Never Say “Retire”

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Part 1 of 2

Last year [1963] five million Americans retired between the ages of 45 and 50. Next year the number will rise. Early retirement is the American dream come true. But the dream come true is a nightmare. No wonder; retirement is a crime against nature, a protracted form of suicide. We labor all our lives to assure the comfort of the “golden years.” We overwork ourselves to expedite the advent of the happy day when we can draw the last paycheck and be free. Then, as the happy day approaches, a nebulous dread begins to take possession of us; the dread of having nothing to do. We try to offset it by picturing the things we have always wanted to do. But do we still want to do them? Do we want to do them the rest of our lives?

The dream of retirement begins to disintegrate before our eyes. The dread grows. The “golden years” are half-drained of their savor before they begin. And the reality — after the first few months is for most of us a dreary reality indeed.

Is the reality inevitable, or have we, in our obsession with postponed leisure, misconceived the nature of the human life cycle and the meaning of “the last of life, for which the first was made”? “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,” says Browning in Rabbi Ben Ezra. The decades of strain and striving to reach it are understandable. The you-can-take-it-easy-at-50 advertisements constitute a real incitement to retirement, celebrating as they do a kind of earthly paradise that never was or will be; a perpetual ruddy delight compounded of trout fishing, rose bush pruning, and grandchildren on the knee.

There is certainly nothing wrong with a man’s wanting to be released from the grind that begins at 18 or 20. Today, in our increasingly specialized economy, a job is very often just a job — a means of subsistence with little or none of the inherent incentive or reward that comes to the handicrafter, or to the independent farmer who sows his own crops and cultivates and reaps them. The actual enjoyment of the job itself is incidental nowadays, and is approaching non-existence as pro-duction nears automation.

The question at hand is neither whether nor when it is good to be released from such subsistence toil; the answer to that question is, the sooner the better. The real question is: What then?

The dread of imminent retirement certainly has a natural basis. On the one hand, it heralds the day when man points his footsteps to a grave, however distant. It is one of the last milestones of his life. The vision ahead may disconcert even the profoundly religious man: to the less religious, it marks the first formal stage on the road to oblivion. On the other hand, retirement signifies a radical transition from social usefulness to social superfluity, from being needed and from being productive to being “on the shelf.”

Is the transition inescapable? In one respect — the confrontation of old age and the forthcoming end — it is. The richest and best attended man must die, sooner, sometimes than the poorest. We live always with death, and, the longer we live, the more intimately.

But the transition from usefulness to desuetude is something else again. The last of life is the time of realization, not of surrender. It is the time for free and meaningful activity, not the time to be chained to the rocking chair or the croquet mallet. After 30 or 40 standstill years on the job amidst the harassments of middle life, it is finally time to distill wisdom from experience, and to give of that wisdom.

Surrender is required only of those old people who are physically and mentally helpless, exactly as it is required of young people in the same condition; it is not age but condition that is decisive. Even physical helplessness does not mean mental impairment. We have only to cite the great novelist Proust, who lived his life in a sickbed. Nor is physical helplessness, thanks to medical science, a necessary concomitant of old age; the fact that an octogenarian should not try to run the hundred-yard dash does not mean that there is nothing left for him to do but watch it.

The retirement paradox — the dread of actually getting what we have striven for — is something new in the world and is almost exclusively American. Grandma and Grandpa no longer have to go on doing back-breaking work. They can sit and watch the washing-machine or the electric furnace do it. Nor are they anywhere near as likely to be broken and bed-ridden as their aged forebears. The “prime of life” has been extended by a decade in the past 50 years, while, with labor-saving machinery, the usefulness of old people in their children’s homes has (except for baby-sitting) been almost entirely eliminated.

The conquest of disease — especially in the diseases of senility has produced, meanwhile, an “accent on youth” unknown in earlier societies and comparable today, in all probability, only to Soviet Russia’s. And this accent has intensified the normal dread of being old, of being inactive, of being incapable of the strenuous life exalted in so many advertisements for cars, boats, sporting goods, even cigarettes. The whole world is amused by our addiction to young-and-healthy nostrums. A doctor in America can hardly help but be rich. Certainly the Duke of Wellington’s heroic question to his men, “Do you want to live forever?” would be met here with a resounding “Yes.”

This emphasis on youth and health (even on the often deceptive appearance of health) has reached phenomenal proportions. It is said that Americans want to seem to be healthy more ardently than any other people in history. A current joke is, if hyperbolic, suggestive. Mrs. Jones turns to Mrs. Smith at Mr. Smith’s funeral and says, “He looks so natural so well.” “He ought to,” Mrs. Smith replies, “he spent the winter in Florida.”

