The Retirement Police and the Definition of Retirement

I have always been a math guy. Yes, I did well in school in all subjects, but math was always my preferred area. So easy. So logical. So fun. (If school can be seen as fun).

This love for math is what got me started on the path to being an accountant. I loved the way everything balanced — it was awesome!

I found it to be so much fun that in high school I finished the normally year-long class of Accounting 1 (or whatever it was called) in four months.

The second half of the year I worked on my own with the teacher’s supervision and finished Accounting 2 while the rest of the class struggled with the first course.

I was Mr. Francis’s prize student — which felt good since he was also the only teacher to ever have given me a “C” (for typing class the year earlier — after that I learned never to take a class requiring skill or coordination).

My love for math (transferred to accounting) is the reason I started my college career as an accounting major. I stuck it out for two years, taking all the way up through intermediate accounting and cost accounting, before realizing it was a terrible bore. Shortly thereafter I also abandoned my plan to become a lawyer (can you imagine how much I could have made as a lawyer AND an accountant?) for the same reason — too boring.

So I became a business administration student, graduated, and went to grad school to get an MBA in, of all things, marketing — which is probably about as far away from accounting and law as you can get.

But I still loved math/numbers, something that served me well despite the fact that I was in what’s considered a more soft-skill discipline. I could talk to the finance guys like no other marketing person and as I moved up (and especially when I became president of a company) the math/numbers/accounting background served me well.

No Love for English

On the other end of the spectrum was English/language, the opposite of math.

I did well in the subject because I worked at it, but I didn’t enjoy it.

It’s kind of ironic because many of my successes in high school were centered around more language-related efforts — leading roles in the school play twice, several state awards in speech competitions, and a lackluster, though enjoyable, career as a debater (negative side, of course.)

And in the end, these skills transferred to some real-world wins. By the time I got to grad school I was so comfortable in front of people that every presentation I did received an “A”. I even completed one hour-long presentation for my entire team when they were too swamped with finals to do their 15-minute segments.

As I transition into my career you can imagine how well speaking in public worked for a marketing guy (and even more as I moved up). It’s no wonder Warren Buffett would pay 50% more to someone who can speak in public — I saw the value of it first hand.

This said, my nemesis was always spelling (couldn’t someone have invented spellcheck 40 years ago)? I somehow managed to win many a spelling bee (do they still have those? We had them every week in elementary school) but it was often by a combination of some skill and the luck of the word draw. It was not easy or enjoyable for me.

I did like reading though and read quite often from an early age, something I continued throughout my life.

The Rules of English

The one thing about English that I did like was the rules.

The rules provided a math-like sanity for an otherwise crazy subject.

I liked that the English language (at least the American version of it) was composed of never-changing rules, handed down through the ages by some sort of English super council that set guidelines in a once-for-all series of decisions. From there, the rest of us simply followed the rules and we’d be ok.

Since I’m a rule-follower from way back, this sort of “here’s how you do this every single time” sort of thinking appealed to me. I liked that the language was fixed and guided by rules we could all learn and follow.

Then I started writing.

This is when I found out everything I thought was true about never-changing language rules was incorrect.

English Changes

Contrary to my “follow the rules” thinking I discovered that the English language (and probably all languages) is similar to a living organism, that changes and adapts throughout its life. Yes, there are rules, but those rules morph over time (usually slowly) and eventually are replaced by other rules. They are not once-for-all standards but more of a “rule for now” which may stand the test of time or may not.

To add a bit of clarity, let’s take an example of what I mean.

One change that has been making the rounds as of late is the use of the word “they.”

Back in my day (when the U.S. had just declared independence from England — ok, not that far back, but a long time ago for sure), “they” was a plural pronoun used to describe a group of people. As such, when you used “they” you used verbs that matched a plural noun. Examples of plural versus singular options:

  • They swim/he swims
  • They run/she runs
  • They jump/he jumps

However, these days “they” is increasingly being used to describe a person, male or female. A person, by definition, is singular. So we have a plural pronoun used as a singular pronoun. An example:

The patient should be told at the outset how much they will be required to pay. (from Wikipedia, noted below)

As you see, “patient” is singular, so to match this the old-school would have either “he” or “she” instead of “they.” But today many people use “they” to mean the patient could be a male or female (or if it’s unknown).

This sort of stuff throws people for a loop (of course) as some use the language one way and others use it another. This causes a big debate back and forth. Eventually one way becomes more standard and is used in the majority of cases, thus becoming the closest thing to a “rule” we have in English. (That said, I think the Oxford comma debate will rage on forever.)

