How different people define retirement

By Larissa Fernand |  11-07-21 | 
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About the Author
Larissa Fernand is Senior Editor at Follow her on Twitter @larissafernand

Language is always evolving. There are new terms to comprehend, “cancelled” comes to mind.

The same word can mean different things in different countries or cultures, or just have a different appeal. For example, the first Harry Potter book was titled Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone in the U.K., but Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S., because of how people would interpret the word ‘philosopher’ in different markets.

Some terms are easily recognized and often flung around, but fail to have a unified definition. Hipster. Liberal. Woke. One such word is “retirement”.

Stan Treger, behavioral scientist at Morningstar, explains what it means to different people.  

In two separate studies, I asked people to write down the FIRST THREE WORDS that came to their mind when they thought about “retirement.” This was a quick exercise to see the themes that people associate most with retirement. I then used these responses to construct word clouds that allow us to “peer” into others’ minds and explore what retirement means to them. This piece is by no means a rigorous scientific investigation, but it is an interesting demonstration of just how diverse the meaning of the term “retirement” is.

These word clouds incorporate data from two sets of participants:

These two age ranges allow us to make some comparisons about how younger and older adults view retirement. For clarity, I ensured that the words were spelled correctly and grouped common terms under the same label (for example: “relax” consisted of words such as “relax” and “relaxation”).

What does retirement mean to Generation Z?

Notice the word at the epicenter of the cloud has nothing to do with retirement itself—the focus is on the age! It seems that for the young adults in this sample, the concept of retirement evokes the aging process first and relaxation second. Other positive aspects such as freedom, travel, and vacations are also present.

Interestingly, a few negative aspects of retirement appeared in the minds of young adults, a bit further from the cloud’s center: Some are scared while others irk at the prospect of boredom after leaving the workforce. And of course, finances were in the equation, with money and saving making an appearance in the cloud.

The contents of this word cloud reflect some findings from a recent qualitative study on young adults’ perceptions of retirement. The researchers found that young adults have similarly mixed feelings about retirement, with the inevitable aging being at the epicenter of their negative reaction.


What does retirement mean to 50-plus adults?

Let’s take a look at words that came to mind for adults ages 50 and older. The most noticeable change is the spotlight—or what is no longer in it. Although age makes an appearance, it is now smaller and off to the side, reflecting that it is no longer as much on people’s minds.

Rather, the epicenter of retirement is now pleasure and pursuit of happiness: travel, relaxation, freedom, family, and, for a few, the beach.


What does retirement mean to 60-plus adults?

I went a step further by looking specifically at what the individuals aged 60 and over in our sample think about when they ponder on “retirement.” The sample is quite small (only 68 participants from the study), but it provides a starting point for understanding those who are just at the cusp of or have already reached the age of retirement.

We see once again that age is not at the epicenter of retirement. Rather, we again focus on the finer things in life: vacations, travel, relaxation, and happiness. Some negatives still appear, but they are generally isolated to the outermost regions of the cloud, indicating that they are on the minds of older adults to a lesser extent than of their younger counterparts.


This fun little analysis hints at a few nuggets of wisdom.

  • Find out what it means for you.

Retirement means different things to different people. There is no one-size-fits-all definition of retirement (not even among the those who study it). As an individual, you need to continuously monitor the way you view your own “retirement.”

  • Ideas and goals change as we age - strategy must follow.

The goals we set, including our retirement aspirations, can be subject to change. If you change your vision of “retirement,” your goals for this journey likely shifted as well. In turn, continuously revisiting and updating your retirement investment strategy needs to be done.

Retirement’s definition may shift as generations turn over: Consider that “boredom” made an appearance largely among the young crowd but was absent when I analyzed an older sample. This mirrors a finding from my previous research on young adults’ finances: Compared with generations prior, Generation Z appears to be the most apt to continuing working after retirement.

  • Embrace it.

Importantly, people old and young alike are excited to retire. Any negatives aside, most everyone appears to feel positively about the freedom that retirement affords to them. Perhaps for those who are prone to boredom, retirement can provide an exciting opportunity to pursue a new passion; for those who just want to relax, retirement offers ample time to lie around in the hammock. Either way, retirement is cloud nine in the eyes of most people.

You can read more in the Retirement archives

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