Sometimes, what would seem to be the most obvious insights turn out to be among the most profound. This is a case in point.
Moliere’s famous bourgeois gentleman, M. Jourdain, had the startling revelation one day that he’d been speaking in prose all his life. No less startling was my recent realization that I am not, in fact, a retiree. Never have been one, and, hopefully, never will be one.
In fairness, my situation is slightly more complex than that of M. Jourdain. When asked what my occupation is, as happens almost every time I take a survey or seek to enter a new dating site, I check the box saying “retired.” Anything else would be inaccurate. I am no longer working, nor am I seeking full-time or even part-time work. If the right sort of part-time gig came along, I might consider it. But I don’t expect this to happen and won’t be sorry if it doesn’t. I have come to value my time too much, over the eight-plus years since I left the labour force, to be prepared to give it up at all lightly.
But just because I check the “retired” boxes when filling out surveys doesn’t mean I’m a retiree. “Retiree” is a term to which I object vehemently. Why? Because even more than “teenager,” “retiree” is an artificial construct designed for use in marketing, or as a demographic sorting variable in surveys. A “retiree” is someone who likes to take cruises or fully-planned bus tours, who is free of most if not all stress, and who takes little interest in most issues affecting the larger society, beyond those immediately affecting him or her (e.g., pensions and health care). A “retiree,” in short, is not just one who has left the labour force, but one who has given up on an any kind of passionate engagement with life (including with the opposite sex), and is for the most part content to sit clipping his her coupons and passively watching life go by. The stereotypical images of retirees one sees regularly in TV and newspaper ads for retirement communities, investment companies, and home health care products such as automatic chair lifts are so numerous and so pervasive as not to require further elaboration here. A “retiree” is always smiling, never raises his or her voice, and would never even think of going against the conventional wisdom, cussing a blue streak, stamping a foot in anger, telling an off-color joke, drinking too much, or flinging a curdled sauce or burnt vegetable dish into the wall.
A “retiree”, in short, is a pathetically devitalized caricature, one that doesn’t begin to do justice to the energy, passion, and ingenuity I and most of my fellow 65-plussers bring to our lives each and every day. Nor is the alternative stereotype, that of the “retiree” as a bitter curmudgeon who spends his days complaining about how society is going to the dogs, any closer to reality.
What am I, then? I’m a person who has only begun to come into his own since I left my last job at the end of 2011. The name you choose to give me isn’t all that important–so long as you don’t call me a retiree. To begin with economics, since it is the most important thing to many people, I’m a person of independent if modest means, thanks to my several pensions. While I do earn a bit of money on the side from free-lance writing, editing and acting gigs and from teaching the occasional writing or literature course, and would like many others in my age bracket be happy to earn a bit more, I don’t depend on this money to pay my basic bills. If I didn’t make one extra cent, I would still get by. For the most part, money isn’t what motivates me to do what I do.
Free from the need to earn a livelihood, and from the corollary need to “mind my p’s and q’s” so I don’t offend my employer, I’m able to focus on the things I love best to do, and on the places and organizations where I can make the most difference. These have included acting, which I took up in earnest just six years ago, the writing of both plays and non-dramatic works, and service on church and theatre boards, as well as activities such as tennis, swimming, long walks, and improvisational dancing designed to keep me in fighting trim.
Nor am I alone in being a senior living my life with passion and commitment. The great bulk of work done in my Anglican (Episcopal) church, including much of the physical work, is done by people in receipt of their Old Age Pensions. Without the active and dedicated participation of seniors, most mainline churches would soon be forced to close their doors. In the world of community theatre, it’s much the same. Seniors do a fair bit of the acting, the lion’s share of the directing, and almost certainly the majority of such behind-the-scenes work as designing and building sets, light-hanging, and costuming, not to mention producing. Like the churches, community theatres would almost certainly have to close their doors were it not for the active and dedicated participation of seniors in almost every aspect of theatrical endeavour.
Along with the recognition that I am not in fact a “retiree” came a parallel one, having to do with the overall framing of my life. When I first left the labour force, that framing had gone something like this: “I’m retired, which means I really don’t have to work that hard at anything.” At the time, that framing had seemed unexceptional enough. Eventually I came to realize that by adopting that framing, I was contributing to my own marginalization and possibly that of other seniors as well, by implying that I was less energetic, less passionate, less committed to things than younger people still in the work force. There seems to be a kind of passivity in those words, a sense that we are mere agents of economic forces. It is precisely that kind of passivity that I’m no longer able to accept.
Here’s how my new framing goes. “Because I (thankfully) no longer have to work for a living, I’m free to devote my full energies to the things I love, the things I believe matter most to posterity.” So long as I am disciplined about eliminating extraneous or unimportant things from my life, I will have more energy for the things I love than I did while still working, not less. As this recognition has filtered through, I’ve amazed myself with my productivity, completing the entire draft of a full-length play in less than two months, to give just one example.
Don’t get me wrong. Age discrimination still exists, in the non-profit and volunteer world as well as in the paid labour market. I have, I’m convinced, been the victim of it more than once. But as we seniors adopt the kind of proactive life philosophy I’ve put forward, there’s likely to be less age discrimination, as those who might in the past have discriminated against use come to fear the consequences of our pushback. That, along with our growing numbers, seems likely to make us winners in the end.