Apparently the use of “they” as plural has been around longer than I knew, though even that is up for debate, so who knows how far it really spread. Plus I grew up in Iowa and since we were always the last to hear of things, “they” as a singular pronoun had definitely not made it to my small town by the time I hit high school.

Anyway, for those curious, here’s a quick summary of “they” in singular usage:

Singular they is the use in English of the pronoun they or its inflected or derivative forms, them, their, theirs, and themselves (or themself), as an epicene (gender-neutral) singular pronoun. It typically occurs with an unspecified antecedent, as in sentences such as:

“Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Would they please collect it?”
“The patient should be told at the outset how much they will be required to pay.”
“But a journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources.”

The singular they had emerged by the 14th century, about a century after plural they. It has been commonly employed in everyday English ever since then, though it has become the target of criticism since the late-19th century. Its use in formal English has become more common with the trend toward gender-neutral language, though most style guides continue to proscribe it.

In the early 21st century, use of singular they with known individuals has been promoted for those who do not identify as either male or female.

There you have it. A “rule” I thought was cast in stone is obviously not.

The Retirement Police

The word “retirement” is going through a change of its own, and let me tell you it’s not going to change without a massive fight.

You see, there’s a self-appointed group of definition experts that know what retirement means and are sworn to defend this meaning until their dying breaths.

This group is known affectionately as the Retirement Police within the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) community.

The Retirement Police have the sworn duty to defend the definition of retirement wherever it’s being misused and it most certainly is being misused by many (most?) in the FIRE community. More on that below.

What is the one true definition of retirement according to the Retirement Police? I’ll risk their wrath by attempting to list it — if these aren’t the exact words, they are certainly close:

The ending of all work of any kind that generates any sort of income.

In other words, earn a penny or more doing any sort of activity and it immediately disqualifies you from calling yourself retired.

I’m no stranger to visits from the Retirement Police (though they show up here less than you might expect — most of them flock to social media where they can hunt in packs).

On my post titled Big Tax Savings due to Early Retirement the Retirement Police (or perhaps a troll) hit me with this comment:

Interesting articles, but this person is not retired. Managing web sites and writing, owning rental property is also work unless totally hands off. Seem like he is working part time.

This commenter implied that it’s ok to earn extra income as long as you do nothing to earn it, a close relative and one standard variation from the definition above.

As you might imagine, I found a lot of humor in this comment. I’m thinking a book titled “How to Make Money Doing Absolutely Nothing” would do quite well. 😉

Definition of Retirement

You may be wondering, “What is the official definition of retirement?”

If you look up the definition in the various online dictionaries, you get a close but also diverse set of options. Here’s what offers:


1. the act of retiring, withdrawing, or leaving; the state of being retired.

2. the act of retiring or of leaving one’s job, career, or occupation permanently, usually because of age:

I’m looking forward to my retirement from teaching.

3. the portion of a person’s life during which a person is retired:

What will you do in retirement?

4. a pension or other income on which a retired person lives:

His retirement is barely enough to pay the rent.

5. removal of something from service or use:

retirement of the space shuttle fleet.

Moving along, Merriam-Webster adds this as a point of difference:

Withdrawal from one’s position or occupation or from active working life

The Cambridge Dictionary goes with this:

The point at which someone stops working, esp. because of having reached a particular age or because of ill health, or the period in someone’s life after the person has stopped working

Not stopping with those, I googled “retirement definition” and reviewed several of the top results. Here’s one from Investopedia:

Retirement is when a person chooses to leave the workforce. The concept of full retirement – being able to permanently leave the workforce later in life – is relatively new, and for the most part only culturally widespread in first-world countries. Many developed countries have some type of national pension or benefits system (i.e. the United States’ Social Security system) to help supplement retirees’ incomes.

Next I found this take from Wikipedia:

Retirement is the withdrawal from one’s position or occupation or from one’s active working life. A person may also semi-retire by reducing work hours.

An increasing number of individuals are choosing to put off this point of total retirement, by selecting to exist in the emerging state of pre-tirement.

Many people choose to retire when they are eligible for private or public pension benefits, although some are forced to retire when bodily conditions no longer allow the person to work any longer (by illness or accident) or as a result of legislation concerning their position.

Ok, so now they are muddying the waters with semi-retirement and pre-tirement.

