“The trouble with retirement is that you never get a day off.” ~ Abe Lemons
In the beginning, there was no need for retirement. Most people died well before age 30, and if someone made it beyond that, they were highly respected and everybody was happy to accommodate them. Later, though, with the increase in lifespans, the number old workers who had outlived their usefulness, but had no other way of supporting themselves rose considerably. Something had to be done about that.
In 1882, Anthony Trollope published a satirical dystopian novel “The Fixed Period.” In it, he described a society in which the length of productive life is “fixed” at 67. Once people reach this age, they’re allowed a year of contemplation and then they’re “terminated.” Fortunately, that idea didn’t take root in the Western societies. Instead, in Europe, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck broached the concept of retirement (1881), while in the United States, at the time of President Roosevelt, the Senate and House of Representatives passed the Social Security Act (1935).
Today, the number of retirees in our country is about 38 million. How do they spend their time? Some play golf, some pursue arts or crafts, some travel and some hike, and not just in nearby woods but through rugged and unforgiving terrain like the Appalachian Trail.
The first woman to hike the entire length of that trail alone was 67-year-old Emma Gatewood of Ohio. In May 1955, she quietly left her home and headed to Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia, then the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Gatewood embarked on this strenuous and dangerous journey without much preparation, gear or money, relying on only her wits and the kindness of strangers. Yet on September 25, she reached Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail, where she celebrated her achievement by singing the first verse of “America the Beautiful.” Read about her walk and its impact on the state of the trail and the popularity of hiking in Ben Montgomery’s book “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk.”
What do American presidents do after they retire? It depends. Long before we put a billionaire into the White House, newly retired President Harry Truman and his wife Bess, people of rather modest means, got into their car and hit the road. “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure” by Matthew Algeo, retraces the Trumans’ route – from Independence, MO to Washington D.C. to New York and back home — some twenty-five hundred miles in all. While doing his research, Algeo visited the places the presidential couple visited in 1953, read historical materials and newspaper reports, talked to surviving eyewitnesses and created a sympathetic portrait of the man and his time.
“The Boston Girl” by Anita Diamant also describes a journey – not in space but in time. This is a touching personal story about a woman born into a Russian Jewish immigrant family, as told by a 85-year-old grandmother to her 22-year-old granddaughter. The book depicts life in early 20th century Boston, the conflict between immigrant parents and their children and the rise of American feminism.
Do older people still have the ability to go against old prejudices and deeply engrained societal norms? Yes, according to Helen Simonson, the author of “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.” Pettigrew, a widower and a retired British army major living in a small English village, is set in his old-fashioned and prickly ways. Yet when his brother dies, Pettigrew comes in contact with Ms. Ali, a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper residing in the same village. Romance blossoms between the two, but to get together, both need to overcome conventions of their respective cultures, religious barriers and family relations. Simonson’s book is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read as well as an exploration of cultural values and family dynamics.
Having discussed matters of the heart, we should now look at the practical side of retirement. “How to Make Your Money Last: The Indispensable Retirement Guide,” by Jane Quinn tackles issues like health and life insurance, the optimum age of retirement and timing for drawing Social Security benefits.
Are you contemplating relocation as you retire? Read John Howells’ “Where to Retire: America’s Best and Most Affordable Places.” And if you wish to move abroad, take a look at “The International Living Guide to Retiring Overseas on a Budget” by Suzan Haskins.
“What to Do to Retire Successfully,” by Martin Goldstein begins with a discussion of financial issues, yet it also includes chapters about the psychology of retirement, living arrangements and occupying yourself in your older years.
With this, I’m ending my last Literary Links article, for, after 26 years with the library, I’m retiring to other pursuits myself. Wish me well.