One of the true surprises of 2014 for me is that I will turn 60. Surprising, I say, because I don’t feel 60, and – judging by that sketch to your left – I surely don’t look 60!
Sixty is a significant moment in a life’s passage. Pension entitlements, free bus passes, eye tests and prescriptions, and what you want – or are able – to do in your remaining years become dominating topics of personal conversation. Another of life’s use-by dates passes, reinforcing our ultimate perishability.
The Bible lays down “the days of our years” as three score and ten (Psalms xc, 10), so in the West the sixties have traditionally been seen as the “last gasp” of productive human endeavour. Shakespeare in his “seven ages of man” elegantly depicts this life-stage moving from the “lean and slippered pantaloon” towards the final “second childishness and mere oblivion/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”. Sounds exciting!
But this Biblical allotment has been exceeded over the past century. We are living longer. A lot longer. Retirement used to be a few years separating work and death. Now it can stretch for decades of increasingly uncertain health, wealth and purpose. Think about how many retirees themselves have living parents, creating double-decker retirement patterns and new forms of cross-generational dependency.
You might make a good living as a historian into your sixties or seventies, but you probably won’t be such a success at that age as a dancer or an airline pilot
Even though surveys show that most people do want to retire between the ages of 60 and 65 (and earlier in many Asian, African and south European countries), financial broadcasts constantly ask: “Can you afford to retire?”
This is the same question that the Roman poet Horace asked two millennia ago when he suggested that people work “so as to retire in true idleness when they are old/Having made a pile” (Satires I.1, 31-2). So when is that “pile” enough to retire? Horace’s advice is simple: “fear poverty less”. Enough will rarely seem enough, until it’s too late to use it.
Shakespeare’s deficiency model for the final “age”, however, now plays itself out even more brutally as entire populations live longer. Different jobs require different proficiencies and different interplays of technical skill and wisdom. You might make a good living as a historian into your sixties or seventies, but you probably won’t be such a success at that age as a dancer or an airline pilot.
Ageing musicians are acutely aware of the dreaded “loss of proficiency” and many orchestras have specially dedicated funds for it. Loss of proficiency isn’t anyone’s fault or lack of individual application. Simply, the fingers, lips and body parts, not to mention the eye and the ear, are generally more dexterous or discerning in your twenties than in your fifties or your eighties. There comes a point when the quality or accuracy of the playing definitely suffers, and for which no maturity of interpretation or life experience adequately compensates. Most musicians don’t wait for the tap on the shoulder. Those who do wait generally regret doing so.
In academe, retirement is a curious affair. Although your contract of employment may no longer have a use-by date, pension schemes have a series of them. They need your attention, as they are – or soon will be – changing. Once upon a time there was one certainty about academic planning: everybody would reach retirement age at some set time in the future. The retirement celebration could even be planned years in advance. Indeed, aspiring colleagues were counting on your expiration.
Today, matters are more complex, with some opting to go earlier and some later. And around the world there are more half-and-half schemes of semi-retirement, as well as increasing roles for emeritus academic staff. In the US, where one of the most sought-after benefits of academic employment can be private medical insurance, a long twilight of sessional teaching may maintain access to quality healthcare. That may be worth more than the actual sessional payments.
For the individual academic, retirement brings distinctive choices for future life. This is because being an academic is as much a frame of mind as a statement of duties. You can retain that academic mindset in retirement, even contributing better to academic debates and outputs than when saddled with all those formal duties. Fortunately, for many academic fields, accumulation of experience and wisdom still bears a premium, but generally more so in fields where the “half-life” of knowledge lasts longer or personal skills of dexterity are less important.
So, even if you can afford to retire, you well know what you are retiring from, but what exactly are you retiring to? A portfolio career? A renewed professional life? More academic pursuits? A cottage by the sea? More time with loved ones or friends?
I offer three possible lessons:
Retire earlier rather than later. You can better establish your new life while you still have “teeth, eyes, taste, and everything”.
Consider doing some things that are really different. Our former selves do not have to be our future selves.
Seek really independent financial advice and hedge your bets. What looks good now may not be so in 20 or 30 years. But if you wait until all is absolutely secure, then remember Horace’s advice that you probably won’t have enough time to benefit from it all anyway.