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September 14, 2005

On Retirement: escaping from bureaucratic socialism - and getting on with writing that might actually interest people

Posted by Christie Davies

Prof. Christie Davies continues the Social Affairs Unit's series In Retreat - Thoughts on Growing Older and shares his thoughts on retirement. Prof. Davies says that the greatest pleasure of retirement has been escaping from the bureaucratic socialism that has enveloped British universities - and getting on with writing that might actually interest people.

My father, whose occupation was similar to mine, did not want to retire at 65. By contrast I eagerly grasped and gnawed a government carrot encouraging me to retire early by giving me an extra four and a bit years worth of pension contributions. When my father retired he asked with good reason if he could serve for an extra year. It was not granted to him. Younger and less competent men were after his job. When my father was forced into retirement while still excelling in his profession, he was at a loss as to what to do next. His job had been his life, the place where he had enjoyed an autonomy based on trust and on a recognition of his powers of judgement.

My father's world has vanished completely to be replaced by Blairist ureaucratic socialism. Professional people employed by the government, whether doctors, dentists, lawyers engaged in the defence or prosecution of criminals, teachers or academics all want to retire and get out.

If my conditions of work had remained as I first knew them and as my father knew them throughout his life, I would have been happy to labour on with zeal as far beyond my three score years and ten as God would permit. It never occurred to me when I started work that one day autonomy, standards, values, pride could collapse in this way. If you do not believe me, read Theodore Dalrymple's account written on his retirement - published earlier this year in the Sunday Telegraph (23rd January 2005) - of how the same kind of changes have affected the working lives of the medical profession. Doctors take early retirement not because of the stress and over-work which have always been part of a doctor's life but because of the accelerating degree of bureaucratic interference and their frustration at being forced to waste time on the rubbish of committees, targets and procedures. For all of us the door of the iron cage finally closed in 1997.

I can still remember the day I signed my contract of retirement. The tune of "O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear", ran through my head. I went home and began to write a pent-up book, The Strange Death of Moral Britain, since published by Transaction. I have not stopped working since. At last I am free to write what I want, free of the subtle censorship of our politically correct university system. When you have vulnerable colleagues or worse still responsibility for a department you are careful what you write. Only since I retired have I been free to publish articles saying bluntly things I had long believed to be true and believed to be important but kept to myself, namely that Trevor Huddleston was a child molester, that Muslims breed too fast because of the oppressive nature of their religion, that we ought to be sending far more criminals to prison, that women painters are uncreative, that African governments are crooked schnorrocracies and that the school-leaving age ought to be lowered to fourteen. Free at last.

Academics have to write rubbish about matters of no importance that will get past the editors and referees of respected and useless journals because that is the basis on which a department's research is assessed. I can still remember with a mixture of shame and glee obtaining a grant to visit the archives of the League of Nations in Geneva, where I conducted a piece of research as worthless as that institution itself, in order to dump it in the Journal of Historical Sociology. Glee because I had put one over on two sets of buffoons, the ones who agreed to finance the research proposal and the ones who published the article, shame because I could have spent my time and skills doing something worthwhile. The article is perfectly genuine but like the great majority of articles in respected refereed journals, utterly pointless. Like Austen Chamberlain I had played the game. I don't have to do it any more.

The downside of retirement is that you no longer meet younger people nor acquire younger friends. You realise that most of your close friends were people you met at work and you no longer have a workplace. As your older friends die off or move away to vegetate in foreign parts, there is no longer a supply of younger ones to replenish the stock of people whose company you enjoy. Your only contact with the younger people who share your interests is when they come and ask you questions when you have given a paper at a conference you can no longer properly afford to attend or when they send you an e-mail from abroad asking for advice on their research. But you are never going to meet the e-mailers whom you disinterestedly try to help. Likewise e-mails come in from former students and younger colleagues now far away asking for references to help them to move even further away. None of them want to return to the horrors of Blairist bureaucratic Britain. Those whom you once knew as persons are now mere files in your inbox. And so one's circle of friends gets ever older.

