It seems that the benefits that are supposed to be had from ‘retirement’ – ‘the never-ending weekend’… ‘freedom and rest…after decades of hard work’ – are not to be thought of as inevitable. Poor health and ‘decline in cognitive functioning…’ seem to be associated with retirement, though not, of course, for everybody, according to Ross Andel, gerontology researcher, who is the director of the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. I’ve just read a short article about his research.
Certainly it’s not the case that I’ve suffered in any way from retirement probably because I’ve never had the belief that life is about ‘work’! To make sure that everybody realises that life is not work but attention to the things that really matter, I’d advocate that planning for the idea of retirement should start taking place when you’re about ten years of age. Working for other people to make money is a distraction from life, not a necessity.
Something now has to be done to counteract authoritarian regimes from increasing the official retirement age. Why would they want to do that? To keep our noses to the grindstone so we don’t have the time to notice what powerful self-serving frauds they are. There should be a campaign to push for retirement at 50 – or even 40.
As I used to say, after the man himself, when running Stephen Covey Seven Habits courses: nobody ever said on their death bed, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office…”
Anyway, Ross Andel has looked at data collected from older adults going through the work-to-retirement transition from 2001 to date: ‘…every four years, participants answer questions about their health, circumstances and lifestyle and complete a number of tests that gauge memory, speed of thinking, verbal abilities and other cognitive skills…’ It seems that there’s a decline in speed of processing, that is ‘…how quickly we can make sense of information we’re given… If people take longer to process information, they’re more likely to forget it; they’re also more likely to get confused…’ All this depends on ‘healthy brain network’…
One of the tests Andel describes in a TED talk is to give people random sets of words to remember and then test recall every four years, presumably given them the same set of words on each occasion. He found that those still in work at 77 lost less remembering capability than those who had retired. Some of the memory loss is obviously attributable to natural brain decay but one does have to wonder what purpose anybody would have in committing a random set of words to ‘memory’. In any case, it’s quite wrong to regard ‘memory’ as a receptacle – it’s a reconstructive process and one needs a system for constructing things in the first place. Lacking a mental system one just might not bother to recall anything. I’m sure he knows this really: with reference to the way the brain works he acknowledges the need for a sense of purpose.
He rightly suggests a way of keeping the remembering system going: the more information that travels through the synapses between the axon of one neuron and the dendrite of another the more the synapses are oiled. Going from one way of being (‘working’) to another (‘living the life of Reilly’) the synapses will not get oiled in the same way. We need another activity to replace that which we were used to. Interestingly, for him, ‘…people who have volunteered to take part in the study appear to experience less cognitive decline than those who don’t…’ He tends to think that it’s ‘…about routine and individual sense of purpose…’!
I think that many people probably don’t even have an idea of what a ‘sense of purpose’ might be. Developing the notion of a sense of purpose would be part of the retirement part of the curriculum for ten-year-olds.
I well remember that for the first fortnight of my very early retirement in 1992 I drifted around mentally having lost the focus of organising college lecturing and spreading what I regarded as intellectual ideas to my colleagues – I was never sure they thought of it like that! One day sitting on the lawn at home just before lunchtime I decided that ‘drifting’ was not what I’d retired for. I listened to some Mendelssohn string quartets and started regular writing and (unrigorous) planning.
Andel points out that regions in the world where there’s a greater number of residents who’ve reached the age of 100 and beyond they all have an identifiable sense of purpose. A sense of purpose and intention, whatever it might be, gives meaning to life. As Sartre points out the only thing that prevents us from descending into hopeless absurdity, the meaninglessness of human existence, is to develop ‘projects’. What’s your project?
It could be anything from determining to compose music, working with the grandkids one way or another, motorbiking round the country, reading novels of favourite authors and writing about them, playing chess, making model aeroplanes, building a narrow gauge railway in the garden… Making sure to decide on the next day’s activity before you go to bed. Raising your arms to the sunrise just before dawn!
Andel suggests the pretty obvious: ‘…instead of thinking of retirement as a permanent holiday, it might be more helpful to perceive it as a time of personal renaissance. We could see our post-work life as a wonderful opportunity to reinvest in things that truly matter to us. We can take on that hobby we always wanted to have. We could decide to re-engage with our family or friends, maybe in a brand-new or more complete way…’
Since 1992, I have made more friends than I ever had before. I have written many more poems and general thinking scrawls than ever before. I have made music, built summer houses and rock gardens. I have made quite a lot of money out of independent teaching. I have designed and taught my own courses at home. I have handmade more than 10,000 paperback books both for other people and myself – I’ve lost count of the actual number but I’ve published over 200 books in thirty years at an average, say, of fifty books an individual publication. Since 2010 I’ve written 265 Globs in my WordPress Website – some of them very long (this – the 266th – is comparatively short!).
I’ve had bum cancer and two hip replacements, broken ribs and dislocated a shoulder but I’m not at all sure that my mental faculties are that much impaired. But how would I know? It’s like the man sitting opposite me on the train to Shanghai said, “If I’m using my brain to determine whether I’m still thinking like I used to how will I know whether I am or not?”
Perhaps I should volunteer to be a member of Andel’s study…
It’s possible, I suppose, that the outcome of the study is already determined: he’s been told to discover that retirement is not good for you by the Boss Class and the Austerity Merchants so that they have a concrete reason to keep people’s noses to the grindstone till they drop and, what’s more, save all that waste of money paying out pensions. I couldn’t wait to escape from Wage Slavery and it amuses me to consider that I’ve been retired for nearly thirty years, collecting the money as I pass GO.
What’s really important is to slough off the idea that life is about working. By about 10 o’clock on the day (January 23rd 1955) I started work in Charing Cross Income Tax Office, on the 6th floor Manfield House in the Strand, London, I wondered what it would be like on the day I retired.
It didn’t seem such a very long time before I found out, though quite a lot did happen in between!