Finding the right words to describe people of a certain age.

    Eileen Sharkey was my early mentor, then my business partner. It was good to see her in Scottsdale at the FPA Retreat. Seeing her nearly every day for ten years had spoiled me for ordinary brains. Now we just see each other periodically. Different paths-but she still blows me away with her astuteness and laser-like insights into the core of a matter. Most of the time, I miss her.
    This time she was troubled.
    "We need a word," she said. "We need it fast."
    "What word?" I queried.
    "We need a better word for that time of life after a primary career but before the rocking chair. 'Retirement' does not work."   
    "Well, you know my opinion of the word 'retirement.' I think it is horrid. It means death." I recalled a class I had taught with Cicily Maton many Retreats ago and an accompanying Journal article. The Microsoft Word program's synonyms had been wholly dreadful variations on death and dying. (Curiously, the Microsoft folks seem to have replaced every one of their original synonyms.)
    "No. You are wrong. 'Retirement' is a perfectly good word. In Europe, it means your end times. It means you sit in your rocker and look at the fire or stay in bed and look at the wall. It means you are tired. And you are. We need to keep it, but we just need to use it with its original meaning."
    Since she was born there and still has family, it seemed foolish to argue the point. More importantly, this use had the ring of integrity. "Retirement" made curious sense as a descriptor for that time of life.
    She then proceeded to describe a time of no name. If I may take the liberty of translating into my own words:
It is a time that lies somewhere south of the end of our lives and north of the merry-go-round. Conceptually, it comes after the children are grown, the mortgage is under control and at least one dog has died. It is a time where we operate under our own power even though the scouts are no longer watching.
    Our finances are healthy enough to take some risks or, even, skip a few beats, but perhaps they are not so healthy that earned income is the last thing on our minds. Plus, we have some good stuff to share and we still care about sharing it.
It is the stuff of financial services advertisements. Nonetheless, when we watch them, we feel a bit of shame in their self-absorption, their "It is all about me"-ness. We have kept our promises but do not mind making a few more. One of our truths is our belief that life ought not to be an "all take" proposition. We may want some of that ... We are not saints, but we have always carried our weight and we worry about our children and their world. We have this sneaking suspicion we are not transmitting one that is as good as we got.
    We may have another 40 or 50 years on the planet but we know some contemporaries or younger who died of natural causes or, worse, got themselves caught in some sort of health trap. Perhaps we have even stared down the Reaper a time or two ourselves. We have buried one parent, maybe two. For certain, we know beyond knowing that neither immortality nor permanent good health is an option.
    We have been babies, infants and toddlers. We remember being children and pre-teens and adolescents. Then we were young adults, then the real thing, including earning a genuine salary, raising children, holding mortgages and periodically voting. We came to it begrudgingly, but we were, in fact, adults. But that, too, was another lifetime. It was a time for suits, and haircuts, and daily commitments doing important work. Right now is something else entirely. Even if we are still on the treadmill, it does not dominate.
    Someday, we suspect/fear, we will stare into those fires or just turn and face the wall. Then, and only then, we will be "retired" in our own minds as the word was originally intended. Then, and only then, we will be tired and tired again. This is to say that we will be "retired" then. For now, though, and into the indefinite future, we savor this life and seek to bring vigor, joy and contribution to the undertaking.
    We do not crave corporate. We might want off the treadmill, or we might want to take advantage of special opportunities. We might want to write that book, take those trips, develop new interests, or whatever. The corner office does not beckon. Fresh air does. So do shorts, golf shirts and sandals. But we still have a couple of suits in the closet.
    If we are lucky, we have grandchildren. And we almost keep up. Always a joy but glad it is not permanent. If not, we probably still have a pet or two or other commitments to remind us of the pain/joy of responsibility.
    "Retired" just does not work for this time. It not only is imprecise, it deflates. It was for our grandparents, not us. And it just keeps on meaning "tired."
    We talked the issue for a while, then found some friends and talked the issue a while longer. Then we trundled the issue through the crowd, attempting to plant little seeds of creativity. We asked the best and the brightest, those we had known for years. Nothing. Oh, they tried. But nothing.
    To a person, they agreed it was in issue and promised to think on it. We are sure they will, but we are not sure they grasp the exigency. This is a word we need to grow and use. The time is now. Eileen was right about the urgency. We need it. Now.
    It is common for financial planners to use the "R" word. After all, it is part of the legal lexicon for all sorts of things. It is the language used to describe certain kinds of accounts. It is the asserted object of particular sorts of planning. Moreover, it is the only available descriptor for that phase of life that comes after "work." Perhaps most importantly, it is on the test.