But when the poet Browning said “the best of life is yet to be,” he obviously wasn’t thinking in terms of bodily capacity. Man is physically at his fittest in his early 20s. By the time he is 40 or 45 there are some exertions that he shouldn’t risk. But there has never been any evidence of a connection between physical inability and mental ability. The roster of ‘ shriveled wizards” is too long and too well known to require recitation. We need not call to mind the famous ancients — Sophocles, for instance, who was producing dramatic masterpieces at the age of 90. Our own history, past and present, is studded with them in every field.

No one doubts that our nation owes a large measure of its greatness to the “dotage” years of Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams. There is the familiar anecdote of Supreme Court Justices Holmes and Brandeis passing a pretty girl on the street, and Holmes’ saying to Brandeis, “Oh, to be 80 again.” The old-age achievements of men like Edison and Rockefeller in science, business, and industry are legendary.

These men, who were giants still increasing in stature in their seventh and eighth decades, had this characteristic in common: What they did well in their old age they had been doing all their lives. As they were in the ripe, so they had been in the green; the oak had grown as the twig. The “first of life” had prepared them for the last and best. But the “first of life” does not here mean childhood. The best childhood education is incapable of carrying an individual through life, for the obvious reason that the great issues of later life are not truly comprehensible to the child. His capacity, prior to his experience of life, is limited to theoretical study and a kind of practical imitation.

Aristotle’s truism that there are infant prodigies in mathematics and music, but never in morals and politics, remains true. The child may acquire knowledge to an amazing degree. He may even be found to have precocious understanding of the nature of things. But we cannot say of a child that, in addition to knowledge, he has wisdom. For wisdom is the product of experience — experience evaluated and reevaluated over the whole of a responsible lifetime. Like the old dog or the old horse — or the old fox — the old man knows something that the young one doesn’t. Wisdom is the one virtue that belongs, in supreme measure, to old age alone.

Society’s single richest resource is human wisdom. Its waste is wickedness. Consider the spectacle of old men doing nothing. Consider the loss to society and the deprivation of the individual involved when, because he has saved enough to retire, a man in the real prime of life, the mental, moral, and spiritual prime, is turned out to pasture at the decree of the calendar.

Here is greatness wasted on the putting greens of Long Beach or the green benches of St. Petersburg. But what in the world (somebody will ask) is wrong with golf, or shuffleboard, or checkers, or just sitting in the sun? Nothing. They’re good for a man, in some measure; good for him at every stage of his life. Even necessary, as sleep is necessary, to good health and a clear mind and a happy disposition. They are good for the tired businessman — for a change. But how are they for an unvaried diet, day in and day out, year in and year out, fastened, presumably as a reward for lifelong labor, on a man who has the most creative and most socially useful part of his labor still in him? The answer is: maddening.

The genuine agony of retirement in our society is familiar, in miniature, to the businessman who goes off on his vacation. Three or four weeks up at the lake with nothing to do — the goal of a whole year’s labor. He may do nothing but sleep for a day or two. Then a week or 10 days of fishing or golf. Then the torment begins. He has only a week or two left to crowd in all the relaxation and sport he won’t have time for the rest of the year.

But at the very same time a kind of generalized restlessness sets in, characterized, at the outset, by impatience for the daily mail from the city. The next symptom of holiday frustration is his discovery that he has to telephone the office. Not on business, of course, but to see if he left his favorite pipe there; he’s been looking for it around the cabin all morning (although he has half a dozen other pipes with him) and he can’t find it anywhere or, for the life of him, remember if he brought it up to the lake at all. If he did, he’s lost it; his favorite pipe . . . Well, it’s lucky he just happened to call the office about the pipe because it turns out there’s a big deal on, and if be could run down to the city, just for the day . . .

The man who can’t stand three or four weeks of vacation without getting on everyone’s nerves (his own, first of all) has had a foretaste of the permanent vacation called retirement. Fishing is great sport. So is putting the old stamp collection in order. So is gardening or waxing the car or repairing the porch. If only there were time. Then suddenly a man has nothing but time — and he finds himself condemned to fish, garden, and wax to the end of his days. He can’t stand it.

Forty or fifty years of the “grind” have conditioned him to — the “grind.” He tries retirement for a while, and then, like the summer vacationer, when the novelty has worn off, and he can’t bring himself to face another fish, he realizes that he has to go back to the old routine, to a job, any old kind of job. He goes down to the shop. They were glad to see him come in, when he first quit, but now…. They’re busy, and he hasn’t kept up with all the changes, and there’s a younger man at his desk, and . . . He retired, didn’t he? What’s he hanging around for? So he winds up, if he’s lucky, night-clerking at a motel, or stuffing envelopes. He doesn’t need the money, that’s not it . . .

What he needs is to live the last of his life. But he doesn’t know how. He isn’t prepared. The first of his life — up to the age of 60 or 65 — did not instruct him. There was the job, and time off for recreation. Now there is time for nothing but recreation, and full-time recreation is precisely what he can’t stand.


