Retiring Lives

June 3, 2010

All 17 contributors to Retiring Lives are academics, or women and men with considerable experience in schools, further and higher education, but this is not an academic study on education. It could be of interest and personal benefit to readers of Times Higher Education, whatever their discipline, as they near retirement age or if they have already retired. Eileen Carnell and Caroline Lodge edited the book for the Retiring Women group, made up of eight scholars who wanted to share with others what they were learning - personally, not gerontologically - about the pros and cons of retirement. They invited four men and five other women to join them for this publication.

The range and scope of topics in the 14 individual stories is immense, all the way from being embarrassed when someone gets up to offer you a seat on a bus to coping with the bereavement of a much-loved relative and experiencing worries about the state of your own health; from being used to having a certain authoritative status to becoming invisible; from being expert (maybe even over-specialised) to finding a wider world of interests; from being paid comparatively well to needing financial advice, yet discovering that voluntary work can be rewarding.

Readers may or may not empathise with what they're told here, which is sometimes very personal and unexpectedly candid (is retirement liberation, asks one contributor, or demoralisation?). They may be encouraged to see that once you've retired, you may find time and energy to delight in grandchildren, write that novel, relish being in a choir, or enjoy doing some real cookery (one contributor offers three recipes). Or these accounts may simply put people at ease with their own prospects and achievements.

Occasionally, contributors quote a scholarly source, but that even seems like an academic habit. Carnell, for example, remembers an 11-year-old boy talking about moving from one school year to another - "it was a bit like mixing colours" - and then she uses a referenced academic quote to clarify his meaning. Tellingly, the schoolboy's simile is much clearer and more alive.

After a list of contributors' notes on what they did for a living and a helpful introduction, Retiring Lives is split into three sections: "Big issues and the experience of the Retiring Women group"; "Retiring stories" ("the heart of the book"); and "Supporting and celebrating retiring". There is an appendix with a useful book list (another lapse - they call it a bibliography), which includes David Lodge's very apposite recent novel, Deaf Sentence. There are lists of poetry collections, retirement information, books on health and bereavement, biographies and autobiographies, films on the ageing theme, and a list of useful contacts.

Several poems are quoted, including Jenny Joseph's familiar, anarchic Warning ("I shall wear purple/With a red hat which doesn't go"). Every chapter starts with a jokey quotation; my favourite is Abe Lemons' "the trouble with retirement is that you never get a day off". (Confession: I've behaved academically again, googling to find out who Lemons was - answer: a baseball coach.)

There could well be a revised edition, as Retiring Lives should stimulate more dialogue. Much of Retiring Women's history should be included at an earlier stage - it is referred to frequently in the preceding chapters before readers know what this group actually is. The group could well be emulated elsewhere, with members taking it in turn to organise meetings, including residential weekends to get to know each other in off-duty mode and agree agendas, purposes and style (including how to handle the tricky issues likely to raise hackles).

In the final chapter, "Reasons to be cheerful", Retiring Women's eight members share and celebrate the sense of freedom that retirement brings: "the joys of becoming older and wiser".

Retiring Lives

Edited by Eileen Carnell and Caroline Lodge Institute of Education, London. 200pp, £15.99. ISBN 9780854738489. Published 1 December 2009

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