I was born in 1956, and thus 2016 is the year in which I reach the age of 60. Like many, this seems bizarre, and somehow unacceptable, as if time’s laws did not apply to me. This essay attempts to picture and contend with some of my feelings and perceptions as I reach another “milestone”.
Getting to be one day older than 59 years and 365 days is more than just another day. There are practical consequences, and I will begin with these. These are fairly limited, although until recently females in the UK were entitled to receive their state retirement pension at 60. This has been “reformed” so that, now, anyone reaching 60 this year, male or female, will receive their SRP at 66. Many pensions schemes, including the Teachers Pension Fund into which I paid for many years, had a Normal Pension Age of 60. Now it is 67. There is nothing whatsoever to celebrate or mark there.
Not so long ago, 60 marked the time when free bus travel was granted in each country of the UK; an electoral promise was made in 2010 to keep the bus pass, but this was then quietly linked to the SRP age, so that I will have to wait until 2022 for the English National Bus Pass. As a Merseyside resident, however, I am entitled to a pass that enables offpeak travel on buses, trains and ferries within Merseyside; the forms were completed and the card arrived before my birthday. This is now the major privilege granted from one’s 60th birthday, the other being that parts of Merseyside’s public transport system, the Wirral Line rail services at least, are of exceptional quality. When I travel on the Wirral line, I think of this as a remnant of that social democratic Britain in which I have lived part of my life, and something that may well be lost finally over the next decade. Much the same applies to free eye tests, and no prescription charges.
These are the public changes; added to these are private markers, such as the designation of “seniors” as those “60 or over”, in some contexts, such as cinemas and theatres, visitor attractions, and various retail and catering outlets. Much more significant, however, are changes in perceptions, by myself, by those close to me, and by the wider society.
My suspicions are that 60 marks a point at which one is generally seen as increasingly irrelevant: no longer economically active, seemingly a non-contributor, the source of growing demands for healthcare and social expenditure. Youth tends to be the focus of “fashion”, and thus the sale of commodities like clothes and the latest gadgets, while the “old” tend to buy less and make do with what they have. The emergence of the “grey pound” amid the stigmatisation of the “baby-boomers” may place me in a different, pejorative, category of consumer, one who is resented. I may well find myself characterised alongside others of my age and social class – increasingly conservative in taste, self-centred and uncaring, and reactionary in politics. None of these, I think, apply to me, but the general prejudice may well be there. Only the value of the “grey pound” may keep some smiles on the selling faces. Otherwise I am joining a category of person who is viewed as of limited interest as a consumer and whose needs and desires are regarded as outmoded. Indeed, the kind of affectionate disdain, shared with many contemporaries, that I had for the tastes of my father’s generation, may well be something I may now experience, but without the affection.
With respect to production, despite protestations and legal sanctions about overt ageism, it is clear that if most people are considered obsolete well before the age of 60, they are certainly deemed to be so once over 60. I do not have the misfortune to have to try to sell my labour power to an employer, but if I did that employer would almost certainly be younger than me, consider me “past it”, devalue or dismiss all my work-related experience, and offer a job only in extremis or at the lowest pay possible. (There are honourable exceptions, like B&Q, who value older workers, but they are exceptions). In reality, employers will not be deterred so much by age, irrelevant experience or perceived slowness, but by something that my generation did experience, and indeed further – unwillingness to accept unacceptable working conditions. My record, with years of trade union activity, would mean that any employer would know that I would oppose attempts to impose unpaid overtime, undue expectations about work skills and the scope of the job, or the perceived requirement for personal and social deference to employers. It is one reason why so many older workers prove to be unplaceable in work, or have quietly retired before their time – they lived in a previous era of work, knew what that was like, cannot be fooled into accepting onerous conditions and have no “career” left, over which quiet threats can be issued.
So, employers are not looking for older staff, on the whole, and people like me are left feeling (or knowing) that we are not wanted. To be not wanted by people of whom we may well not approve may be no great loss. However, seemingly, our contributions to society are also unwanted. As indeed, are our past contributions to a world in which we and younger generations will live. It is like the last sets of lectures that I prepared – put together with great care, binned the moment I had left. Get to 60, it seems, and noone really values you. Having said that, the election, by a landslide, of the leader of the opposition at 66 might give a partial lie to that….