Perhaps it is just as well. Colleagues in their twenties can not understand how sweet life was before Blair. They have only ever known bureaucratic serfdom, which is why their occasional spells of time off are used up in uncultured bursts of heedless dissipation. They are truly "Specialists without spirit. Sensualists without heart". They will never lose their sense of curiosity, wonder and intellectual excitement because they never had them in the first place. They possess no books, explore no internet sites, other than those needed for tomorrow's task. They lack the time and worse still they lack the inclination. They are Blair's Weberian children:

chained to their activities by their entire material and social existence, cogs in an ever moving mechanism that determines their essentially fixed route of march.
They can not even understand why their middle-aged colleagues feel frustrated. They will advance step wise like pawns until those that have not been knocked off the board become the suits who move the other pawns.

To be retired is to be officially categorized as old. Someone in personnel or pensions must tip the advertisers off, for the minute you retire you start receiving brochures for Saga holidays and emails from Canadian pharmacists offering rejuvenation. You may feel zestful but the insulting word "senior" (from the same root as senile) is stamped on the documents that bring you cheaper off-peak rail-fares and concessionary entrance fees at art exhibitions. You have joined the ranks of the great unwaged. Ticket clerks look at you with disdain as you are forced to show the mandatory identity card of the marginalised aged.

There is something essentially demeaning about the adjective senior. As an undergraduate I became in turn a senior exhibitioner and a senior scholar of my College but those who knew the rules were not fooled. They looked at my C.V. and deduced correctly from the word "senior" that I had originally entered the College without an award and unentitled to a fine gown. It followed that I could not have been at the right kind of school, one of those prestigious academies that coach their scholars like colliers training whippets. Senior scholar means "too late". It means "tortoise". It means "not quite the real thing", much as senior lecturer means "didn't make it to Reader".

That is why we are called senior citizens. As soon as the humblest of officials behind the armoured perspex sees "senior citizen" on a document, he can expose you to the insolence of office and the waiting list's delay. "Senior" has come to carry all the contempt embodied in other euphemisms such as "special", "alternative", or "approved".

I did not age physically or mentally with retirement, indeed I felt much younger but there was a sudden drastic change in my social age as the label stuck. Also retirement is a momento mori. Few non-smokers die young in Britain and I "knew" it was not going to happen to me. But now I do not take the risks that I heedlessly took before. How long have I got to go? I had better use my bicycle for the exercise, except of course, when visibility is poor and I might be knocked off it by a young and reckless high-insurance-premiumed driver. In the library I must walk up four flights because it is good for the circulation and some well meaning librarian has placed all the interesting books on the fourth floor. I must then come down in the lift, lest I fall down the stairs, aggravating the wrist I broke at 14 which has come back to haunt me. Up the stairs and down in the lift. And back up the stairs and down in the lift. And back and up and round and down, such is the rhythm imposed by one's years. I must eat my five portions of fruit and vegetables which are good for me. I grow old. I grow old. Dare I omit to eat a peach? Hunt down the unpaired electrons! Smash the free radicals! The next worst thing to becoming decrepit is to have to fight endlessly against it, knowing the worst is yet to come. Retirement hypochondria sets in early. It all shows the power of labels; we are what it says on the outside of the box and the change of label to ‘retired’ diminishes us.

Well, I must get back to writing my next book, which is to be called Bastards! It is not about New Labour but is a comparative and historical study of illegitimacy. I have thirty years of reading, thinking and note taking to catch up on and I no longer have to go to the office.

Professor Christie Davies retired after enjoying teaching under-graduates for nearly forty years; his total contempt for modern teaching methods enabled him to succeed at it. His most recent books have been The Mirth of Nations, 2002 and The Strange Death of Moral Britain, 2004, both with Transaction. His first work of fiction Dewi the Dragon finds a Wife will be published by Dinas on 27th October 2005.


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I have not spent a career teaching, but I've spent half a career in various Muslim countries. When a common labourer in, say, Pakistan earns about fifty pence a day breaking rocks on the roadside, he has no hope of surviving after age 55 without sons to support him. If his sons break rocks like their father did, it will take several sons to support the old boy in his retirement, even if that comes to no more than a new suit of clothes once a year and a diet of rice and lentils. Grown daughters are little help -- once married, they support their husband's elderly parents rather than their own. This means that the labourer needs at least four children (assuming half boys, half girls) in order that he and his wife have a chance of avoiding starvation once he is too old to work. Given high rates of child mortality, having six or eight children is a more sensible number. Children cost little to raise, are nice to have around, and may save your life -- unless you have a British government pension like Dr Davies does, or unless there is a lot more economic growth.

