Seems I am collecting expressions of “congratulations” on my retirement. Does anyone know why at retirement we are congratulated? I know a part of the answer lies in the simplicity; it’s a commonplace, a go-to response, easy to toss out requiring scant engagement with the sentiment it conveys. I’ve used it that way myself as I expect most of us have. Now, however, as I absorb another “congratulations,” I’m drawn to wonder what that word means, particularly in the retirement context. Isn’t the recipient of congratulations someone we honor? A college graduate, for example. What is the honor bestowed on those who retire? What makes the retiring professor worthy of congratulations? Is it that the “congratulations” are meant to be followed implicitly by “you’ve earned it.” It that’s the case, what do the congratulators think I’ve earned?

Maybe they see retirement as release from the host of troubles that beset the working professor? No more grading, no more class preps, no more tedious faculty meetings, no more demands for evidence of “productivity.” To be sure, I’m feeling rather joyous at the moment about shedding these responsibilities! Since most of my congratulators are not yet retired perhaps they mean to say, “you’ve earned my envy.” The congratulator congratulates to acknowledge her own slavery and in anticipation of her own freedom. “Congratulations, now you can do what you’ve always wanted to do and what I must continue to postpone?”

Or more cynically, is it “congratulations, you are getting out of the way of the rest of us?” “Congratulations, we have earned your spot.” This, I sense, is a bit of the sentiment behind the demand that I clear out my office asap though I am still, technically, a university employee until September 1. My office, while not the largest in the department, is still prime real estate. Once my office is empty, the office shuffle can take place . Though a possible meaning, my dictionary would rank this one far down the list of definitions for retirement congratulations.

Perhaps “congratulations” is intended to acknowledge that the retiree has reached her goal, made it to the end, and earned a victory in life’s race. “Congratulations, you’ve finished the race and earned a medal or a title.” Well, yes, I’ve received the equivalent of a retirement medal and I hope the university will bestow a new title of “emeritus.” But, I know. if others do not, that the race goes on and the “congratulations” can mark only the completion of one lap. More laps must be run before the race is over.

Is it “congratulations, you’ve earned a simpler life?” Retirement seems to suggest I’m about to enter a less stressful stage with fewer demands on my time and energy. (See above, definition #1.) I hope this is true, though as I do battle with the paperwork of Social Security and Medicare and plan for the RMD from my TIAA account, I have my doubts! Simpler also suggests that life can now be sustained by “less.” As the retirement finance books point out, I no longer need “professional” clothes so wardrobe maintenance will be much easier. Simplicity can be achieved in part by downsizing. Congratulations, you’ve earned the right to purge your home of decades of accumulated research note “fat.” (Good lord, yesterday I purged research material used for my MA thesis. These folders of notes were carted to four new homes but never once looked at. If this is the simpler life I’ve earned, I am so ready for it.) Have I earned the right to move into less demanding digs…Congratulations, are you staying in Blacksburg, in a house that complicates the simple life with its demands for constant maintenance? Congratulations, that simpler life will certainly be less taxing for you as you age into retirement.

I sense, however, that for the already retired congratulator “congratulations” signifies that I’ve earned the secret password…I’ve become one of them, even if I’m not yet privy to all the rituals of the sorority and haven’t learned all the rules. To them I am a newbie, still on probation as I figure out the demands of retirement. Congratulations, then, means “Welcome aboard and we’ll wait for you to get your sea legs.”

Whatever the intent of the congratulators, the message I hear is not one of condolences. All those who offer their congratulations let me know through this word that as I am losing parts of my identity, I am also gaining others. In a sense, I am like the college graduate. Something has come to an end and the “congratulations” promise a future that as a new graduate with a degree in retirement I am now free to mold. So, thank you, one and all, for the congratulations! I am banking your messages for times when the winds of retirement might blow cold.


2 thoughts on “Congratulations

  1. Great article and perspective! I often congratulate people who are retiring. I think of it as both leaving behind a work identity and having the opportunity to create an identity centered around a new purpose. This is a chance to get in touch with who you truly are without the constraints of society’s expectations of who you SHOULD be. Gone are all the obligations, like grading papers and the trappings, like your prime real estate office, your title. What you are left with when stripped of all the work trappings is who you really are at your core. Perhaps you already know who you are and what you will do with the time remaining. Congratulations on having the freedom to do that!

  2. I like the idea of dropping expectations! They seem to be fleeing rather quickly. As for defining expectations and purpose for myself, I’m pretty sure there’s a core in there somewhere that I will draw on. Or perhaps many cores? But I also think often of the “expectations” and “identity” socially imposed on the retired; have been reminded of it often by my millennial students who held “seniors” responsible for the election results!

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