In My Words: Do not go gentle? Thoughts on retirement in high, and low, places

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor Rosemary examines how various leaders and society have answered the sometimes thorny question of when is the right time to retire. The column was published by the Burlington Times-News, the Greensboro News & Record, the Durham Herald-Sun and the Raleigh News & Observer.

By Rosemary Haskell

Watching Joe Biden during the presidential candidates’ debates, and now, in his post-election appearances, I see how old he looks. He has that slightly transparent and tremulous look that goes with old age. Donald Trump, another septuagenarian, appears more robust, if less coherent, than his elected successor.

Rosemary Haskell, professor of English

But why is either of them still working?

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s recent death highlights the same question. Would she not have served her own values better if she had retired under the first Obama administration? She could then have been fairly sure of securing an ideological comrade in her place. She hung on, and on, aging and ill.  This toughness is admirable, but, for someone with national responsibilities, misguided. Still employed at 87!

When, in fact, is it time to go, time to retire?  I’m now thinking sooner, rather than later.  At 64, I’m entering the “could retire” zone, when Medicare renders stopping work viable.

“Not yet: I’m still productive,” I say to myself. But will my colleagues soon start to say, “When is she leaving?” I hope they won’t, but knowing when it’s time to quit is useful knowledge, for Supreme Court justices, presidential candidates, and everyone else.

History has its share of people who should have left the building earlier than they did.  British Prime Minister Winston Churchill notoriously lingered, tempting and teasing his protégé Anthony Eden with promises to “hand over” in just a little while.

We now know that Churchill suffered a serious stroke while prime minister that was covered up. Poor Eden took over from 80-year-old Winston just in time for the disaster of the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis and for his own precarious health to completely collapse. Decades younger than Churchill, Eden resigned after less than two years from a position he had long aspired to.

Aging dictators exist in their own retirement-resisting category. Often, autocrats cannot leave because others will discover where the bodies (sometimes real ones) are buried. Sometimes the “strong men” are pushed. A coup toppled 90-year-old Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi hung on until the Civil War got him, at the age of 69. Will Russia’s Vladimir Putin ever volunteer for his old-age pension?  It’s difficult to imagine.

Reigning monarchs have another usually non-retirement plan, at least in the United Kingdom. Queen Elizabeth II is 94. She’s not retiring. Nobody expects her to. In the Brits’ view, only the flaky Scandinavian royals get off the throne before the grim reaper’s invitation. Monarchs anointed by God go on to the end.

But for mere mortals, there’s another consideration: it’s “give the younger guys” a chance.  Many peri-retirers (is that a term?) know they have greener colleagues who will in some way benefit from the grey-beard’s departure. “Get out of my way, Boomer!” may be a barely-repressed comment in many workplaces. And, in fragile economies, the higher salaries of long-stayers stand out.

Some people, however, just cannot afford to stop earning. Well into their 60s and 70s, they may have families to support or not enough beyond social security benefits to tempt them. The pandemic has rattled a lot of older workers’ plans. Younger people may have lost income, leaving older relatives to pick up the slack.

Debts, mortgages, struggling adult “children,” and grandchildren: these keep us working. I, too, feel the need to scoop up the cash while I can. Who knows what’s ahead, for me, or for my family? Store up those acorns, like the squirrel, for hard times ahead.

I have to say that I worry about our soon-to-be president, Joe Biden — his physical stamina, his clarity of thought — in short, his age. Yes, Kamala Harris looks young and vigorous. But why oh why did the United States of America finish the election season with two septuagenarians as its finalists?

Helaine Olen’s recent Washington Post column, referring to a mostly-ignored report of California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s “age-related memory problems,” suggests that Americans find it just too difficult to confront the frailties of old age.

Perhaps braver attitudes from the electorate might have produced a different outcome in the Democratic presidential primaries?

I’ll end, predictably enough, with lines from Dylan Thomas’s poem to his old Dad:  “Do not go gentle into that goodnight. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

This heroic protest against the end of life is a moral and emotional tonic for any human. But it’s a tonic that needs to be tasted sparingly, particularly by those in high places.

Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English at Elon. Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.