On Friday, I retired. I am just short of 55.
This week, I’ve been working hard on a number of paid and unpaid projects, but in my head I retired on Friday.
On Friday, when I caught the 5.50 am Ormskirk train to Liverpool, and the 7am to London, I didn’t know I was going to retire. But when I walked out of a six hour meeting on that Friday afternoon, I knew I had. I knew I’d retired because I had a physical sense of relief and relaxation, and could think clearly.
That morning, I’d been edgy about the coming long meeting. There was one particular technical aspect that I just didn’t feel on top of but needed to understand properly if I was to lead the meeting to an outcome. This meant, in turn, that I’d have to learn on the job, with the institutional dynamics of the meeting meaning I couldn’t just say at the start: “can someone explain this to me?”
It all went fine. Years of practice meant I was able to quietly assimilate new know-how, while also keeping the strategic flow, and the meeting closed with contented chat about a job well done.
But I knew as I walked down the road to the tube station that this was the last time I’d ever have to do that — the last time I’d ever have to develop my own knowledge and skillset just to keep up with the demands of the job.
And that, for me, is the essence of retirement. It doesn’t mean I’ll do less in a day — I’m just as busy as I was last week — but it does mean that by far the biggest strain on me has gone away, and that this week I feel so unburdened compared with last.
I’m back in control.
While I didn’t know Friday would be my last day of being out of control, I had known it was coming at some point, and had planned it. Over the last year, I’ve done a couple of jobs — in truth, not very well — which I found stressful, and I knew (though didn’t articulate it well) that this was because I was becoming too old a dog to be constantly learning new tricks; uncertainty ahead of me made me cling to certainties, and in turn this stopped me moving forward with a working day/night, as I hovered around what I was good at, and got tense about what might go wrong later. It wasn’t a good feeling.
So I started to stop. I handed over to younger friends a contract that was making me worry even before I started it, and decided to just do the stuff I really enjoy. Fortunately, there’s a lot of that.
My “lifelong learning” career journey is over, and it’s great, because I can now get on with proper learning. It may be a short-term confidence bias but, a few days on, I seem to be able to read long tracts (Jonathan Israel’s massive Democratic Enlightenment III, as it happens) with greater concentration, and I’m making much better tangential links to other stuff I’ve read and done.
I don’t know yet if my transition from the constraints of “lifelong learning” to the unbound joy of “just learning” will do anything to add to the sum of human knowledge, or even do anything to better human society, though I’d like to think it might, but the key thing for now is that I’m back in control of whether it does.
So what’s the point in this reflection on my own lucky — very lucky — circumstance?
Well, it’s precisely that. Being lucky.
I have had an extraordinarily lucky life so far — not without personal tragedy, and not without a lot of swim-against-the-tide that I’m not unproud of — but still lucky in terms of the time and place I’ve been alive (oh, and what colour, and sex, and sexual orientation, and physical and mental ability).
The point, surely, of the democratic socialism to which I attach myself is that as many people as possible should get to be as lucky as I have, and that they get, at a time when they can really enjoy it, to be properly in control.
Under late capitalism, we’ve a got a society, even in the industrialised West, which imposes a duty of lifelong learning (aka. the need to adapt to survive) on people from not-quite-cradle to not-quite-grave. It’s a society steeped in insecurity, one which is nourished by worry, one which makes us ill and then charges us for the therapy.
I have felt, perhaps briefly (I may yet find myself forcibly unretired) what it feels like to see light at the end of the tunnel, and I need to work towards others seeing it too.
Now that’s a proper job.