Don't Say The 'R-Word'

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I'd like to take a gap year. And then perhaps another gap year. Maybe even a whole bunch of them.

I think I'd like to travel the country. Read a little bit. And of course work on my own projects.

You might call that a gap year. You might call it working for yourself. Or you might call it -- *gasp* -- retirement.

Whenever we're watching a show in which a cop has a few days until retirement, my husband always says the same thing.

"He's a dead man."

Sure enough, two scenes later, we're at the cop's funeral. To Hollywood screenwriters, retirement is a prize to be snatched away, tragically, at the last moment.

For many people my age, retirement has even worse connotations. One of my friends shrivels her nose whenever the topic comes up, as if the very word contains a whiff of nursing home. For my husband, the word is freighted with images of ancients in Florida.

"I don't want to rot in the sun," he states flatly.

For me, the word conjures up our quarterly draft notices from AARP, or even worse, those deadly-sounding banquets offered by financial advisors wanting to sell annuities.

For Richard Grayson, retirement is an undeserved privilege that will bankrupt the country and starve our children. "The best way we baby boomers can help millennials," he wrote on Medium, "is to commit suicide." His bleak subhead: I'm not kidding.

And then there's this sage cartoon by my friend Sue Kasdon.

However you slice it, the R word has big negatives. It needs a whole branding team to tackle it.

There's one big exception, though. If you're in the top 1/100th of the 1 percent, retirement is just fine.

This spring, Patrick Pichette, CFO of Google, was practically beatified as the Saint of Work/Life Balance when he announced his retirement on Google Plus. The story quickly pulled in 100K+ shares on Mashable.

It starts -- I kid you not -- with an epiphany atop Mt. Kilimanjaro. Cue the violins.

This story starts last fall. A very early morning last September, after a whole night of climbing, looking at the sunrise on top of Africa -- Mt Kilimanjaro. Tamar (my wife) and I were not only enjoying the summit, but on such a clear day, we could see in the distance, the vast plain of the Serengeti at our feet, and with it the calling of all the potential adventures Africa has to offer. (see exhibit #1 -- Tamar and I on Kili).

And Tamar out of the blue said "Hey, why don't we just keep on going. Let's explore Africa, and then turn east to make our way to India, it's just next door, and we're here already. Then, we keep going; the Himalayas, Everest, go to Bali, the Great Barrier Reef ... Antarctica, let's go see Antarctica!" Little did she know, she was tempting fate.

I remember telling Tamar a typical prudent CFO type response -- I would love to keep going, but we have to go back. It's not time yet, There is still so much to do at Google, with my career, so many people counting on me/us -- Boards, Non Profits, etc

But then she asked the killer question: So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time? The questions just hung there in the cold morning African air.

Soon, very soon, Tamar. As soon as Google finds a new CFO.

Let's be very clear: if you work in the C-suite of a technology giant, and your epiphanies arrive atop Kilimanjaro, you can use the "R" Word. Nothing removes the stench from the word retirement like being at the altitude of 19,000 feet.

My friend Brooke Allen, founder of No Shortage of Work, makes an important distinction between work and jobs. Work is meaningful activity, often done in the service of others. A job, by contrast, is when someone explicitly pays you for such efforts.

As I write this, it's a Sunday morning, and I'm on nobody's clock but my own. I don't need a boss to tell me it's time to write an essay, and the work I do on my own time is no less interesting than the work I do Monday through Friday.

In fact, I like it better. So why not do it all the time?

For me the word "retirement," tainted though it is, also has within it a glimmer of wanderlust. It's putting a bundle on a stick and heading off into the great unknown.

In the parlance of the young, it's a gap year. Let's call it that. Definitely cooler. You don't even need to deodorize it with a trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro.

This story first appeared on Midcentury Modern, Debbie Galant's cool site for boomers and others who refuse to grow old.

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