Models for the future

By , Living page editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Nobody doubts that retirement is a state in a state of change. The disagreement is over how soon and how radical the change will be. Maggie Kuhn -- founder and still leader, a decade later, of the Gray Panthers -- speaks with the optimism and impatience of an exuberant activist. David H. Fischer -- professor of history and author of "Growing Old in America" -- sees "the beginnings of a glacial change in attitudes." But he cautions against expecting too much, too soon.

The Kuhn scenario presents the agenda of an activist, the due bill for the future. The Fischer scenario offers the perspective of a historian. Kuhn and Fischer are persuasive debaters of the revolutionary vs. the evolutionary theories of retirement in the future.

In an extended conversation Maggie Kuhn offered The Christian Science Monitor her perspective on how today's dominant view of retirement came about:

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"The Sun Cities, the Leisure Worlds have attracted the well-to-do wha have bought the myth that old age is play time and nap time, not a time to be engaged. The growth of those retirement communities is really a product of the disengagement theory.

"The disengagement theory was postulated about 40 years ago by two white middle-aged men in Kansas, Cummings and Henry. They based their theory on a very small sample of 200 white middle-aged Kansas males. They said the way in which you age successfully is to disengage yourself from what you have been doing is society all your life, and for society to disengage for you.

"The theory got into the thinking of millions, and it became the rationale, the philosophical basis for public policy that is age-segregated.

"There is some evidence that people are turning from it."

Miss Kuhn also offers her vision of what the retirement future will and ought to be:

"I feel also that mandatory retirement is coming under questioning. . . . There are people who have worked in hard, dangerous, distasteful jobs who want to retire early. Seventy-four percent of the people who are early retirees -- not yet eligible for social-security benefits -- retire early for health reasons. They have worked at jobs that are hazardous and that have injured their health.

"Another 14 percent are early retirees because they are discriminated against in matters of employment. It's illegal to refuse a job to a candidate who is qualified at a younger age than 70, but women in particular have had a great deal of difficulty establishing themselves in the labor force and securing jobs in their early 50s. The assumption is that you can't work very much and you can't learn anything new and you can't perform physically and keep up with the young. All of those assumptions have no factual base. People can learn all kinds of things. There's no limit to learning.

"People retire early with a lot of encouragement from management and labor. We would like to see retirement eliminated entirely. If one wishes to withdraw from a particular job, there should be every opportunity to move into another kind of work. We think that employers and labor unions should be encouraging people to be able to move from one kind of employment to a second and third and fourth career. Increasing numbers of people are doing this because of inflation. They find they can't live on a fixed income."

The Kuhn vision of the future requires changes in the work place. "It means what we can restructured work," she says.

"We're saying that businessmen should be restructuring their work and retirement policies. Sabbaticals for everybody. Job sharing -- women have been doing that with great effect with part-time work.

"But employers are still hooked and hung up on 9-to-5 jobs, five days a week. They can't envision any variations. Millions of people would like to work on a more flexible basis. They would like to work in teams, on a part-time basis.

"Employers don't see it yet, and labor unions are completely blind. They're concerned about getting the younger workers enrolled and getting their initiation fees.

"It's so grossly unfair, because they kick out after 30 years the people who have organized labor and who have battled the early struggles for it.

"I'm serving on a newly organized social policy board -- the National Policy Center on Employment and Retirement at the University of Southern California. We're looking at the performance capabilities of older workers, government employment and training programs, alternative work options, opportunities for older women workers.

"Utopia. In this imperfect world we can aim for perfection but probably never attain it. Still, we can do much better."

The Kuhn scenario makes a fascinating comparison, and contrast, on major points with the prognostications of David H. Fischer, who spoke about the future in his office at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.:

"I don't see any end to mandatory retirement. Retirement is a normal part of the life process. It's something that inevitably most of us will experience. It may be a more activem retirement than we've known before, with a much more complex set of associations -- perhaps with other sorts of employment that can follow in the retirement period.

"Flextime, part-time, electronic cottage industries -- the alternatives are gathering momentum.