Wikipedia doesn’t define semi-retirement but they do offer this for pre-tirement:

The neologism pre-tirement describes the emergence of a new working state, positioned between the traditional states of employment and retirement. The word is a portmanteau word, coming from the prefix “pre” and the word “retirement”. The state is being found primarily in first world economies, with aging populations.

A “Pre-tireree” will continue to create economic wealth and/or contribute to the generation of knowledge by research, likely on a part-time or reduced hours basis.

Some “Pre-tirerees” use the period to give back by providing unpaid social support. This form of unpaid work creates economic benefit, by allowing taxes to be focused on other wealth creating or protecting activities, but relies on the existence of sufficient financial resource.

You can see that things are already getting very gray (versus black and white) — and we haven’t even moved past basic definitions. However, this sort of non-compliance does not stop the Retirement Police. They forge ahead defending the truth as they know it!

Retirement Definition Changing

But the Retirement Police are fighting a losing battle. In that same group of Google results for “retirement definition”, a couple of very interesting articles made the top 10.

The first is from CBS News who asks “how do you define retirement?” Some highlights:

Nowadays, some people who transition from full-time to part-time work might still call themselves “retired.” Variations on this theme of working in retirement include:

Part-time or seasonal work at your same employer or the same field
Changing your field of work
Working indefinitely, as long as you can
A bridge job for a few years that enables you to delay drawing down Social Security benefits and allows your savings to grow
Self-employment at a business that interests you

This phenomenon has spawned an effort to retire the word “retirement” and find a new name for this period of life. Candidates include renewment, aspirement, financial independence, rewirement, rest-of-life, second beginnings, financial freedom, and new chapter. A few years back, there was even a contest for a new name. Some of the more creative entries included American Idle, Seventh Inning Stretch and Near Death Experience (if you haven’t guessed already, these didn’t win). Life 2.0 was the lucky winner of that contest.

Whatever you call this time of your life, a common theme for many people is improving your relationship with your work life. For some, that means not working at all. For others, it means finding work that’s more meaningful to you or working fewer hours. The first step in this journey is to create a vision for the rest of your life that can help guide your decisions.

I was completely out of the loop on the contest or I could have offered some ideas. Life 2.0 seems lame in my opinion but no one made me the definition king.

Still it’s quite interesting that this article popped up so high in the Google rankings. It shows that change is certainly on the way. And the Retirement Police are NOT going to like it I tell you!

The second post was from the Huffington Post (written by none other than Arianna Huffington herself), was titled “It’s Time to Retire Our Definition of Retirement”, and was actually written in 2014 (which is about 200 years ago in internet years — where were the Retirement Police when this blasphemy was written?) Some highlights:

To withdraw, to go away, to retreat: These are the literal definitions of “retire,” but, increasingly, they fail to accurately describe the possibilities of modern retirement. If we were choosing a word today for what life looks like as we hit our mid-60s, 70s and 80s, it seems unlikely that we’d land on “retirement.” While these years bring many changes, for a growing number of people, this time of life is about anything but withdrawal or retreat.

So what to go with? “Second act”? F. Scott Fitzgerald notwithstanding, most people have long entered, and exited, multiple second acts long before they hit retirement age. So “third act”? “Next act”? “Final act”? (Much too morbid.) “Evolution”? “The shift”? “Metamorphosis”? “Transformation”? They’re at least closer, because retirement now is mostly about change. And it may not look all that different from what immediately precedes it.

Just as the binary division of our day-to-day lives into “work” and “non-work” has broken down, retirement no longer means simply ending a long career. In the workplace there’s a growing movement to think more holistically about our time — a realization that our productivity, creativity, work time, leisure time, sleep, mental health, physical health and general well-being are all of a piece.

The same principles that allow us to thrive in our daily work lives can also help us thrive in retirement, or whatever we call it. Just as a productive workday depends on how we prepare ourselves for it (for example, by getting enough sleep and taking time to recharge ourselves in our off-hours), a productive, meaningful and purposeful retirement depends on what we put into it.

Quite interesting to see these thoughts shared among the most popular posts on defining retirement. They certainly hint at the fact that the change is well underway.

FIRE Community Creating Problems

The FIRE community has been adding to the Retirement Police problems. In fact, it’s the FIRE community that’s probably speeding along the change in what it means to be retired.

Before FIRE, there wasn’t really that much of an issue. People generally agreed on what retirement meant. So the Retirement Police mostly kept underground.

Then along came the FIRE movement.

At first, all was well as the movement started with those who generally did stop all work and didn’t get paid.