Part 2 of 2

There is the nub of the matter. Recreation — re-creation — creates us anew. That is its purpose, the purpose of all diversion, all play. Of course, it’s enjoyable, but a man can live without the enjoyment of it. What he can’t live without is being re-created so that he doesn’t go stale on the job or build up too much tension by overwork. Now, after a couple of months of retirement, he discovers (consciously or unconsciously) that he is being recreated continuously for no purpose. It’s as if one had a good night’s sleep and awoke refreshed and eager to go — with nothing to do but go back to sleep.

Even the brute animals find such a routine impossible. It’s not a bovine existence, for the cow, awake, moves around looking for grass. It’s not a canine existence, for the dog, although he loves to curl up by the fire and sleep, goes off to prowl when he awakes. Least of all is it an equine existence. Men who race horses know that old racehorses have to be run regularly or they die. And the workhorse, released from the shafts forever, fades fast.

Dr. Theodore C. Klump, writing on Heart Attacks, says . . . I am convinced that one who just sits and waits for death to come along will not have long to wait. We don’t wear out: we rust out . . . Civilized man is imbued with the idea that he works hard in his earlier years to buy ease, rest and comfort in his later years. The trouble with this very understandable ambition is that when man attains this goal Mother Nature has no further use for him and starts getting rid of him.”

What is the solution, or isn’t there any? Are we trapped by our own progress in machinery and medicine, so that the man who has reached an ever earlier retirement age can find no work to do worthy of his undiminished abilities and thus stands condemned to slow death doing nothing? In another, and perhaps even more terrible, form, the question asked since Hiroshima is asked again: Are the blessings of science to be a curse to mankind? Is there no way to turn them to human advantage?

Not only is there a solution to the retirement problem, but a solution that requires no organization — none of the massive change of national attitude so often called for and waited upon as the individual’s justification for doing none of the things that lie within his own power. It is a solution, moreover, that is open to the generality of men, here in America, for the first time in history. It is the truly civilized — and civilizing — solution. There is no magic about it, no pill to take, no 10- easy-lesson tricks involved. No gimmicks at all. Just — work. Work, not to assure retirement, but to prevent it. Work that has nothing to do with your job.

Most men, if you ask them to divide a man’s time into three parts, will say work, sleep, and play or recreation. If you say they have named only two, they will be frankly puzzled. But you may win them over if you argue that sleep and play are both forms of re-creation, of relaxation and refreshment. What then, they will say, is the third division of a man’s time? If you say leisure, they will be baffled.

Our misconception of the life cycle which underlies the frustration of retirement — in turn rests upon our misconception of the nature of leisure. Leisure is not the same as play, nor is it the same as sleep. Leisure is not the state of having nothing to do; that is properly called vacation — when we are vacant of occupation or purpose.

Consider the derivation of the word “leisure.” It stems from a word meaning to be permitted, like the modern French word, laisser, to allow. To have leisure is to be permitted to do something, to be freed from the bodily demands of labor and sleep so that we may do something and be something that the man of labor and sleep may not do or be. How different the ultimate senses of these three terms — vacation; recreation; leisure! Emptiness; renewal or recharging of strength; and positive freedom to do something!

To do what?

Until our own time (and in most of the world even now) leisure was the exclusive privilege of that small part of society that did not have to divide its whole time between subsistence labor and recreation (the latter largely in the form of sleep). Secure in his sub-sistence — like the retired American today — the man of leisure was permitted to substitute another sort of activity for that of subsistence labor. But to substitute play was a kind of superfluity, an excess; for play, like sleep, is relaxation or recreation. To be sure, there were rich playboys. The uniform lesson of their lives is that an excess of play palls — just as an excess of play, however sedate, palls on the retired American today.

As long as most men were slaves to subsistence labor, and to recreation for the purpose of more subsistence labor, the leisure class was bound to be judged by the example of its members who misused their leisure time for play. Without the playboy — the sybaritic idler — as the symbol of the leisure class, the democratic revolution could never have occurred. Given this symbol, the democratic revolutionaries had only to cite the righteous dictum of the Bible: “He who will not work, neither shall he eat.”

Lost in the shuffle was the image of the true man of leisure. This was the man who, through fortune or genius, was freed from the necessity to produce the world’s material goods so that he might labor in the production of the world’s mental and spiritual goods. That these were the higher goods, the proper goods of man, was never doubted. And, while the unleisured masses were revolting against the 12- or 10-hour day, the true man of leisure was working 14 or 16 or 18 hours a day in his study, his laboratory, or his studio.

But the whole of our society is the leisure class. This is what is new in the world. This is the full flower of the democratic revolution plus the industrial and medical revolutions. Before retirement the average American has a day-and-a-half or two days a week free from subsistence toil and from the consuming need for re-creation; after 65, 60, or even 55 or 50, he has seven.