"I think that most of what's been happening in the last 20 to 30 years has really been an effort to pry open the possibilities for choice. Deep-seated attitudes about the work ethic are being repealed by cultural tendencies that no presidential administration has control over. Increasingly there's an ethic of being rather than doing.

"The republican experiment, this open society, is in some sense moving to a kind of test -- that is to say, can we sustain a plurality of ethics? I think the momentum is clearly heading in that direction.

"It's very difficult to measure attitudes about age, but several opinion polls have suggested that there is at least the beginning of a glacial change. These tides move very slowly. It's not a question of sudden reversals in attitudes, but rather the attitudes begin to change in a new way, in a new direction. I would expect that the attitudes would continued to change for a very long time."

"My hunch is that something like a youth cult began to take form in the late 18 century. It continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and peaked in the 1960s or perhaps early 1970s. I think the youth cult isn't quite as powerful as it used to be. I think as the median age advances so rapidly, that's making a difference.

"A great deal of the work of social gerontologists has been to combat what they call the myths of aging, to sensitize people today to the kinds of tacit discrimination that the feminist movement has been opposing, that the civil rights movement opposed -- that sort of tacit ageism that was so pervasive in our society. It still exists; I don't mean to doubt that it's still very powerful."

What does Dr. Fischer envision for the future?

"I think we're at a fork in the road," he says. "I see one fork leading the quite a happy world in which we don't even have a consciousness of age groups as we did in the past, and people can choose freely among many possibilities.

"The other fork leads to a much darker sort of world in which age groups become bureaucratically hardened and reinforced -- by the social-security system , by pension plans, by pressure groups, by social legislation designed to help older people but in fact drawing lines across the life cycle and making things happend automatically -- you get a free bus trip at a certain age. Part of that bleak world is for me also a return to, a reinforcement of generational tensions , as social security taxes rise.I think there is a real potential for trouble with older people having increasingly a sense of exploitation and depression.

"We've been through a world in the 17th and 18th centuries where younger people were quite exploited by the old.I think we went through another period where older people were victimized by a social system in which the young profited. I think now there is a possibility that if things could go right in that very hopeful way, they could also go wrong.

"I think this is really quite a critical moment -- a moment of some decades. A moment which becomes very important for us to approach and live through with a kind of broad perspective on the long history of these things.

"The problem with social security is part of a huge problem with our social-welfare system generally. Just as we're finding it increasingly difficult to afford social security, we're having the same problem with education, with health, with almost every kind of public service.

"Either we have to increase our spending in the public sector -- and it could be increased; we lag far behind many European nations in that respect -- or we could reduce the level of spending in these areas, or we could reduce the level of spending in these areas, or we could try to reform the system in some fundamental way. Those are the only three possibilities. We're now doing one and two. I think the nature of individual values in our society is such that No. 1 is not a political possibility in the future. The American voters will say, 'No more!' -- as in fact they are beginning to do. Nos. 1 and 2 are much less constructive solutions than 3.

"We're not getting much in the way of imaginative proposals of this sort, mostly because the scale of thinking in social science and public policy and politics is quite wrong -- we normally don't deal with these problems until they become a crisis. We deal with them on a kind of interval scale which really doesn't allow us a depth of insight or a breadth of reforming. That's something new in America. The leaders of this society in the early republic, and even through the New Deal, were thinking about public problems not merely for the moment -- whatever the merits of their ideas.

"John Adams was thinking on a scale of centuries. Franklin Roosevelt had a very spacious sense of time. But liberals, conservatives, businessmen, politicians, social scientists today -- everyone is working with blinders on. That's what's fatal to fundamental reform in this society."

In addition to these two scenarios, any projected view of tomorrow would have to reserve a third space for what is already happening today:

* Polaroid Corporation has initiated a sort of trial-retirement policy. Employees are offered a three-month leave of absence to "test the waters of retirement," in the words of Joseph Perkins, Polaroid's corporate retirement administrator. So far, about half retire and half return.

"For some, it lets them know they can handle retirement," Mr. Perkins says. "Others who couldn't handle it and came back -- the unretirables -- didn't lament that. It charges their batteries, and their spirits are high. They return with a new resolve."

