Magazine article Times Higher Education

Third Age Choices

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Third Age Choices

Article excerpt

Retirement raises distinctive issues for academics, explains Malcolm Gillies.

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.

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. …

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