There is one area of society in which the over-60s seem very much to be valued, and that is voluntary work. I have turned to very minor voluntary work contributions for a number of reasons, one being that such work provides an opportunity to support something of which I approve, and over which I might have some small influence. My fairly regular appearances at my “workplace“ provide some of the elements that might bee found in paid employment. It is good to have work “colleagues” and to feel involved, and maybe to feel valued. There were two words, that, despite labour shortages for much of my lecturing “career”, would have cost my employers far too much to provide. Salary, office and pension, yes, but the two words “thank you” went clearly far beyond anyone’s budget. I have welcomed the view that my voluntary work however slight, is appreciated. Maybe I am sharing this feeling with other retired people – for some, this may be the first chance to feel that one’s contribution is valued.
I hasten to add that my comments are in no way an endorsement of Cameron’s Big Society thesis, in which the retired can run around doing the work of paid workforces; indeed, one retired civil servant, who himself retired at 54 on a very substantial pension, has been advocating that the retired should only receive their state retirement pension if they carry out “voluntary” work. Of course, like so many of those who advocate that others should volunteer, it seems doubtful that he is providing free labour for essential services. I don’t think that my blood pressure can quite cope with my views on that, so I should just note that volunteering does limit the sense of social redundancy. In some cases, volunteers have eventually to retire from volunteering, but their efforts are appreciated all the more.
That is the external frame, parts of my world that others can perceive. But the key question is how I feel inside.
My central feeling is that this is a gateway, that after now health worries, and declining health, is what I will be up against. A sense of decay, and the threat of the deadly reaper, cannot be denied. Figures that I half-regarded as heroes in my youth, rock and jazz musicians, and political figures and thinkers, that seemed to be part of the landscape, are gradually dropping away, and obituaries are starting to become routine. Almost all of my parents’ generation are gone, and the landscape that they peopled seems now to be half-forgotten, and hard to recall. There was much in their landscape that carried little merit, but it is disturbing to feel that it has disappeared so rapidly.
It need not, however, be solely a gateway to a progressive decline. The need to carry out timewasting, pettifogging, stultifying, depressing (in all senses), demoralising and desultory tasks, in an unsupportive and sometimes downright hostile environment, all associated with paid employment, all diminished with the redundancy payment. It staggers me that I had what would be considered a high-status, fulfilling vocation, but that as not how I experienced lecturing. Or rather, lecturing in a “new” university, in an environment that has worsened since my time. That burden has been removed, and when I have been involved in education – learning, teaching and research – it has been fulfilling and, by and large carried out at my pace rather than someone else’s. Like a lot of retired academics – but perhaps not enough – I have renewed my interest in learning about that world, and trying to pass on that learning, and that has proved rewarding. It promises future rewards, as I encounter more of my own generation who missed out on much learning, and who do not see their chronological age as a barrier to self-development.
I could not range myself anywhere close to their ranks, but when I consider some of the world’s thinkers who are still alive, and well past 60, they provide examples to which to aspire. At the time of writing, Umberto Eco and Benedict Anderson have died, but many thinkers are still alive – I think of Immanuel Wallerstein, James O’Connor, Richard Wolff, Perry Anderson, David Harvey, and Zygmunt Bauman. While O’Connor is, I gather, too ill at 85 to contribute, all the other figures continue to develop ideas, free from the worst shackles of academic employment. Of thinkers who have departed, like Eric Hobsbawm, E P Thompson, Christopher Hill and (above all, maybe) Raymond Williams, there was no sense of a huge wall between their writings in-post and writings in retirement. I may be of somewhere between second and tenth rank below these sorts of thinker, but there is no reason why I should consider myself retired from research, writing, or (heavens above!) thinking. Or, indeed, from new encounters with adult education, where my involvement with the Raymond Williams Foundation is producing new hope, along with occasional reminders of old frustrations!!
So, there is some hope of progress that can help to buttress against the feelings of closure. If “progress” now is not subject to definite time limits, that does not preclude the wish to bequeath something tangible, so that others might be able to progress when I have withdrawn. It could be that the small initiatives that are under way could inspire someone in the future, and maybe that person could inspire others. It might that my future writings, or even ones in the past, could spur new research and thinking. Just possibly, something that I said or wrote during my paid “career” could have moved someone to think of new ideas, rather than simply await the certification of managed learning. We can view financial bequests and sometimes see what how such legacies are used. With ideas, we may never know what exactly we bequeath, or whether any perceived legacy will be used. This is certainly one of the more positive feelings that drives me on as I enter my 60s. It is not all over, just yet, and some developments may be only just beginning.