The wisest piece of advice I heard in the course of this summer came from a delightful companion I sat next to at a lunch in Scotland. The retired Bishop Luscombe was formerly the Bishop of Brechin. Now 88, he is very perky and a great advertisement for the nugget of wisdom for a happy later life that he passed on to me: this is quite simply to retire to rather than from.
When you do cross the Rubicon of retirement, it is enormously important to feel you are moving forward to a new life rather than giving one up. This is, I think, easier to achieve if retirement is a gradual event, which it is increasingly becoming for many. What you are going to do next is truly important – Bishop Luscombe got himself a PhD in ecclesiastical history after stepping down from the grand job of Primus of Scotland in 1990. But volunteering, part-time work, travel and very active grandparenting (or an exhausting combination of several) are just some of the activities that fill the diaries of the post-workforce. For the first time in your life, you can please yourself; however, most people find that being up and doing continues to be important and there is no doubt that the busiest retirees are the happiest. The delights of the couch-potato life are short-lived. What is essential is that you are excited, even passionate about what fills your days and it’s hard to be excited about doing nothing.
All this becomes particularly important when you consider that women can reasonably expect to get to 77 before they experience any meaningful health problems. That’s 11 bonus years from the current retirement age. Men fare a little less well in that they can expect about ten years before age begins to tell. So spry older readers in their eighties and nineties can feel extraordinarily happy and smug. And for the rest of us, who have not yet hit 65 – with a bit of luck and a following wind – we have a full decade of active life to look forward to in retirement.
So it’s certainly worth getting on with something meaningful and worthwhile. And given the gloomy scenario of failing pensions and low interest rates, well chronicled by my colleague Saga Director General Ros Altmann, this bonus decade is increasingly likely to include paid work – with the foot slightly less hard on the 9-5 pedal, one hopes. It’s tough to find paid work in your sixties, but as demographics change, companies will be wooing, even begging older employees to stay on – and name their own terms.
I know what will be occupying quite a lot of my time over the next few months: my 29-year-old daughter has just got engaged and I am busily researching where the marriage business has now got to. The rituals and etiquette of engagement have certainly moved on giddily since I received a (ring-free) marriage proposal in a hotel lift in Nairobi. My daughter’s special moment sounded very well planned and romantic, but it was quite low key in that the happy, lucky man didn’t order up an entire orchestra or get the Red Arrows to write out the question in smoke in the sky and then put the film up on YouTube. Some people don’t think they are alive unless there is a picture on a website to prove it, so you can imagine how elaborate engagements and their visual records have become.
I have just been diverted from writing this by a happy half-hour on YouTube. One particularly engaging film of a marriage proposal goes on for ten minutes and stars all the friends and relatives of a young American swain who choreographed an entire song and dance sequence of proposal. Happily his intended said a tearful and overwhelmed ‘yes’ at the end. But this is not always the case. If you search for Marriage Proposal Failure you will see a whole series of proposals that didn’t go at all well, to the public mortification of some deeply unlucky lovestruck suitors. Their sadness and embarrassment is palpable and I suspect that these unfortunates will swear themselves to a lifetime of celibacy – or anyway singledom.
Unlikely journeys by old men are emerging as a theme in this year’s fiction. Two recent books, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Doubleday, £12.99) and The Hundred-Year-Old Man (Hesperus, £6.99) both take as their central premise people who should have grown out of such impulsive behaviour as walking away from their homes – and just keeping on walking. The first is a contemporary Chaucerian tale, as a retired man with a dull life and marriage walks to the postbox to post a letter and just carries on – all the way to Berwick-on-Tweed to visit an old friend who’s dying of cancer.
The second is a witty Norwegian crime romp that starts from a similar point as, on his 100th birthday, the hero jumps out of the window of his care home and heads out of town. Very different in tone, both are great easy reads and tributes to the pluck of the Saga generation, a subject dear to all our hearts.
Read Emma Soames every month in Saga Magazine.