If there are such things as retrospective anxiety attacks, then I have just had another. I am talking about sudden flashbacks, often of close shaves, where the memories momentarily send shivers of anxiety down one’s spine. So, occasionally, I will get a flashback to that moment when, as a teenager, I am clinging to a cliff face too frightened to move and needing help to get down. The ‘shiver question’ is, “What if there had been no one around to guide my feet?”
The recent shiver happened just over a week ago; on October 1st to be precise. On that day the UK abolished obligatory retirement. In 2007, when I was 65, retirement was obligatory, so the question that caused the shiver was, “What if I had not retired then? What if the October 1 ruling had been introduced in 2007?” These last four and a half years have given me such enormous pleasure, how awful it would have been had the experience been missed, and it might well have!
I have to be careful. In principle the abolition of compulsory retirement is a major advance as it eliminates age discrimination. It also gives a strong message that older people are of value, which indeed we are. And there is more. By its very nature, retirement can be frightening as it ushers in something unknown, in which there is usually a loss of income, of influence, of security and of one’s supportive work community. Allowing people more choice on their date of retirement might make these challenges more manageable.
For me, retirement has offered a period of freedom, stimulation and joy. Life as a hospital doctor and university academic is fairly cloistered, so to breathe the fresh air of retirement was a major change. Luckily, my working parts, both body and brain, have held up well, as has my overall drive, so I have been able to get about my business with my accustomed intensity. I have been free to continue older interests and to explore new ideas as I wished. I have been able to learn about myself – as do younger people on their gap years but my gap is indeterminate. I have also been able to choose my own pace, impose my own standards, meet my own deadlines and reassess my own values. Moreover, for the first time in 30-odd years I no longer have to keep ‘up to date’ in medicine and politics. There is no longer a demand on me to be an authority and so now I am free to concentrate on my own interests rather than on the needs of others. To this end, I am not obliged to watch the news on TV, read an English newspaper, or peruse the specialist journals.
It is important to note the role of serendipity in all this. Firstly, thanks to a generous pension, life has remained comfortable. Second, through the proceeds of downsizing we now have a small cottage in Brittany and a tiny ‘studio’ in Paris. Indeed, it is these that stimulated my interest in French language and culture, areas in which I have become steeped. Finally, it was through a good friend that I have learned about writing for pleasure – an activity I love and which is so very different from my medical or scientific writing of yesteryear that in retrospect seems formulaic and constrained.
Whatever the arguments, retirement at 65 has certainly worked for me, and I want more of the same. Importantly, I do not think it would have happened had retirement then not been obligatory. If I had continued work four-and-bit years ago the pleasures of the last years would never have been experienced, and that would have been very sad.
Interestingly, since retiring I have rarely if ever felt twinges of regret. But then the spectre of me hanging on at work into my seventies brings on the shivers once again.
Illustration: ‘Climbing the rock face’, Joe Collier, c1957