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Tennis great Serena Williams offers wisdom about retirement as a life evolution

It takes a star to bring attention to an institution that many want to rename, redefine and even eliminate. And Serena Williams has done all three in her interview with Vogue magazine when asked about her retirement from tennis.

“I have never liked the word ’retirement.’ It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve been thinking of this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is ’evolution.’ I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”

Many adults in later life are thrilled with their retirement experience and have no problem with the term. They enjoy their freedom and the choices they now have which might include travel, time with family, including those special times with grandchildren and enjoying a time of leisure, pleasure and joy.

About 50 years ago, a traditional retirement consisted for many as a time to leave your 9-to-5 job and then move into what was called your “golden years.” That was a period of about 10 to 15 years when you would live off of your pension and savings and would enjoy life. Today, retirement can last 30 years with many years of good physical and mental health. “I think we’re going to completely redefine retirement or get rid of the concept altogether,” says Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, in an interview with Fidelity Viewpoints. “The old model just won’t work anymore,” she adds.

Carstensen and Ken Dychtwald, founder and CEO of Age Wave call for a new design, one that is similar to a mosaic that combines work, leisure, learning and giving back that can occur in any order, rather than packing them all into our middle years.

For many, life has been a somewhat orderly trajectory: go to school, get married, have a job, buy a house, raise the children and then retire. At ages 62 or 67, it’s time for retirement – with no guidelines.

Again, for some, this is not an issue. The retirement experience can be relief from tedious and physically demanding work or the long commutes, a time to step back. Yet, today, retirement is being redefined; it is no longer a retreat. For many, it is a period of transition, moving on to the next chapter with new endeavors, engagements and opportunities.

There are arguments for postponing retirement and continuing to work. Research conducted by faculty at the University of Binghamton University, State University of New York found that early retirement can accelerate cognitive decline among older adults. And then there is the financial security issue.

According to Carstensen, most people cannot save enough during their 40 years of work to support themselves for 30 non-working years. And society cannot provide adequate pension support for that period of time, she notes. These conditions require a new and different work model including part-time work, phased retirement, opportunities to move in and out of the workforce with education throughout one’s life.

Several notables demonstrate the changing meaning of retirement. Tom Brady returned to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after 40 days of retirement. Target has dropped its mandatory retirement age for its CEO, allowing current Chief Executive Brian Cornell to remain for three more years.

Here is an astounding approach to retirement. Dr. Phil Pizzo is the founding director of the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute. Previous to that he was the former Dean of the Stanford School of Medicine with a specialty in pediatric oncology. At age 77, he is starting over again and is training to be a rabbi. This is more astounding since he was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism two years ago. Dr. Pizzo continues to reinvent himself and is a beacon for lifelong learning.

We all cannot be Serena Williams, Tom Brady, CEO Cornell or Dr. Pizzo, yet we can have a contemporary and realistic perspective on retirement that reflects our current longevity and aspirations. Thank you, Serena. Indeed, retirement is an evolution as we move to a new life stage and become the role models for the future.

Stay well everyone and know kindness is everything.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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