For many people today, retirement is a roleless role. This is true in large part because the traditional notion of retirement fits with a worn-out notion of aging that conceives of it primarily in terms of disengagement and decline. Today, though, many of us are asking "How appropriate is retirement for a vital person with 30 or more years left to live?" Retirement, as it has been conceived for the past 100 years or so, can turn purposeful lives into casualties.
The traditional story of retirement will no longer be relevant to a growing number of people in the second half of life. It is time to retire that conception of retirement.
James Hillman, in his book, The Force of Character, talks about the "finish" of our lives in a way that distinguishes "finish" from "end." Finishing our lives, says Hillman, is better understood as "putting a finish" on our lives—that is, burnishing our character to a high gloss. Hillman makes the natural connections between finishing our lives and distinguishing the legacy we leave. Both require us to develop the most authentic expression of who we are to claim our place at the fire.
Recalling our story is essential to the challenge and privilege of finishing well in life. The true expression of our life's purpose is as vital to our ending as to our beginning. Heeding our call keeps us journeying on purpose—and thus growing and evolving to the very end of our lives. We may retire from our jobs, but there is no relaxing from our individual callings. Calling not only precedes career but outlasts it as well. Callings never end when careers do. We may at times be unemployed or retired, but no one ever becomes uncalled. Our vocational story unfolds from cradle to grave.
Betty Friedan, in her book The Fountain of Age, gives a fascinating account of her research into the aging process. One breakthrough insight is that "being old is not the same as acting old." She concludes that the mind plays an essential role, along with the body, in how we age. Our stories determine whether we are growing and heeding our calling or declining and decaying. And according to her research, the almost universally held story for aging is a period of decline. As Friedan observes, "Myth has replaced reality."
We have all seen people who are aging well. Actor-director Clint Eastwood, at age 73, talks fondly about being on the "back nine" of life. Author Jane Juska, in her best-seller A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance, tells the story of what happened after she took out an advertisement in the New York Review of Books that said: "Before I turn 67—next March—I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like."
These are obviously not 21-year-olds, but they have the curiosity and hunger for the life experience of a young person. These are people who heed their callings from cradle to grave. These are people who refuse to see themselves as "senior citizens." These are new elders like Vivian Marsh.
Vivian Marsh's transition to a more purposeful second half of life happened almost by accident. "And that in itself represents a pretty huge transition," she tells us, "for most of my life I've not been someone who does things unless they're very clearly planned out. My friend Charlotte tells me that this is because I'm a double Virgo—I don't know about that—but I do know that my entire career was built upon organization and preparation. So, it's a been a great adventure to have this new phase of my life more or less emerge by itself, without my having decided beforehand how it would look."
It makes perfect sense that Vivian should have emphasized organization and preparation in the first half of her life. Pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and earning tenured professorship at a major research university—the only woman in her department and one of only a handful in her field—doesn't happen without a lot of planning ... at least for Vivian it didn't. "I was always interested in numbers, even when I was little. When I was in high school, I took all the math and science classes I could—I was often the only girl in those classes—and I decided pretty early on that I was more interested in the 'applied' side of things than the theoretical. That's how I got into engineering. And I picked mechanical because I've always loved gadgets."
At 53, though, with over 16 years of service in her department, Vivian took her first sabbatical. "That's sort of pathetic, really," she jokes. "Here I am, someone who's supposed to be an expert with numbers, who managed to go more than twice the number of years you're supposed to before taking a break. Sabbaticals are supposed to happen every 7 years; I more than doubled that before realizing it was time."
And during her six months off ("I actually stretched it to nine," she says," by having the last three months be summer"), Vivian spent a good deal of that time quite literally recollecting not only her own story, but the stories of her family and her ancestors.
"I come from a big Irish-Catholic family and have tons of aunts and uncles, many of whom live within about a ten-mile radius of each other. I've always been the one at family reunions and weddings and such who likes to grill the older folks about the family history. But I'd never done it in any sort of organized way. During my sabbatical, though, I started doing more systematic interviews and writing them up. I also got really into Internet research on genealogy. And one thing I discovered was that there were lots of Marshes out there doing similar research. So, I taught myself some web design and created an interactive website for the sharing of stories and the trading of information. It's been fascinating to hook up with people from around the world who are exploring their roots in the same manner I am—some of whom I'm most certainly related to!"
When Vivian's sabbatical ended, she decided to go back to her department on a half-time basis. "I've sort of done it unofficially," she says, "there had always been a semester here or there in which I taught fewer classes than full-time status, but I had always made up for that time by doing service work. Now, I'm just teaching less without so much advising, committee work, and so on. It gives me a lot more time to pursue a number of other things I'd always been interested in, including, believe it or not, pottery." Here she laughs, admitting it sounds "corny" for a 53-year-old woman." It's the glazing process I find particularly fascinating. As a scientist, I'm quite intrigued by the chemical changes that take place with the various glazes and different temperatures. As a matter of fact, I'm thinking of writing a paper about glazing for presentation at a conference. Wouldn't that make the 'old boys' squirm in their seats."
The person who is merely aging is a 53-year-old who tries to look like a 21-year-old. The person who is a new elder like Vivian Marsh doesn't mind looking fifty-three, but can engage comfortably with a twenty-one-year-old.
The new elders, like Vivian, neither mourn the passage of time nor deny it. Instead they have chosen a brand new way of looking at their age: Accept the biology but reject the psychology. They accept how old they are, but refuse to let it shape their lives. They have shifted, as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi writes, from an "age-ing to sage-ing" outlook on life.
New elders like Vivian Marsh and Richard Strozzi Heckler know they are not just here by chance. They feel connected to those who came before them and in that sense are keepers of their legacies: "wisdom-keepers."
Deep in our souls, we all want to live in a story larger than ourselves. For each of us, the real story is personal and purposeful: to know what we are here to do and why. Søren Kierkegaard wrote in his journal: "The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die."
Since the dawn of history, humans have been pondering this existential mystery of life. The same question has riddled us throughout our evolutionary history: "Who am I?"