by dr ngo
Nobody – well, hardly anybody – really believed the Who when they sang “Hope I die before I get old.” Well, maybe Keith Moon, and a few other rockers like Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix, but we still have Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey with us – and even Keith Richards. So we have to assume that most of you are, believe or not, actually going to get old one day. And I'm here to help you think about it.
I've already promised not to dwell on the physical ailments that tend to accompany age, though these can easily dominate one's quotidian existence. (Mickey Mantle is supposed to have said, “If I had known I'd live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself.” Maybe, maybe not.) Nor is my topic the financial liabilities that all too easily arise for seniors, especially those of us living in backward countries without universal health care. We've been lucky in this regard, and are comfortably off in our Golden (not quite Platinum) Years.
Instead I'm going to talk about retirement, which comes to all who do not die in harness. In my case it was compulsory – I was teaching overseas, where you can still be forced out for being too old, which has not been the case in the USA for more than twenty years. This was not entirely a bad thing, although had I been given a choice, I'd probably have hung on for a bit longer, since I wasn't sure if I had enough money for a comfortable life in retirement. It turned out I did, and since I had grown weary of the long losing battle against the forces of transplanted and warmed-over Thatcherism in higher education, I wasn't really sad to leave.
We found a good place to live – wonderful house, pleasant neighborhood, good nearby universities with which I could affiliate – and I looked forward to a scholarly “afterlife” of catching up on a number of projects I had begun, or at least contemplated, during the last few decades in academe, which had been increasingly devoted to Meetings (“The Practical Alternative To Work”). At one point I actually listed five such projects, with my only question being which of them I would tackle first.
Now, nine years on, I know the answer: None. In part this was a response to adjusting to a new life, back in the USA after more than twenty years abroad, taking up the responsibilities of homeownership after decades of living in university housing, where when anything went wrong one simply phoned the Estates Office and they sent around someone to fix it. In part this was exposure to the wealth of American television, especially sports, which was (is) as deadly to me as any drug to any addict.
But in part it was also the loss of my profession, at least in a “professional” sense. For the first couple of years I was able to pick up a course at each of the local universities, for which I was paid generously by the standards of adjunct teaching, but ridiculously by the standards of any real profession. (I had run into other good schools – including USNA! – where they paid $3000 a course or less; I was getting at least twice that. Thank goodness I had enough to live on without this pittance.) I was given a library card, and temporary access to an office, but not a parking permit. I was not expected, much less required, to attend departmental meetings, though I suppose I could have had I desired. But effectively, after thirty years of full-time academic/scholarly employment, my occupation had ended.
It plays with the mind; at least it did with mine. All of my adult life had been spent in accumulating knowledge and experience – not to mention credentials – that among other things increased my skills and marketability, and now no one cares. I'll never get another promotion. I'll never get another full-time academic job, not that I want one. I'll probably never persuade anyone to pay my way to another conference or research trip. No one wants to know what I know. (Arguably many of my students didn't really want to know it either, but they wanted the grade leading to the degree, so they paid attention, up to a point.) I am no longer Of Use.
I could still write scholarly articles – but why? I have been asked to referee manuscripts for publishers and journals: generally gratis. I have edited friends' books: gratis, of course. I have given a couple of talks on Asia to local senior citizens: gratis. I have just finished editing a 300+ page handbook in my field, recruiting and dealing with 30 authors spread over four continents, a task that took me almost four years, for which I received total recompense of roughly $1500 (minus expenses): less than minimum wage, if pro-rated.
Don't get me wrong. I don't need the money, and if I had greater strength of character and resolve and intellectual integrity or something, none of this would arise. I've had colleagues more productive in retirement than ever, so mine is obviously not a universal, much less an ideal, response. But that's precisely my point – I didn't realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in my Profession, though I'd never have imagined myself one of those guys who keeps showing up at the office even after retirement because he's got nothing else to do. It's disconcerting to me; it may happen to you.
I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove's dead clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone! (3.3.345-357)
Note that Othello's speech, though wonderful, is totally illogical. There's no reason at all why a man should give up his military career because his wife is cheating on him – even if if were true (which of course it isn't) – but he has no better way to express, no truer way to feel, the ground giving way under him, the loss of a sense of what he is, than this:
Othello's occupation's gone.