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March 14, 2005

The Downhill Stretch: Lincoln Allison shares his thoughts on retirement

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison - who has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick - shares his thoughts on retirement.

Few of my friends and acquaintances on hearing of my retirement could forbear to quote Dorothy Parker. You will remember that on hearing of the death of Calvin Coolidge she asked, "How can they tell?"

Of course, this works both ways; not only that I acted freely (or lazily) before, but that now I am "One of those mad old gits who says he's retired, but goes round doing more things than ever", as one of my sons put it in his modern way.

I retired at the age of 57 with the benefits of 35 years work and five years "enhancement" giving me a full pension and lump sum. I had two things going for me. The first is that I managed to start my pensionable employment at the age of 22. The second is a good deal more complicated and consists of the bizarre calculation that my employer, the University of Warwick, was likely to run short of money. This was not literally true: it is a well run institution and in relative academic terms is as rich as Croesus. It was just that they were likely to be a bit short in the column from which my salary was paid. Just as the wrong kind of snow can stop a British train, being paid in the wrong kind of money can set you free.

The result was that I crawled to freedom through a loophole which had closed before I left and which will probably never be repeated. It was a piece of good fortune shared with many members of my generation: travel round the world and you will find lots of cheerful British oldies who have the benefits of a secure income in a strong currency without having to do anything for it. The Lucky Generation stayed lucky, from the abolition of National Service through to the endowments and pension funds. It seems entirely unlikely, for example, that anyone will ever again be given a permanent, pensionable academic job in their early twenties. Meanwhile, over in Germany, I just heard of a High School which has no teacher under the age of 52 and where the possibility of having to work until the age of 70 is taken seriously.

Properly used the verb "to retire" is transitive. What was I retiring from? It was not really work in the normal way since I enjoyed teaching and writing and will continue to do them both in some form or another. It was more the whole concept of a career and its assessment which has come to dominate British academic life. One precise colleague calculated that he spent more than 50% of his time justifying or assessing his own or other people's "performance". Specifically, it was the wretched Research Assessment Exercise. I didn't want to let the side down, but neither did I want to direct such writing as I did towards the great pile of points-scoring "research" to be found in the academic journals. And there was also the thought that after 35 years returns have inevitably diminished and that if you can afford to try a different way of life you should.

How you react to retirement depends mainly on whether you are an autonomy-seeker or a power-seeker. The distinction is borrowed and developed from Harold Lasswell's Psychopathology and Politics which gave it Freudian underpinnings, but it makes good sense without too much Freud. It is easy to distinguish in this way between successful capitalists, for example: when they have made enough money to have a good time for fifty years do they retire to the beach or do they play the game as hard as ever? Ideal types, of course, and we all have something of both in us, but I guess most successful people are primarily power seekers and most of the rest of us would happily settle for getting up in the morning healthy and wealthy and tossing a dice to decide what to do with the day.

Connected with my self image as a seeker after autonomy was the nature of the lists which I always made, in which I resolutely refused to distinguish between "work" and "non-work", but listed things in rough order of priority. A satirical version of such a list would mysteriously appear on the breakfast table, reading something like:
1. Buy presents for all sons.
2. Write article.
3. Pick up sack of potatoes.
4. Execute dissidents.

I submit that retirement is less of a transition for the maker of that kind of list when compared to the true careerist. If you are used to supplicants arriving at the office door and secretaries urgently handing you sheaves of data and you actually like all that sort of thing then taking the wife out to lunch must seem a bit of a let down. Real power seekers have to go entirely. I remember a former vice chancellor at Warwick who hinted that he would like to retain an apartment on the campus and perhaps a consultative role. No chance! But, as a person of no importance, I was offered a room which I have retained.

But if it was relatively easy for me to retire it was also probably less exciting. I met many an itinerant oldie who seemed to be bubbling with sub-geriatric anticipation at the thought of not going to work in the morning and of the books they would read and the places and people they would visit (though I am thinking here of the men their wives were often less enthusiastic). By contrast, I feel a little disappointed with myself because of my apparent determination to be busy, accepting teaching and writing engagements, in distinct danger of becoming one of those mad old gits who can't find a space in his diary because he confuses busyness with significance.

I confess to hankerings, to thinking, "That would be a good example to use in my lecture on X" and then remembering that I will never lecture on X again. And that seems like a little taster of death, like spotting a good Christmas present and then remembering that you are not going to see another Christmas. It is a form of the Second Crisis which Alasdair McIntyre used to talk about, demonstrating that suicides and other mental crises peaked in late adolescence and then again in late career: Is it worth it? and Was it worth it? so to speak.

In anticipation I thought about really giving up, living as future communism is described in The German Ideology, which is really the life of the true gentleman amateur, learning new things with no possibility of reward or acclaim. To which end I must look (reluctantly) in the mirror every morning and say, "You are old. You are utterly unimportant. But you are alive and you are just about as free as a human being can be".

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick.

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