My first boss, the chairman of my department when I was a young lecturer, was Wilfrid Harrison. Even though there was approximately forty years difference in our ages I would have described Wilfrid as a friend. He was a distinguished and influential figure in many ways: the first person to be appointed as teaching fellow in politics alone at an Oxford college (Queen’s), a founding member of the Political Studies Association in 1950 and a former editor of Political Studies. The PSA still award a major prize honouring his name. He was the founding professor of the department in which I spent thirty five years. When Wilfrid retired, properly and traditionally at the age of sixty five, he sold all his books, severed all substantive contact with universities and devoted himself to his wife, his daughters, his dogs and his interest in cooking. My memories of Wilfrid’s cooking are centred on the observation that whisky and cream seemed to feature in all dishes.
In many respects Wilfrid’s retirement took the classic form described by literature’s most famous retiree, King Lear. At the beginning of the play in which he is the eponymous character Lear says:
’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburden’d crawl towards death.
For the moment I want to forget the rest of the story in which Lear’s retirement proceeds very badly and concentrate on the purity of his (fast) intentions, which were the same as Wilfrid’s. One’s time has come so one abandons the job and lets younger people get on with it. “Unburden’d” sounds good, “crawl towards death” less so, though it might be a long crawl with many pleasures on the way. The Lear-Harrison model as we can call it was the way you retired. My grandfathers, a ship’s captain and a shopkeeper, packed it in at sixty five and didn’t go near their previous working activity. My father, a head teacher, retired a little earlier, somewhat disillusioned, cancelled his subscription to the Times Educational Supplement and stayed as far away from schools as he could manage.
How different, how very different, from the retirements of most of my academic contemporaries; I will call their style the Bulge Model since its chief practitioners are people born in the years after the Second World War. I sit sometimes among career academics of my own age and hear tales of an entirely different conception. Nobody admits to complete retirement. There are various kinds of retirement and retirement at different ages. Multiple retirement is the order of the day; since you ask, I have retired three times, the first being at the age of fifty seven. There are buy-backs and book contracts and and visiting posts and emeritus ranks and committee memberships and consultancies, articles to write and enormously important bodies to advise. In not-very-extremis we are suffering from MOGS, Mad Old Git Syndrome, the chief symptom of which is use of the phrase “busier than ever”. In extremis the patient turns into a white rabbit with grey whiskers who scampers around all day saying nothing but “busier than ever”. The cure, some believe, is for a younger man to put his arm round the patient and say, very slowly and loudly, “but, Daddy, you haven’t got a job!”
A starting point for understanding the model shift must be the observation that it applies to other members of the Bulge generation. Thus any contemporary whom one plays golf or tennis with who has been a “businessman” is likely to bang on about stipendiary directorships and consultancies and at least one unrefuseable offer made in the last month. But the proportions are different: some businessmen are mad old gits, nearly all academics are. And there can be no doubt that academic work just lingers in ways that other work does not: doctoral students don’t just finish and you are still somebody’s obvious choice to put a particular case at a conference or examine a particular candidate or review a particular book. Most likely the person making the choice neither knows nor cares whether you are retired or not. Wilfrid, by comparison, though vastly more important than me, had no doctoral students (they were rare in those days), attended no conferences and had, in his own opinion, published quite enough for one lifetime. Lingering effects occur more naturally for those in the arts and humanities than for natural scientists or those who had more administrative role, but I did have a scientist relative who was supervising doctorates in his late seventies and I have also come across another septuagenarian teaching undergraduate physics.
Undoubtedly this lingering effect has been exacerbated by research assessment. I realise that this has broadened in scope since my day, but the effect over the long term has been to make the current, full-time, career academics concentrate on “research” in a fairly narrow, points-scoring, sense leaving a labour shortage in a variety of forms of academic production. Thus, obviously, the elderly teaching scientists I have mentioned, but also textbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias and a great deal of media work which the harassed mid-career academic is not going to find time for.
There is also the question of fashion, social norms and expectations. I have had many relatives and friends older than myself who were proud of being retired. They had paid their dues, done their bit, had nothing left to prove and were pleased to have been sufficiently prudent and well organised that they could afford to live comfortably without working. But I don’t feel like that and I don’t think most of my generation do. We moved quite suddenly from a feeling that everyone should be prepared to move on so that younger people should have more chance to an idea that it was good to continue and that it was a mark of success that people wanted you to continue. The formal representation of this normative change was the disappearance of the compulsory retirement age.
For the record, I will list the time gaps in my own life between my first retirement, when I ceased to receive a salary, and the end of various activities. Undergraduate teaching was exactly ten years: by this, I mean “teaching” as part of a programme on which people are examined – the odd guest lecture continues. Doctoral supervision hung on for about four years. Conferences lasted about six years; currently, I still get invited but not funded. I had an office for seven years: being asked to vacate it was a bit of a drag not because I wanted to sit in it, which I didn’t, but because it was a repository of books, files, pictures and so on which I then had to dispose of. I was just wondering how long it was since I’d written a reference when a request popped up on email and I wrote the reference between paragraphs of this article. And then there are many things which have not stopped so far including books, articles and all the “rentagob” media stuff.
At the heart of the difference between the two models is the concept of work. Someone asks me, “Have you given up work?” My wife kindly replies for me, “He never worked.” Or, alternatively, “How would we/he know?” I have no problem with these responses. My maternal grandfather captained ships for thirty five years (1910-45), ten of them subject to U-boat attack (he was shipwrecked three times). I read and wrote books and articles and talked to nice young people for thirty five years (1969-2004). There was no comparison between what we did and there can be no comparison between what it means in each case to stop doing it. The point about not working is entirely well taken and can be illustrated by the confession that I found my hobbies more stressful than my work. Putting out a cricket team – right number of players, teas, transport, balls, scorebooks, scorers and so on – is considerably more stressful than academic work, even before you try actually winning the game or pacifying your number eight batsman who has always thought he was a natural number five.
But it does seem pretty obvious that the Bulge model is now doomed. Indeed, I can imagine younger academics who would see this article as mocking their condition. Those who are forty years younger than me and just getting into their stride are unlikely to have anything like the range of options we had. They will have had anything resembling tenure for a much shorter period and will have started paying into a pension fund much later (I was twenty two). They will have spent much more of their professional lives in the stressful pursuit of such things as research funding and a permanent post. They will have to work longer whether they want to or not and their pensions will be based on average rather than final salary. Under those circumstances it is easy to imagine them moving back to the Lear-Harrison model and saying to themselves, “Thank God that’s over”.
But, having said that, there are some further remarks about the Bulge model which must be made. It may be only a bit like real retirement, but it is a real bit. There has always been, for me, the satisfying joy of not being an employee. But there is recurring unpleasant moment which comes when you come across something – a book, a film, a quotation, an example – that would fit perfectly into your lecture in Nth week. And then you realise you will never use it and that the crawl towards death has begun. There are many ways of expressing yourself as a Bulge retiree, but none of them is quite as satisfying as delivering a full-year module to able students. I even know one contemporary who texts his successor with lecture ideas.
And the Bulge model leaves a difficult question automatically dealt with by the Lear-Harrison Model: when do you finally bow out? When you are invited to give a lecture and nobody turns up but you’re glad anyway because you can’t remember what you were going to say? Or when you’ve realised that you’ve written the same words this week as you wrote last week? Probably someone else decides for you: “Daddy, you really don’t have a job anymore.”
A version of this essay appeared in Times Higher Education on December 8th, 2016