Nothing like this has ever before been known. And the challenge to the whole leisured society is the same as it was to the leisured few of yore: Shall we misuse the new boon of leisure time for play, and find ourselves bored even before retirement, or use it to produce the higher goods of life and thus increase our service to society at the time of life when wisdom is ours to enjoy, to refine, and to share?

Remember that the men whose old age produced their greatest works were those who had been doing that work all their lives. They did not drop one kind of activity at 60 or 65 and begin another; their whole lives were preparation for the fuller life of old age. So, too, the man who has a day and-a-half or two days of leisure time all his life, is, during that time, preparing himself for the time of unbroken leisure. What he does on his days off at 30, 40, or 50, he will do on his years off at 60, 70, or 80. What do we do, you and 1, with our free time in middle life? For it is that which we will do, and have to do, with our free time in retirement.

Don’t let the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical advertisements tell you how to live the best and most useful years of your life. It isn’t their business. Their business is to tell you how to come into possession of those years in physical and financial health — not what to do with them when you have them, still less how to prepare yourself for them. Don’t let them make a superannuated playboy out of you, an old fool instead of a young one.

When Clarence Randall retired as board chairman of Inland Steel to become economics adviser to the President of the United States, he said that this was his graduation day, now could he put his learning to use. When, at last, you can turn from making a living to living, to doing work of greater benefit to yourself and society than earning money, be sure that you are ready to begin.

There is only one way you can be sure that, when you retire, you will be ready to begin, and that is by continuing your education all of your adult life. For nature intends that our intellect should never stop growing, but we must aid it by the stimulation of a liberal education. Job-training is not liberal education. Handiwork and household hobbies are not liberal education. Liberal education is the study of the fundamental principles and problems of human life and human society. I don’t care what materials you use to continue your education, but I confess my prejudice for a study of the great books, in which the analysis and argument of all great ideas are classically embodied.

An active interest in great books and great ideas is the best solution I have seen to the problem of later-life boredom. Mr. Jones, a retired railroad engineer, heard his daughter and some of her fellow-members of a Great Books Discussion Group arguing over the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides. Mr. Jones was drawn into the discussion, and then into the Great Books program for adults. Only then, he says now, did he discover what he had been suffering from; he had been suffering, literally, from nothing. Now, like so many retired laymen, he is the leader of an active discussion group.

Jones is not his real name. But Meacham is hers. Ten years ago Mrs. C. W. Meacham was an elderly widow in Des Moines when she heard about the Great Books program. First she joined a library discussion group. Then she volunteered her services in the administrative part of the program. For two or three years she served in the libraries — without pay — in Des Moines, Seattle, and Los Angeles. One day she packed up and went to Germany. She had spent her childhood in a German-speaking community in Iowa, and it occurred to her that she might serve democracy by introducing the great books and the great ideas into German adult education. Today she directs a nation-wide educational program in a country 5000 miles from the city in which, 10 years ago, she had nothing to do.

Of course, the Great Books program is not the only way to prepare yourself for the profession of retirement. You will benefit greatly from any kind of work which is a challenge to that part of you which continues growing after retirement age — your intellect. You needn’t read only the Great Books, but any good books, and you might organize or join groups to discuss them. Evening art classes or music appreciation courses are a good idea. An active interest in political affairs is something you will never be too old to have, and, with your wisdom gleaned from experience, you will be helping democracy by your participation. Or, teachers are needed in every branch of learning and you can undoubtedly find a niche where your services will be appreciated. The object is to keep your mind active in any way that appeals to you, for, as long as you do so, life will be interesting to you, and you will be interesting to others.

We have just begun to inquire scientifically into the problems of retirement. A decade or two ago there was nothing to support the thesis I have been advancing here; nothing but common sense and the record of those glorious old men who, freed, as one of them says in Plato’s Republic, from the “furious master,” youth, were at last able to spend their days in convivial learning, in reading, writing, and conversation. As they approached death they lived ever more fully, enlarging their own vision, that of their countrymen, and of posterity.

Now the sociologists are completing their first studies of retirement. Uniformly they support the medical conclusion that “we don’t wear out; we rust out.” Prof. Lawrence D. Corey of the University of Chicago recently reported to the Tenth Annual Gerontological Congress that successful adjustment to retirement appeared to depend upon how long the individual had gone to school; the better the education, the better the adjustment.

The Greek word for leisure is the root of our English word for “school.” The man of leisure is the man who is free to go to school, two or three evenings a week all his laboring life, and then to be graduated, at the very peak of his powers, to the kind of noble and ennobling labor that society so badly needs, the labor of the inquiring intellect focused upon the great issues of life. Grow old we must, but only in this way can we grow old gracefully. Only in this way are the vision of the poet and the intention of nature both realized: “The best is yet to be — the last of life, for which the first was made.”


[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]

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