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The new tricks of early retirement

10 October 2009 1,571 views No Comment

“NEVER use the R-word,” insists a character in Sydney-based writer Michael Wilding’s new novel Superfluous Men, published by Arcadia in Melbourne.

“No point in letting people think we’re finished. Once they think you’re finished you’re out of the game.”

The R-word is retirement; the game is life, what’s left of it. Courtesy of Wayne Swan, retirement has been pushed back a couple of years to 67 for most people. But moving the goalposts does not alter the demographics. The baby boomers are entering retirement. Early retirement, maybe. But still retirement. And they are out in force. There are four times as many of them as there were in the previous generation. Early retirement is one of the issues confronting Australians over 50. Economic rationalism, institutional restructuring and the global financial meltdown have all helped accelerate early retirement.

Universities have been purging their academic staff by encouraging early retirement with cash inducements. Then, having eviscerated themselves of their own resources of learning and wisdom, they have begun flinging around adjunct professorships, honorary associateships and visiting professorships to all those pushed into early retirement by media corporations, the fortunes of politics or rivalinstitutions.

A strange, new flexi-timed, quasi-honorary world of associations and attachments is emerging. Some of these appointments raise eyebrows. When universities make special arrangements for those who during their public life held them in contempt, they run the risk of making themselves contemptible.

The reason universities, bureaucracies and media organisations purge their ranks of older and more experienced staff is because those are the staff who know where the bodies are buried. Indeed, they remember some of those bodies when they were alive.

By the fact of being found surplus to requirements, they are a unique repository of inconvenient information. People who remember libraries before they were purged under the claim that everything was on the internet. People who remember reading books, before attendance at writers festivals replaced book reading as an activity. People who remember SBS without advertising.

Kingsley Amis offered a pioneering study of retirement in The Old Devils, one of his better novels, and one that translated successfully to television. Old age is becoming an acceptable theme again. The popularity of the television series New Tricks, featuring a trio of retirement-aged coppers, is an example. It has become one of Britain’s highest rating shows, something rather annoying to TV executives, since the demographic audience is not one that attracts advertisers. Old folks don’t spend like young folks. But clearly young folks are watching it too.

The old(er) may not feel old but they often feel they are no longer wanted. In a culture that shows little respect for age, what does life hold for the retired? Does it hold anything?

There is always lunch, that last resort. There are lots of lunches, but many now start off with a mineral water and finish, if at all, with coffee decaffeinated. In between, the talk is about the growing number of medications lunchers are taking and their uncomfortable side effects. The fact is that older men, increasingly dependent on beta-blockers, anticoagulants and anti-cholesterol tablets, rightly feel an especially endangered species.

It isn’t all gloom, at least among those with tertiary education. Many retirees are finding a home in arts bureaucracy, one of the growth industries of our post-industrial age. The writers centre is a splendidly rackety institution, part of the creeping state control of what are called creative industries.

“Whenever anyone wanted to justify government funding for the arts, they always came up with the argument for employment,” says Wilding’s novelist Henry Lancaster. “Now they bang on about jobs for artists. Arts organisations are being geared to organise workshops for artists to teach. Never mind that they might not want to teach. Never mind that they would be happier occupied in writing or painting or performing or whatever they dobest.

“Workshops and mentorships are mandatory because they provide employment, andemployment is something that always concerns government bureaucrats. The government bureaucrats speak to the arts bureaucrats and they are all of one mind and one vocabulary.”

It is part of a brave new world of political correctness gone mad. Indeed one of Australia’s leading writers centres, that of NSW, is housed in a former mental hospital, which means that quoting Shakespeare’s “the lunatic, the lover and the poet’ is fraught with danger. Perhaps we should establish a garden of remembrance for depositing former writers’ ashes? If not, how about “one of sweet forgetfulness for certain of our national treasures”, as Wilding’s fictitious artistic director, Dr Bee, suggests.

One promising alternative for retirees is not to succumb to the pressure to conform and not complain. Two years ago I co-edited with my wife, Lyndal Moor, an anthology of essays for ABC Books, Growing Old (Disgracefully).

It was a heartening experience and sold well into the bargain. Most of the contributors felt there was no need to give up on bad behaviour just because they were no longer under 50 and gainfully employed. Fewer and fewer people are gainfully employed, anyway. Our contributors celebrated a way of life where men and women growing old(er) can do and say exactly what they like.

With time on their hands, baby boomers can be a powerful force. Yet not everyone gets to be old. There have been too many burned-out cases, meteoric careers cut short, tragic losses along the way. Those who survive are determined to make the most of life.

“Retirement, you have to work at it,” as Laurie Hergenhan, emeritus professor of Australian literature at the University of Queensland, once noted. There is a rich Australian literary tradition on which to draw. “Unemployed at last!” begins Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life, a work much more cited than read. And two years before he died in 1868, poet Charles Harpur wrote: “This day I’ve lost my office, and again am a free man/ With the wide world for mine oyster, which I’ll open if I can.”

In 2009, there are four times as many retirees as previous generations. For some innovative literary entrepreneurs, a new publishing boom could therefore lie ahead.

But will the growing band of Australians over the big five-o be reading such classics on Kindle or non-virtual devices? They’ll probably stubbornly stick to books. How delightfully retro of them.

The Australian October 10, 2009