work.

  10. bogart Says:

    OK, it was me who started the kerfuffle or at least grumbled about careless use of the word. I guess I’m OK with individuals using it a diverse assortment of ways, and being trained as a social scientist, sensitive to the difficulties-in-measurement that reality creates (gosh darn it). But I still wish the pop press would settle on a common definition and use it, if only to encourage the rest of us to be more consistent! In this, I lean toward the “I withdrew from my career and now I have a pension or a 401K whose solvency I am confident in and I no longer need to bring in an income to meet my needs” definition, though clearly, no one else much shares my concern. Ah well!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      No, silly, it wasn’t you. This has been a big kerfuffle on personal finance blogs. Mr. Money Moustache has decided that his definition of retirement (one that is oddly equivalent to financial independence) is the one true definition, and anybody who has a different definition is a poopy-head. (He’s perfectly within his rights to call himself retired, it’s the defining the term for everyone else that’s the problem.)

      After all, not everybody has a pension to draw from, and not everybody has worked a standard career job. (But that’s a great self-defined retirement definition.)

  11. Donna Freedman Says:

    I guess it’s when I write for *extra* money vs. to keep the lights on.

  12. PK Says:

    I’m not sure my comment was accepted – so, insert joke about retiring from Professional Basketball, then from the force here.

    We also think the argument is petty, but hilarious. I couldn’t resist dropping an article on our site, heh.

  13. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I’m with Holly. I never want to be retired, I’d rather be financially independent. To me, the two mean the same thing but retired sounds yucky.

  14. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Ok, I have to admit I’m a bit jealous that a bunch of other folks are writing this same post this week but getting a lot more comments and praise and referrals and stuff. And they’re linking to each other but not to this one. And Jacq told us about the (quite good) dqydj post, but didn’t tell dqydj about this one. (Why, Jacq, why?)

    I didn’t think it was written that poorly. *sniff* *dramatic hand against forehead gesture*

    Also I guess I shouldn’t have let it sit in the queue for 3 weeks, but who knew?

    • Jacq Says:

      But I didn’t even comment on dqydj?!? I haven’t seen a bunch of other posts on this but I don’t read much for PF blogs. Maybe it’s more of a compliment to your mad comment-extraction skillz that I read on my phone on the commute but came back here to comment and not there?
      *pat pat* ((hugs hugs)) Great post!!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Thanks! I needed that!

        Ooh, good point about not leaving a comment on dqydj. I feel super-extra-special now. :D

        There were I think another two wildly popular posts on the topic today. (Though I definitely thought the dqydj post was great.)

      • Jacq Says:

        You’ve got me curious about the wildly popular. As a general rule, I’m opposed to wildly popular = sheeple. But what do I know, comments and blogging in general freaks me out.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        hahaha
        one of them was the french lady, Pauline? I think she linked to the other two in her post (including the one you linked to in the comments). I will have to find a link.

      • Jacq Says:

        Ah ok, Paquin. I commented on Darwin’s Money a couple of days ago because I thought he unnecessarily dissed dividendmantra.com for being “math-challenged” which that guy totally is not. Also sort of dissed John Greaney and that guy is a legend in the ER world.
        Maybe it’s time for you guys to do a deliberately controversial post. :-)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We’re not familiar with John Greaney or dividendmantra (though I have been convinced by people who say that dividends aren’t necessarily the way to go given the US tax system and growth companies).

        You could do a deliberately controversial post!

  15. On being re-tired (and a bit of a Scanner) | Single Mom Rich Mom Says:

    […] J’s definition of re-tired (which bears no resemblance to retirement as (not) defined by NicoleandMaggie): […]

  16. The DQYDJ Weekender, 4/14/2013 Says:

    […] but this last few saw a few notable entries in the blogger version of Urban Dictionary.  New to me Grumpy Rumblings posted on the topic Monday, followed by our pal Pauline at Reach Financial Independence.  Also […]

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    […] from Grumpy Rumblings presents On Definitions: Retirement, and says, “Nicole and Maggie argue that retirement has no set definition and it means […]


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