Whatever. It is a lousy damn word for describing life phases of unprecedented vitality and individual freedom for significant, extended periods. For many/most of us, we are living the lives we choose. This may be our time of prodigious skills and extraordinary contribution. It may be the time for sleeping to our body's schedule, not dancing to our employers' drumbeat. It is a lovely time where we are not marionettes-nobody else pulls our strings. Indeed, we have the money and motivation to yank back. For many of us, our financial resources are sufficient to give us choices.
    What do we call this time now? (And, oh yes, it is personal.) Who knows?
Our point is this. Language is required for meaningful conversation. Without good language, imprecision can destroy the best ideas, the most eloquent conversation or the most wonderful intentions. Bad language is even worse. Without good words, we cannot do research, share our best ideas or help clients focus.
Financial planning needs good words to talk about our possible scenarios. "Guytonian Guardrails" or "Bengian Bumpers" withdrawal rates and spending restraints (concepts from advisors Jonathan Guyton and William Bengen, respectively) are one thing when staring into the face of 30 more years. They are another in the years of our last journeys. For many, this time is the whole point behind their financial planning.
    Yet, we do not have words for this phase of life that culminates the life lived and sets the table for our passing. We need base words.   
    We do not need stupid words, undignified words or insulting words. "Golden years?" (Huh!? Remember what happened to Midas? He froze everything he loved and needed.) "Go-go, slow go, no go." ("No va."-Spanish for "No go.") We are not "seasoned" or "ripened." Those are for salespeople without a clue. Terms like "senior citizens" generate big retching sounds. "Maturity" did not wait this long. That came with first bras, jock straps, driver's licenses and razor blades, and we jolly well know the difference.
    "Aging baby boomers" is a transient term. Moreover, the need for these words will not pass with those currently aged 42 to 60. Truth to tell, this need to describe this particular life phase with sociological precision will likely be with the collective "we" forever, Iran, bird flu and peak oil willing.
    Perhaps we could turn "AARP" into something useful. (For example, Gail and I anticipate using the term "AARP Music" to describe pop music from the Beatles through Madonna as we nosh on our soup and Jell-O.)
    So we have been playing with words. Some criteria: We need flexible words that play within contexts; words aspiring to the gravitas of language describing other life phases without sounding like slogans. We suggest that the words ought to indicate both time passages and attitudes. Ideally, we need something that will make us hit our foreheads with a loud "of course" or belch a Homerian "doh."
    Comparables? "Adolescence" is a good one for describing a particular time of life, a set of years, a physical reality and a cohort group, while lending itself to "adolescent." Let us work for something like that.
    So, we plead with you, dear friends and colleagues. Let us come up with some words to describe this most important life phase.
    We came up with a couple that might work. How about "recreationists" as a root word for those who are "recreating" their lives? With the obvious focus on creativity, this could lead to "recreatence" (adolescence) or "recreatent" (adolescent). Of course, the fact that "recreation" itself has specific meanings is something of a drawback.
    Or what about "rejuvenents," based on the word "rejuvenate"? (My wife's contribution.) The synonyms are nice: revitalize, invigorate, revive, revivify, refresh, renew and restore. Plus, we rather like including the root syllable "juv" for recalling our earlier days as "juveniles." "Rejuvenence" is a perfect parallel to "adolescence."
    Perhaps we could turn to music for source and process words. For example, "decrescendo" could come after our "crescendo"-a time of upsurge, loudness, climax or swelling. For the period of life following our biggest bangs, could we talking about "decrescendents" in their "decrescendence" like "adolescents" in their "adolescence"?
    "Elder" based words have a shot. "Elders" has long been a term of respect. I have heard people using "eldering" as a verb. Could we expand it to include something like "elderence," "elderescence" or "elderescent"?
    Eileen suggests staying with more "everyday" words. With our various freedoms (money, health, commitments) how about calling this our "Explorer" phase? With a little work, a little play, messing about and trying new things, reconnecting with old ideas and friends in new contexts ... we have a chance to "I." ("Explorescence?" "Explorescent?" Hmm.) What about "Second  "Adulthood?" (Ick?) Or "The Creative Age?" (Ickier?) Or "Pathfinders?" Switching to music, we could incorporate "Composition." (Composcence?) Or how about a simple but flexible "midlife" typified by work, volunteer service and leisure activities? It sounds young enough not to irritate the boomers, but untainted by implications of excessive responsibility (i.e., Adulthood). It is age neutral.
    None of these words is perfect, but they are all superior to "retired" or the other cloying gag-worthies in current use. We invite you to try them on for size. What might work? If we change the language, we change the world. This is a big deal. We need these words.

Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the principal of WorthLiving LLC, based in Denver.