In my old career, one of the things I got to do regularly was rebrand organizations, something that I loved doing. People get all frothy to talk personal brands these days, and hey, rock that Instagram feed. But beyond the buzzwordy social media meaning of “brand,” a brand is not fundamentally about logos or taglines or which Snapchat filters you use, it’s what the organization or person promises.
Volvo’s brand isn’t slightly boxy cars, it’s safety. Apple’s brand is cool, intuitive technology. But it works on the negative side, too. No matter how many Polaris ads they run or how many apologies they offer, United’s brand right now is certainly not the friendly skies.
My team and I got hired when cause-based organizations wanted to sharpen their brand, most often because their core promise wasn’t coming through, or because they had evolved beyond their original brand and now wanted to show that evolution to the world.
On those same grounds, I think retirement is long overdue for a rebrand.
Last week’s manifesto post – either a call to rally the blogging troops, or a leave-no-prisoners campaign, depending on your perspective – spurred an unexpectedly large number of conversations about what retirement means anyway. To generalize, there was a strain of comment that went something like:
I don’t know why all these bloggers insist on calling themselves retired when they’re really still working. At best, they’re semi-retired.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by those comments, given that I was calling out bloggers who make money on their blogs or from any side gigs and don’t disclose it. But I wasn’t calling them out for making the money, but for not telling their readers how that could be biasing that thinking, for example by making them feel extra flush and therefore especially rosy about economic forecasts and whether things will work out. That optimistic bias could manifest in all kinds of ways, like having the emotional belief that the 4% rule is already plenty conservative, or that you don’t really need all those contingencies or – worst of all – that you don’t need to get all the way to your financial independence number before leaving your job. We need to make sure readers have some clue if we’re potentially biased in some way, and so long as you do that, then make allllll the money as far as I’m concerned.
But the question of whether earning money makes them retired or not (and “them” in this case includes Mark and me, because we’re side hustling like 10 percent of the time this year) caught me off-guard.
Is Retirement Fundamentally About Time or Money?
To us, retirement has always meant we have control over our time. We could choose to work or not, but we’d never have to work because we need the money, and we’d only take on work that is fun, comes with incredible perks or really fires us up on our purpose. But we wouldn’t suddenly be “not retired” because we happened to earn a little money doing something that was entirely by choice. That’s how I’ve described our vision of retirement from my very first post here three-plus years ago.
And we have that now. The small amount of work we’re doing checks all the right boxes, and it’s a tiny, tiny slice of our lives. We’re still waking up without alarms, we’re spending our days the way we want to, we’re never skipping a powder day because we owe someone something, we don’t check with anyone before scheduling a trip and we feel as free as we’d hoped we would. So the idea that the 10 percent of our time spent working this year someone equals “not retired” felt, quite honestly, absurd. After all, I’m on the record saying this:
But that could also just be my reaction because it felt personal. So I decided to ask Twitter for its infinite wisdom. Is it just me who thinks retirement is fundamentally defined by free time, and not by whether you happen to earn some income?
Turns out, no:
I’m married to a long-time pollster, and Mark assures me that, even with that sample size, 85 percent to 15 percent is vastly more than statistically significant. And whether my question is scientifically worded or not, it’s safe to say that I am not alone in believing that retirement is primarily defined by controlling your time, and perhaps also by having more free time than not, under which definition we surely qualify.
But still, there’s a small but vocal contingent out there – sometimes including the internet retirement police – who believe that earning any sort of income makes you not retired. (For those folks, please try this thought experiment and tell me where you think the line is.)
And that, friends, is a branding problem.
It’s like talking about what “middle class” means, another hot-button topic from last week’s post (that one I expected). It doesn’t matter if academics have created a precise definition for it, we have a country in which virtually everyone identifies as middle class, even the 1 percent. And it’s the same for retirement. Ask 10 people what it means, and you will get 10 different answers. Some will insist you’re only retired if you keep your butt firmly planted in a rocking chair, while others will assure you that you can work as much as you want so long as it’s on your terms. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between.
Retirement’s Brand Promise
On both measures – not being universally understood and overdue for an update based on changes in society – retirement is in need of a rebrand.
On a purely semantic level, “retirement” is really only the moment of departure from one’s career, like commencement is the moment of departure from school. But we’ve all imbued meaning and imagery into it that take retirement well beyond the once momentary definition.
A good brand is never defined by absence of something, it’s defined by presence. What it is, not what it isn’t. On that level, promising “no more work” isn’t nearly as strong as promising “total control over your time.” And, indeed, that is what retirement promises:
The point of leaving work isn’t so that you will never earn money again because that’s somehow bad. The point of it all is to have control over your time. So that’s the brand promise.
Defining a Brand By the Need It Fills
A brand promise gives you the feeling of it, but it doesn’t always describe it well. Using the Volvo example, if someone didn’t know what a Volvo is and asked you, and you responded “Safety!” you would have given an incomplete answer. So we can add to that promise and plug in the need that it satisfies. Retirement’s promise is related to time, so for need, let’s relate it to money:
I added the wrinkle of semi-retirement, but all three states refer to the need for money. When the need for money is gone, retirement opens as an option.
But Retirement Isn’t Just About Ideal States
Like in the United example, we could all say that retirement is its brand promise, but if that’s not how people understand it, it’s meaningless. United’s “friendly skies” promises fall flat the second you get yelled at by a gate agent or flight attendant. (And I’m only using United because it’s the obvious example these days. I have flown United mostly positively for years — and many hundreds of thousands of miles — but moreover, I think all the airlines are about the same. No one is raising the bar for quality these days.)
We can say that retirement is about its promise – control over your time – but that falls flat for a great many people. Two-thirds of people retire before they intend to, and many are so constrained by their finances that they can’t in fact take total control of their time because they can’t afford to do what they’d like to do. Or they are unhealthy or have mobility limitations. So on that measure, retirement isn’t delivering on its brand promise.
Likewise, the need component of retirement fails. Only a tiny fraction of people are well prepared to retire at any age. Many of them are forced to work in their old age because they don’t have enough money to get by. Plenty of people are forced to work or choose to work well after they leave their “real” career, but when you’re 75, I assume the internet retirement police leave you alone and don’t quibble about whether your retirement “counts.”
A Brand Is Its Story
When I helped rebrand an organization, the biggest component of that was telling a new story. Or, more accurately, reshaping its story to better communicate to audiences what it had been trying to say all along, or what it now needed to say based on how it had evolved.
The story we’ve been telling about retirement as a society is still relatively new. People haven’t been retiring in droves for much more than a century, but that’s still plenty old in terms of our personal memories. And our memories have strong images and associations with retirement that mostly have to do with people in their later years. People with lots of gray hair. Grandparents, elderly neighbors, aging parents. Those are the stories we know, so those are the stories we attach to retirement.
But, powerful as those stories are, they don’t dictate what retirement is, or what retirement could be. Because retirement is evolving. Younger people are opting in, and traditional retirees are taking on second act careers and other fun work. Its definition is changing, and those of us pursuing a different path in life are some of the ones changing it.
If we want to change how people see retirement, it’s up to us to tell that story.
How Would You Rebrand Retirement?
So with all of that as preamble, it’s your turn to weigh in. Branding is a participatory exercise, after all. There’s the technical definition of retirement: When you stop working (at least mostly) and therefore have free time. Fine. But then there’s the whole set of promises and rich feelings behind that. What are those things for you? What’s the story about retirement that you’d like us all to be telling? What is retirement’s promise to you? Please share all your thoughts in the comments!
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