* Harvard University now permits employees approaching retirement to spend three hours of work time a week developing postretirement careers or hobbies. The program allows for participation in volunteer activities, avocational development, or second-skills programs. Employees must be 60 and over, with 10 years of employment at the university.

* Travelers Insurance uses retired employees to help fill the 60-odd positions vacant each day because of vacations or illness. The company is also expanding its Older Americans Program to provide opportunities for those who want permanent part-time jobs.

* Continental Illinois Bank hires retirees to work in its check-processing operation, processing the heavy load of checks that come in during the first part of the month. The company also brings in retirees, not necessarily former Continental employees, as consultants and as part-time workers.

In the future it may be both easier to work and easier to retire as the numbers of those over 65 grow larger while the numbers of the young entering the job market grow smaller.

Beyond the future of retirement as a social and economic institution there is the future of retirement as an individual venture, and adventure. "I dare more as I grow older," Montaigne wrote in one of his essays. T. S. Eliot wrote, "Old men ought to be explorers." The model of Ulysses has been adopted as an example of a mature frontiersman, by Tennyson among others: "'Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows. . ."

The world adopted Sir Francis Chichester when, at 70, he did just that, sailing around the world alone.

The creativity of older individuals has been acknowledged. Writing of Samuel Johnson, Robert Louis Stevenson marveled: "Think of that superb indifference to mortal limitation that set him upon his dictionary and carried him through triumphantly until the end."

Cervantes was well past the age of retirement by the time he finished "Don Quixote."

Hayden wrote his oratorio "The Creation" in his mid-60s.

Michelangelo's "Last Judgement" would not be complete if he had quit at the arbitrary age of retirement.

From Plato -- who may have been in his 70s when he composed "The Laws" -- to Lewis Mumford, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Buckminster Fuller in our century, the thinkers with the most advanced visions of the future have often been young oldsters.

And what price would the 20th century have paid if Winston Churchill had been subject to mandatory retirement in 1939, the year World War II began?

The elder stateswoman, for the moment, is not visible because too few younger stateswomen are visible. Meanwhile, there are the older artists of the present -- the nonagenarian painter Georgia O'Keeffe, the nonagenarian novelist-journalist Rebecca West -- and other names of the recent past: the poet Marianne Moore, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska.

We are used to the exceptional achievements of exceptional men and women at what we take to be exceptional ages. But we have not yet generally accepted the same possibilities on their own scale for ordinary people.

We lack the models -- the everyday heroes and heroines -- of retirement.

We do not seem to hold the concept in our imagination as a normal, natural occurrence -- this perpetual possibility of birth and rebirth.

The phrase of the British gerontologist Alex Comfort -- "second trajectory" -- describes an ideal of retirement. the second trajectory would not be as hot, as fierce, as streaking a trajectory as the first. It would depend more on preference than necessity. It would be designed to satisfy oneself rather than others. Any competition would be directed against one's own previous standards of achievement.

One would not have to work if one did not want to work.

One would not have to play if one did not want to play.

After a lifetime as a professional, one would become an amateur in the literal sense of the word: One would do what one loved -- and perhaps for the first time, discover what that was.

The second trajectory would involve, in addition to an active self, a meditative self who would observe the process as it was going on, and consider any loss of efficiency as nothing.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed at a White House Conference on Aging: Retirement years should be "formative years, rich in possibilities to unlearn the follies of a lifetime, to see through inbred self-deceptions, to deepen understanding, and compassion."

At that point, the word "retirement," as it is now used, might be retireD.

In 1981 this Utopia of Maggie Kuhn -- and many others -- seems a long way off. But the perennial hope of a fruitful and serene retirement can be counted on to become stonger, if anything, as time goes by. In simplest terms, it is the prayer that W. H. Auden wrote for a friend about to retire: May sunbeams, falling across your breakfast table forecast new agreeable hours to paint in, rethumb a pet author, night by night through your dreams the sound of lapsing brooks assure you that you pass muster.m

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