Retirement: a second vocation

Julia Burton-Jones, September 2003

Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt attacked the 'cult of youth' when she announced the publication of the government's consultation document, Age Matters, in early July [Stephen Hird/REUTERS/Popperfoto]

Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt attacked the ‘cult of youth’ when she announced the publication of the government’s consultation document, Age Matters, in early July [Stephen Hird/REUTERS/Popperfoto]

When I was studying social administration at university in Bristol in the mid 1980s I was taught by the greatly revered Professor Peter Townsend. Approaching retirement age, he was charismatic and compelling and it was a privilege to hear his thoughts on British society. One of the issues I remember him addressing with passion was retirement policy and its contribution to the structured dependency of old age.

After leaving university I worked at the Jubilee Centre, managing a research project on old age. It culminated in the publication of From Generation to Generation: Towards a Christian Understanding of the Role and Care of Older People (Jubilee Centre, 1990). [1] With the help of a team of theologians I looked at current perceptions of ageing alongside biblical insights. The phobia’ of old age and the marginalisation of elderly people we identified in British society contrasted with scriptural references to worth, respect and wisdom in later life.

Thirteen years on from the publication of From Generation to Generation, the challenge to Christians in their attitude to ageing is the same. Are we to take our cue from the social policies of the twentieth century or to seek a biblical understanding of what old age should be about? Do you feel you have a God-given right to retire at a certain age? If so, where does this sense of entitlement come from?

Ageism and ‘the cult of youth’

A recent government consultation document on ageism proposes either to ban firms from imposing any retirement age or to introduce a ‘default’ age of 70. Patricia Hewitt, Trade and Industry Secretary, was reported as nobly taking up arms against the ‘cult of youth’ in British society. [2] For all the merits of combating ageism, this is where I start to hear echoes of Peter Townsend’s lectures in the 1980s. For the labour of older workers, Townsend would say, has always been a conveniently expendable commodity. At times of labour shortage, older people are encouraged to stay in work longer. When there is high unemployment, they are enticed out of the workplace with early retirement packages and accused of being selfish if they remain in their jobs, thus preventing younger people from entering the workforce.

Townsend told us that fixed age retirement was an artificial construct. Whatever its motives, the government’s consultation document is moving in the right direction in this respect. Certainly, with the gains in health and longevity of the twentieth century, 60 or 65 seems an arbitrary age at which to step down from work when the majority continue to enjoy strength and fitness well into their seventies. It seems more than coincidence that, at a time of full employment and crisis in pension provision, the government has discovered that older people make excellent employees and should stay in paid work longer.

I have long felt uneasy about modern notions of retirement. Lazy days on the golf course, Mediterranean cruises, cookery courses and DIY (for those with the means) are portrayed as the idealised image of retirement. Leisure is the key paradigm and is assumed to be the reward for a lifetime’s hard work. Call me a workaholic, but this does not appeal to my sense of purpose in life; although perhaps I will feel jaded and burnt out in 30 years’ time and be only too happy to say farewell to paid employment!

Balancing work and leisure

This brings us neatly to the rationale of the major campaign during my time at the Jubilee Centre, Keep Sunday Special. The campaign emphasised the balance between work and leisure, and the need for a healthy rhythm in life. God laboured in Creation for six days and then rested on the seventh. To derive the blessing of the Sabbath we need also to experience the God-given task of creativity. If creativity and rest are two sides of a coin, modern concepts of retirement are lacking in one side. We should be concerned about this. If God ordained work as a source of human identity, lacking purposeful ‘work’ is by implication dehumanising. Work is intended as a means of channelling our energies and our God-given creative urge. If it is an integral part of what makes us human, how can we say that older people can do without it?

One option is to look carefully at our definition of work and what constitutes the kind of creativity God demonstrated in the Genesis 1 story. Again, harking back to my university lectures, Marxism stresses that many modern jobs do not fulfil the true objective of work; they are deeply dehumanising and lacking in any sense of purpose. To retire from these jobs is indeed a happy release. We need to think beyond the narrow range of paid employment to ‘work’ with a God-given focus.

