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There are things that one wants to end.

For instance, the election. You know which election. And why.

And also the pandemic, which is roaring back just as the promise of reliable vaccines begins to glimmer on the horizon.

But then there is this other ending—self-chosen—that will begin for me in less than six weeks: I'm retiring, and it occurs to me that retirement is something worthy of a semiotic examination.


I will limit such an analysis here to the popular cultural image of retirement (excluding here the recent FIRE movement and its own particular imagery aimed at thirty-somethings), which is most often to be encountered in advertisements for investment services aimed at sixty-something retirees. These generally feature beaming couples walking hand in hand—preferably on a beach—with beautiful white hair and clearly having the time of their lives. They are also usually white, but Black couples sometimes appear, as well (which is about the extent of diversity to be found in such ads). The overall message is clear: retirement is an endless vacation, healthy and carefree, often augmented by the appearance of grandchildren: happy grandchildren playing with even happier grandparents.

The image is rather different in the movies and on television, however. I think that On Golden Pond, tinged with its golden aura of well-ripened mortality, is most representative of the cinematic version of retirement, while TV's Golden Girls would make an excellent televisual example but for the fact that its spunky protagonists are still working—and retirement is not precisely synonymous with "old age."

I'm sure that there are other examples (a co-starring sit-com grandparent sprinkled here and there), but the point is that retirement, while not exactly being a taboo subject in American popular culture, isn't a common one either—which is entirely to be expected within the context of a culture devoted to youth. Thus, in a society where popular culture has taken over from such traditional institutions as the family, the church, and classical literature, the task of providing framing narratives for the conduct of life, retirees have been left pretty much on their own.

And that, actually, is probably a good thing, because the broad-brush narratives that cultures paint are rarely adequate to the immense diversity of our lives, and retirement is no exception. Not everyone is going to be able to retire—healthily hand-in-married-hand—to a beach. Not everyone has grandchildren, and of those that do, a significant number are having to raise them themselves. For all too many, the vanishing of company-provided pensions is turning retirement into a struggle, not a vacation. And with American lifespans getting longer and longer (knock on wood and pass the COVID-19 vaccination, please), one's retired years can actually exceed those of working life.

In short, it is not a Hallmark-greeting-card cliché to say that retirement is really a beginning rather than an end, with many possible itineraries. Popular culture, with its laser focus on youth, simply isn't concerned with providing much in the way of imagining such journeys, and this, when one comes to think about it, may actually be the most semiotically significant thing about American retirement of all.

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1334441 by geralt, used under Pixabay License

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.