After you turn 60, you start getting a lot more retirement-related communications — just like you begin to notice that you’re getting a lot more spam mailings and internet ads about things like cheaper prescription drugs and various devices that help the enfeebled perform daily chores. And it all starts, really, when you get that AARP application in the mail that is the official acknowledgement that you are old.
Most of the retirement materials you receive are just a variation on the kind of stuff you’ve probably received for years, that talk up some great investment opportunity that is so bullet-proof you’d be a fool not to put your money in, or promise to take great care of your savings and lead you to the retirement of your dreams. For me, those kind of “cold call” communications get moused into the trashcan. But sometimes you see something that’s actually interesting — like this piece on “discordant retirement.”
What’s “discordant retirement,” you say? That’s the name retirement planners have given to married couples that effectively retire at different times — where the wife keeps working after the husband stops, or vice versa. It’s a cultural phenomenon of sorts, because it’s obviously a reflection of the prevalence of two wage-earner couples, rather than the ’50s sitcom model of working husband and wife on the home front, where the husband’s eventual retirement would be the decisive, unilaterally defining retirement event.
And it’s also interesting in that it illustrates something else about the concept of working: people react differently to it. Some people tire of working and decide that once they’ve reached a certain financial point they just won’t take it anymore, while others find work empowering, or important to their self image, or a significant part of their social life that they just aren’t quite ready to give up. The article notes that “retirement” isn’t always easily defined, and often a “retired” person has just decided to do something else, like work for a charitable entity. There are many reasons to “retire” — however you define that notion — and an equal number of reasons to keep working, and everyone is going to approach the issue somewhat differently. In a sense, the notion of discordant retirement shows just how far we’ve come, with each half of a couple making their own individual decisions about when and how they want to retire.
After reading the article I thought about couples we know and how many of them are illustrations of “discordant retirement.” So, what are potential “discordant retirees” supposed to do? Well, obviously, it’s something that couples need to talk about, just as any successful married couples need to talk through and reach agreement on many issues in their lives. And discordant retirement offers opportunities, and challenges, as couples try to figure out when and how to pull the trigger on things like Social Security payments, Medicare coverage, and other consequential retirement-related decisions.
“Discordant retirement” sounds bad, like it’s a cause for bickering — and perhaps, for some couples, it is. But it’s actually the result of people exercising their basic individual freedoms and working through their desires and needs in the context of a partnership. The retirement planners need to come up with a better name for it.