In South Asia this model applies to Muslims, Hindus and everyone else equally. Economic development and literacy are what seem to break the cycle. But when it comes to determining economically optimal famiy size, even the illiterate poor can do the math.

Dr Davies says that Tony Blair's regime forced him to suppress his belief "that Muslims breed too fast because of the oppressive nature of their religion." I never thought that I would feel so grateful to Mr Blair: there is enough bigoted rubbish being put about already. I much prefer Dr Davies on art.

Posted by: s masty at September 14, 2005 10:38 PM
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What a terribly sad article.

"Colleagues in their twenties can not understand how sweet life was before Blair. They have only ever known bureaucratic serfdom, which is why their occasional spells of time off are used up in uncultured bursts of heedless dissipation. They are truly "Specialists without spirit. Sensualists without heart". They will never lose their sense of curiosity, wonder and intellectual excitement because they never had them in the first place. They possess no books, explore no internet sites, other than those needed for tomorrow's task."

I would hope that this isn't entirely true, even in Blair's Britain. Meeting people of my generation from Continental Europe, though, I have often been struck by the strange narrowing of horizons that seems to be brought on by starting a particular field of study. My European (for who does not regard Continentals as "European" in a sense different from either Brits of the Irish?) peers are invariably shocked that a doctor would have, um, other interests. A friend who combines journalism and the law and GP locums flummoxes them even more. Indeed, they seem slightly offended by the idea.

Young Brits, in my experience, are not quite so narrow. But then again, I've met few academics and indeed few outright specialists.

Posted by: Seamus Sweeney at September 14, 2005 11:05 PM
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Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”  For it is not wise to ask such questions.  (Ecclesiastes 7:10)

Nevertheless, the picture Prof. Davies presents is only too true.  I am, God willing, five years from retirement after working in a university science department for over thirty years, and I have seen the progressive gloom that has settled over my colleagues.  There are many contributing factors, the most obvious of which is that their earnings have lagged in real terms behind those of scientists in industry, which again have lagged behind those of people who push money around.  But political interference has also been a problem, though manifesting itself indirectly in the form of initiatives and targets.  In order to keep enough students to qualify for this and that, modules are chopped and changed*.  In order to get funding, one has to be seen to be actively catering for all sorts of minorities and special interest groups.  Technical and secretarial staff positions are being reduced, making life more difficult in regard to teaching and research, and imposing huge burdens on those conscientious secretaries and technicians who remain.  However, it looks like reaching the point where all conscientious university staff are so worn out by the time they retire that they either have not the energy to do what they want, or even no longer want to do it, whatever it was.  Perhaps there is a secret plot to kill off as many as possible before they retire, and so save on the pensions bill!

It is interesting to see S.J.Masty make a sound sociological point against a professor of Sociology. But nevertheless, Prof. Davies is right to be frustrated in not being able to bring religion into sociological debate, simply for political correctness. If one were to deal with the phenomenon of suicide bombing, would it be wrong to introduce Emperor Worship into a treatise on kamikaze pilots?

As for the “bigoted” remarks about Islam, may I draw a parallel with Ireland?  A combination of poverty and the Catholic Church’s attitude to contraception caused the increase of the Catholic population of the North to increase relative to the Protestant.  Now I am of the opinion of that their position on contraception is based on theological grounds, and in no way constitutes a deliberate “rabbit policy”.  But when the Protestants fear for their future existence as a community, the BBC (a prime case of institutional self-righteousness) calls them “bigoted”, and ignores the generations of hate transmitted through Irish madrasahs, sorry, seminaries.  And as for Mr Blair, so easily flattered by the Irish blarney, he has practically handed over the North to Sinn Fein.  So even if Prof. Davies is bigoted against Muslims, the Blair factor alone suggests that he has cause to be. 

*or as the Chinese say “three in the morning, four in the afternoon” ( 朝三暮四 ), after the monkey keeper who, seeking to divide scarce resources among his charges, offered them 3 and 4 peanuts daily, whereupon they flew into a rage.  Returning an hour later, he pacified them by offering 4 in the morning, 3 in the afternoon, with which they were perfectly happy.

P.S. is “ureaucratic socialism” a Freudian slip?  Does he mean “Eurocratic”, or perhaps “urocratic” in the sense that they are wee-ing on us all?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 16, 2005 06:46 PM
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