Retired in all Lands, Unite!

EDITORIAL, 30 Mar 2009

#56 | Johan Galtung

    You have only your exclusion, your marginalization to lose.

We simply have a major flaw in our social construction: the institution of obligatory retirement, the final stage in biological life, the R in Childhood-Education-Work-Retirement. Nobody will argue against the right of the tired to be retired, from the duties of work, of inputs into the production of goods and services of whatever kind. That right should be available at any stage, the retirement pay being roughly proportionate to the inputs made. The problem arises when older people are put on the side-track of social life, in German Abstellgleis, obviously only waiting for the inevitable to happen. While trains pass by on the real tracks, some quick, some slow, with people on board, from A to B, with some (more or less laudable) projects to be enacted.

The reader will permit a personal story: my father. Weakened by a stay in a German concentration camp in return for his participation in the resistance movement in Norway (by Goebbels, like by somebody else, called a “terrorist” movement), the former politician (deputy mayor of Oslo) retired from his job as chief physician in oto-rhino-laryngology at the municipal hospital, filled with ideas about prevention of diseases in that region for all school children of the country, combining his two vocations and adding to it that quality that only age and work experience can add to education: wisdom. So, he was waiting for the call of duty, not for money, but to be used and be of use.

That call never came. Instead of making inputs to society he was confined to inputs to himself only, hobbies, in his case reading French biographies. Till he passed on, peacefully. And his son made a promise to himself: organize you life in such a way that you can contribute to the very end.

There is one obvious way: by closing the social life cycle. A child is born into Family that delivers a reasonably socialized child to School that delivers a reasonably educated student to Work that delivers a reasonably tired person to–retirement, that side-track as social waste, the juice having been squeezed. But, sing the metaphor, in that waste there is something very valuable: seeds, standing for experience that can be shared, when called upon, with the younger at School and the middle-aged at Work.

How this can be done is rather obvious and it is often done, the situation is not that hopeless, only not as a human right. The grandchildren may go beyond entertainment and share life experiences with their grandchildren, hopefully mindful that there may be more to learn from happy, inspiring stories than from the sad and depressing, more from successes than from failures–in no way concealing the latter. But the grandparents may also shy away, accepting the general ideology that their education was overtaken long time ago by new, state-of-the-art knowledge; and retire into the entertainment and gift-giving roles.

School may be more promising than the Family as the stage. Anybody can be called upon to give a class on how it was to be a plumber, a dentist, a mediator, and author, sharing valuable experiences that have crystallized into insights that can be distilled as wisdom. The Japanese, and others, do this to a large extent, maybe more in local schools.

There is, of course, a famous model: the Hindu tradition of the old who have reached moksha, fulfillment, after the dharma, acquiring the moral values and skills, artha, enacting them in work, and kama, enjoyment–not as successive stages, but as components with the point of gravity moving as indicated–sharing their wisdom with younger under the merciful shadow of the lush branches of a banyan tree.

Look at the 29 years old youngsters on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, filled with their MBA skills untempered by any experience. Some warnings from the older generation might have been useful, only that they may not be old enough. To have lived the Great Depression at 29 years old means birth in 1900–and they are not among us. But the 79-89-99 years old increasingly are, and they have much to tell. For money? Not necessarily. For a listening ear, mature enough to know that social presence cannot be monopolized by the younger and the middle-aged at the expense of the older, just as little as it can be monopolized by one gender, one race, one class. The younger, women, non-white, working classes, join the struggle for inclusion of the older!

If we keep mandatory retirement somewhere in the 60s the excluded may one day be the majority as our life expectancy increases and fertility decreases. Complaints are heard that there are too few younger around to sustain the older, with their diseases. Maybe some of those are the diseases of being assigned a seat in the waiting room, absorbing the stress, not of being overused but underused? And maybe a society unable to learn from individual and social mistakes of the past is doomed to relive them?

Maybe it would be to the advantage of society if Retired United simply took the social floor, in public places, in the media, not only to issue warnings of impending failure but to bring to life successes of the past, not only to radiate bitterness at being excluded, but in gratitude for the life lived and still being lived? And, of course, as much as possible still being part of productive life, contributing to their own sustenance whenever possible. But not being forced to do so.

Liberation of working classes, women, the non-whites is wonderful, for all. So also the liberation of the older.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Mar 2009.

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