February 04, 2011

What Is Old?

Now I am rampant with memory. I don’t often indulge in this, or not so very often, anyway. Some people will tell you that the old live in the past – that’s nonsense. Each day, so worthless really, has a rarity for me lately. I could put it in a vase and admire it, like the first dandelions, and we would forget their weediness and marvel that they were there at all (Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel, 1964).
My ‘Old Man’ had a birthday this week. I won’t divulge his age, although I’m sure he is still yet young. He occasionally protests that he is an old man, but I won’t hear of it. Age, in this age, is a state of mind, and will only become more so. We have it within our grasp, each of us, to live to a biblical age. Once a man reaches sixty he has a very high statistical chance of reaching eighty, and many, of course, will go way beyond that. By the time I am sixty I will fully expect to reach my century, and I have secret (well, not any more) designs on attaining the ripe number of 120. How dreadfully tiresome, dull and pathetic it would be, therefore, if we declared ourselves old at sixty, as did men of not-so-long ago. That might very well only be half way! Think of the possibilities!

We shall have to re-evaluate what it means to do a life’s work over such a long innings. When the Old Age Pension was introduced in Britain in the good old Edwardian era, the clever politicians put on it a qualifying age of seventy. At that time, the age of seventy, the mythical three-score years and ten, was significantly higher than the average life expectancy. It was, from a governmental point of view, a pretty safe bet. Over the years that age threshold came down, even as life expectancy went up. Generations grew up on the promise of increased leisure, and interpreted is as a license to be idle in one’s dotage, which was projected to last for a good long stint, while the government paid a pile to keep everyone going. It was a sweet thought, but utterly unsustainable. Now the British and the French have undergone revisions to the pensionable age (the British with rather more stoic fatalism than the French), and those revisions are set to continue. When I went to school the retirement age was set at sixty-five for men, sixty for women. What will it be when I actually reach sixty-five? Seventy? Seventy-five? Eighty? Chances are there will be no such thing as a State pension by then, but it’s worth stopping for a minute to consider our futures in a way that we perhaps do not typically. We may be around for longer than we think.

All the more important then to carefully think about what work is to us. Vocations these days are rare. Jobs for life? Seems unlikely. In the West, few people learn a trade, a skill, a craft anymore. Yet now more than ever we have the time. In the days when fifty might have been considered an unlikely milestone, apprenticeships lasted perhaps seven years. In our breakneck desire to make as much money as possible for the least possible effort, we eschew such patience and diligence. I’ve said before that it seems to me that most people hate what they do. Well, do something else. There’ll be time to see it through. We have the opportunity to give vent to the courage of our convictions. Seek fulfillment. Lord knows we may have a long time to endure life’s resentment if we do not.

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