In projects I have worked on since leaving the Jubilee Centre I have had the privilege of getting to know Christians who, though not in paid work, are engaged in tireless effort. Their endeavour may be undervalued in our society, but in my view it fits in with a biblical notion of work. These individuals are carers, people who are voluntarily looking after relatives and friends who need their support. They are using their creative energy to maximise the quality of life of people who are physically or mentally disabled. This is purposeful work, though exhausting and demanding in the extreme at times.

There are many others in our society who do not ‘work’, but who are purposefully engaged in creative activity. There are parents at home with small children, and grandparents (many of whom are ‘retired’) helping with child care too. Can we define these relational tasks as ‘work’?

When I was writing From Generation to Generation, the book which most influenced me was Paul Tournier’s Learning to Grow Old (Highland Books, 1985). He looks at concepts of work and leisure and argues for a redefining of both. The term he uses to great effect is ‘vocation’. He embraces leisure and the pursuit of hobbies as a valuable channelling of human energy throughout life, but he argues for retirement to be characterised also by a search for a new calling or vocation, a ‘second career’. Though free from the constraints of paid work, such a second career is more than a leisure pursuit. It is marked by a serious and methodical devotion. I am reminded of many retired Christians I know who faithfully invest their time, skill and energy in voluntary and charitable activity. Without the dedication of these individuals, the voluntary sector would collapse.

Working for the Kingdom of God

I find no justification for fixed age retirement in the Bible. Christians are urged to grow in faith and work for the coming of the Kingdom until their dying day. There is a continual progression towards maturity, a running of the race until the end, which gives no scope for dropping out and leaving it to others to do the hard graft. Very old age is the culmination of a life lived with God, a blessing and a reward for righteousness. It is not a stage of life to be postponed and avoided indefinitely as our youth obsessed culture would have us believe. We never retire from the Kingdom of God , rather we adjust our calling according to our abilities.

Within the community of believers we are of equal and ultimate worth whatever our employment status. We need to resist the subconscious adoption of our society’s belittling of the worth of older people when they cease to contribute to the economy. The fact you are no longer a wage-earner does not make you a less important member of God’s family.

I work now for the Relatives and Residents Association, a charity supporting very frail elderly people in nursing and residential homes. They are the most marginalised of older people in our society. Sometimes they tell me they are ‘useless’ and sadly many feel abandoned by their families.

The good news for Christians is that our broader definition of ‘work’ means we need never ‘retire’. We can carry on being productive in the work of the Kingdom until the very end of our mortal lives. The work of the very elderly Christians I know which I have most appreciated has been their labours in prayer and in relationships. It does not matter how physically frail you are, prayer for God’s will to be done on earth is a task in which you can be fully engaged. Similarly, with the great wisdom of age, very elderly people do immensely productive ‘relational work’.

Doesn’t this Christian vision of a purposeful old age fill you with more enthusiasm than the idea of decades of indolence? It does me! Praise God for the Sabbath – let’s continue to enjoy our holidays and days off – but let’s also remember the six days of the week set aside for creative work whatever age you ‘re. Let’s work and plan towards Tournier’s second vocation of old age and relish the prospect of greater freedom to express our creativity in retirement. The majority of older people say that their retirement years have been among their happiest and most fulfilled. Old age is not a time to dread, but a time of opportunity to find new ways of working towards the Kingdom, be that in paid work, in relational activities, in voluntary commitment or in the ministry of prayer.

Since leaving the Jubilee Centre Julia has worked for the following organisations, both with older people and with carers:

The Carers Christian Fellowship: Sue Jones, Administrator, 14 Cavie Close, Nine Elms, Swindon, Wiltshire SN5 5XD Tel: 01793 887068

The Relatives and Residents Association, 24 The Ivories, 6–18 Northampton Street , London N1 2HY Tel: 020 7359 8148, Advice Line 020 7359 8136

[1] Limited number of copies still available: see the report section on our website

[2] Rachel Sylvester, ‘Hewitt’s war on the “cult of youth”’, Daily Telegraph, 2 July 2003.

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Category: News and Reviews

September, 2003

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