As the FIRE concept spread and people began to put their own spin on it (especially bloggers! Yikes!) they did the unthinkable: they started making money. AND they kept saying they were “retired”.

These two are mutually exclusive to the Retirement Police, so they sprang into action, correcting these miscreants at every turn and upholding the purity of retirement.

But the FIRE community fought back.

One great example of this was in the book Work Optional which I detailed in Defining Retirement

In the book the author quotes sociologist Robert S. Weiss who defines retirement three different ways:

(1) economically, by the fact that you don’t need to work for money;
(2) psychologically, by your own determination that you feel retired; and
(3) sociologically, according to whether society sees you as retired.

This must have really thrown the Retirement Police for a loop! Not only is he suggesting THREE definitions for retirement (or at least versions of it) when the Retirement Police only recognize one, but he has the audacity to say 1) people who are “retired” could still earn money and 2) people had some personal say-so in defining their own version of retirement.

This is simply not acceptable to the Retirement Police!

As the debate has continued back and forth, the FIRE community has continued to grapple with the definition themselves.

Some talk about “retirement from your career.”

Some suggest “no longer having to work” as retirement (versus choosing to work).

Some separate the “FI” part from the “RE” part.

And some simply don’t seem to care. They have the ability to laugh at the Retirement Police and move on.

Yes, my friends, the definition of retirement is changing. Changing quite rapidly as a matter of fact. But we aren’t there yet.

My Contribution to the Debate

While all this has been going on, I’ve been dealing with this issue myself.

It rears it’s ugly head now and then, and I often mention it in my retirement updates — how I’ve struggled in telling people I’m “retired.”

This is because I know what it means for me, but they don’t get it. I’m dealing with the newer, changing definition of retirement while most still have the old concept of retirement in mind.

But I could clearly see the change coming, which is why in my Retirement Interviews I ask people the following:

How do you define retirement?

I do this because I know the definition is changing and I want to hear from real people — you know, the ones who have actually done it — how they define it.

Plus their responses have the great side effect of driving the Retirement Police crazy. 😉

By the way, this seems to be a great place to note that one thing many of the Retirement Police aren’t is…retired.

This seems highly ironic to me, that a group of people who aren’t even living by the definition they espouse are telling those of us who are retired (or whatever we call it) that they are experts in something they have not experienced themselves.

My Thoughts on Retirement

I’ve been thinking about this subject for some time and here’s my current thinking on it:

1. I do acknowledge that it’s confusing.

After all, if someone is “retired” and yet still working (many for themselves), does that mean all self-employed people are retired?

Or is it the fact that they do not need the money that then classifies them as “retired”?

So I get it. It’s not clear.

2. It will sort itself out.

We’re in a transition period where retirement used to mean one thing and is now in the process of meaning another.

It will take some time but eventually it will work itself out and there will be one definition that most people agree upon.

Until then, I think we all need to realize we’re in the midst of change and relax a bit.

3. My own personal definition of retirement is being sorted out.

Five years ago I would have defined it as one thing.

Today it’s something else.

A few years from now it will likely be different.

So I’m in the transition zone with you all.

4. For now, I’d let individuals define retirement for themselves.

For me retirement means I quit working at the 28-year career I had developed.

It also means that I have the right to do whatever I want with my time (which may be the ultimate definition of retirement — having freedom to do whatever you want). That may or may not include earning money doing this or that.

I would not make income earning a litmus test for whether or not someone is retired. In fact, an argument could be made that to retire well you need to have extra income being generated, and maybe even multiple sources of it.

Thoughts for the Retirement Police

I want to close with a few notes to the Retirement Police:

1. The English language changes.

See above. The language is evolving. Get used to it. I had to.

2. The word retirement is changing in definition.

I know you hate this but it’s true.

To deny it will just make you look like fools as it morphs and yet you hold on to, defend, and support an ever-increasingly outdated definition.

3. What’s the big deal anyway?

If someone wants to call themself (see what I did there with a version of “them”? — you can teach an old dog new tricks!) retired based on their (again!) own definition, what’s the harm with that?

Does there really need to be any strife over this? Just chi-lax a bit…

4. No one made you the king of the dictionary or of other people’s lives.

If you can’t relax, maybe you can realize that you’re often being jerks.

Give it a rest — you have no authority here.

Ok, that’s my take on defining retirement and the Retirement Police.

Now’s your chance. Anyone have any thoughts on this issue?


Originally posted at

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