No longer up to their arses in alligators...

September 24, 2004

What do dons do at 65? Scuba diving and zipping around in a Jag, for starters. Chris Bunting tries to keep up.

Jim Godfrey and his wife, Marlene, are living the good life. It is not an extravagant lifestyle. They spend much of the summer and early autumn living an itinerant existence in their motor caravan, but it is a world away from the stress of Godfrey's previous life as a senior lecturer and admissions tutor at Bradford University's chemical engineering department.

"We tend to stay in England for the summer season. English people might think that is strange," Godfrey says.

Why not go abroad? "Every climate has its problems and the English summer is pleasant," says Godfrey, who is originally from Australia. "We just follow the weather. We might spend some time in Ryedale and take in the music festival there. Or we might go to a motor rally at Donington Park. We will stay there for a few days, relax, take in the whole atmosphere.

"In the autumn, we generally have three months in France in the motor caravan. We don't go to a particular place, we go wherever the fancy takes us," Godfrey says. "We buy a lot of our food in charcuteries. We will sit outside on an early evening eating, say, a rabbit stew and drinking the best wine we can get our hands on. It beats staying in hotels. You feel free.

"If we lead a slightly nomadic lifestyle, it is because we can do it. When you are at work, many things get in the way. Now, we don't have to plan anything," he says.

Aged 65, Godfrey has six years of retirement under his belt and no hankering to return to a full-time academic life.

"When I finished, I was working in the region of eight hours a day, seven days a week in term time. I was doing admissions as well as my teaching and research loads. I wasn't devoting a lot of time to thinking about what I wanted from life. As they say in Australia: 'When you are up to your arse in alligators, it is hard to remember that the original objective was to drain the swamp,'" Godfrey says.

Godfrey is an expert on the mixing of fluids. He has published several research papers since his early retirement and still teaches at Bradford.

He has also branched out into other areas and gives guided talks for the local Victorian Society and has become a member of the Yorkshire Gardens Trust and the Folly Fellowship, a charity devoted to preserving public follies, grottoes and garden buildings. He seems determined to do retirement "properly", rather than extend his working life as he has observed many retired academics do.

"There is a general unwillingness to think of retirement.JBecause of the sort of work it is, it does give some opportunity for self-aggrandisement and sometimes it is the people who have taken that opportunity who find it particularly difficult to give up," he says.

"There is also a culture of admiration for academics who soldier on in their retirement. There is a culture of the emeritus professor. People say, 'The old so-and-so wrote quite a good paper last month. What a trouper.' I think people are brought up in that culture and they want some of that themselves. I suppose I would like it too, and if I get it by accident that's great, but I am not prepared to devote everything to it. When I look at work, I still think it is quite interesting, but I've done it and I've done a lot of it."

It is all a bit of a contrast to the "retirement" of Godfrey's old vice-chancellor, David Johns.

Seventy-three-year-old Johns has swapped the one job he reluctantly gave up at Bradford in 1998 for four: chairman of the North and East Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire Strategic Health Authority, chairman of the Genetics and Insurance Committee, a member of the British Board of Agrement and commissioner of the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowship Plan. He, too, leads a semi-itinerant lifestyle, zig-zagging across the country in his Jaguar from one meeting to the next.

"I'm certainly doing much more travelling than I did as a v-c. I'm doing hundreds of miles a day," he says.

Johns estimates that he is working the equivalent of a four-day week and says the last thing he wants to do is "spend more time polishing my golf clubs and improving my handicap".

"If I feel I am making a contribution, that is enough satisfaction to me.

You can be past your sell-by date at half my age. It is an attitude of mind. Today I was talking to my people about human resources issues: we were talking about training and development for more than 500 people," he says.

It is the kind of administrative load that would be a nightmare to David Cove, visiting professor of plant sciences at Leeds University and a professor at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. For Cove, retirement has been a chance to get back to the reason why he came into academia in the first place: research. He spends hours ensconced in the growth rooms in the basement of his department in Leeds.

"The paperwork and the boring meetings are gone. I now have time to do what I love," says the 67-year-old.

"The retirement was a little embarrassing because they had a big symposium and party when I knew damn well I wasn't retiring."

Life is not all work. Cove and his wife are scuba-diving instructors and he says it was a happy accident that two of his most recent conferences were in Lanzarote and Crete. But, with his research into the genetics of mosses currently highly productive, Cove has no intention of leaving the field to young whippersnappers with a fraction of his experience.

Cove, Godfrey and Johns could hardly be more different in their attitudes to retirement but, of course, they give only a hint of the vast range of experiences and views among British higher education's older staff.

For every emeritus professor still surviving at the cutting edge of their research field, there is another forced to leave behind their life's work because of chronic health problems. For every recipient of a generous early retirement package, there is another academic who simply could not afford to retire at the standard age because they started their career late or took time out to care for children. For some, retirement is about discovering a new life with their grandchildren and children. For others, it is about rediscovering themselves, forging a new career or simply plodding on.

According to Kerry Platman, senior research associate at Cambridge's Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing, it is a complex reality that until now British higher education has done its best to ignore.

"In higher education, retirement hasn't really been seen as an issue because older academics have simply been forced to retire at 65. That has been the one-size-fits-all approach. The variation has been ad hoc. If individuals are lucky, universities might invite them back for short-term contracts. If you are very lucky you might get an emeritus professorship, but you are not usually paid, and sometimes you have to put up with very few facilities," Platman says.

But she adds that this will change. The Government's response to European regulations outlawing age discrimination in employment, due to come into force in 2006, is not clear but is likely to call on employers to allow more flexibility in the retirement age and post-retirement working. With ministers struggling with increasing state pension costs and inadequate pension provision, the emphasis in future is likely to be on encouraging partial retirements in which older workers are allowed to pick and mix continued work with partial pensions.

"We are all heterogeneous. There is a group who don't want to carry on working. Some may be disgruntled, overworked, or their health may be failing. There are others for whom the fact that they are 65 makes not a jot of difference, and the argument is that these people should be allowed to stay, with adequate compensation and employment rights. We have women and others who have been reaching higher grades later, after entering academia later, who are being told to go when they are very dynamic forces in their departments," Platman says.

"What we need to realise is that being an older worker is not just about working towards the magical age of 65 and then stopping."

Next week: the politics of retirement in the US.

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