The retirement of the BBC cricket commentator Henry Blofeld at the age of 77 has reignited the debate about when exactly is the best time to retire. It’s an impossible question to answer, really, because everyone feels differently about it. For example, I have one friend who is a long way short of retirement age who has retired on a reduced pension and another who is working past retirement age because he cannot bear to spend too much time with his wife! There are, of course, plenty of reasons why people retire and why people carry on working but, as someone who retired from full time work as soon as I possibly could, there was only one commodity that mattered to me: time.
When I was young, I knew I was going to live forever. Even when people died from time to time, I would, for reasons I didn’t think about, be the lone survivor. Old age would not reach me. I would be exempt, spared the uncomfortable realisation about my mortality. No more.
I took a substantial financial hit from a dead end, insubstantial, poorly paid civil service job precisely because time was beginning to run out. It was when, some four years ago, I found myself in a hotel in Runcorn where I had gone to attend a meeting I knew my time was up. In previous years, I enjoyed travelling for work. It was quite nice travelling to a nice hotel, having something nice to eat as well as a few beers, going to that meeting and then driving home again. But something this time was very different. My job was changing, and not for the better, but moreover I was changing even more. The job was taking up five sevenths of my life, Sunday nights became a period of dread at the Monday morning to follow and people were dying all around me. With the death of my father in 2011, I was now the oldest person in the family. Physically, I was in reasonable shape but I knew I would not always be. Without trying to come across as too gloomy, much of what was round the corner would not be good. Time became everything. Sitting in a distant hotel, away from everything and everyone I treasured was not life as I wanted it to be.
I had heard all the stories from people who carried on working long into retirement, some because they simply couldn’t give it up, others working much longer to build up a better pension and some who really didn’t know what to do with all that extra time. I am not them, but it made me sad for them. One friend of mine told me about his father who got to 65 after a working life in a job that was just a job and nothing more and a week later into the retirement he had waited for throughout most of his later years he dropped dead from a heart attack. So, all he did in life was work.
And let’s be honest about this. If we retire after age 50, we are in any event well into the long decline. We can take up a sport, like I did with golf, or we can run or we can cycle, but we will never capture the vitality of our youth. It’s all better than working for a living but we fool ourselves if we think we are what we were. For the first time in my life, my knees ache; those knees that have held up without a niggle are now stiff and achey and sometimes it’s an effort to stand up. Other joints ache, all those football injuries from long ago have all come back to haunt me. Life has consequences.
How long have you got when you finally retire? Five good years? Ten? By the time you reach 80, if you make it, you are not going to be doing a 10k without a zimmer. It is likely to be a sedentary lifestyle until your body stops working altogether. It is not a pleasant prospect, which is why I realised years ago I couldn’t afford to wait to reach state retirement age. I would have been gambling that, in the middle to far distance, that I would still be around and in a fit state to be reasonably active. I concluded that full time work, whatever the financial benefits, was a waste of life. I didn’t want to be the wealthiest man in the graveyard.
I have never regretted leaving the civil service. There were career options in other government departments, there were career options away from the civil service, some of which might have been relatively lucrative. But it would have stopped me going to Greece to write a book, playing golf pretty well whenever I wanted to and, did I mention writing and writing and writing, the one thing I always wanted to do.
When I hear a story of someone on the TV news who is still working well into old age, my first reaction is “you poor sod.” What is it in life that you really enjoy? Family? Doing something creative? Travel? Gardening? If it’s work, then that’s your shout. I work to live, not live to work and every day I spend working for someone else, is a day wasted.
Whichever way you look at it, time is running out.