Academics have careers. A career is not simply a job. The raison d’être of a job is financial compensation, and it usually involves learning a skill or set of skills. Careers involve learning skills, but there is also an assumption that people in careers should continue to acquire new skills and new knowledge. A career follows, or is, one’s trajectory through life. There are resting points, but there is a sense of direction, of forward movement. Careers involve an idea of progress. One should continue improving and accomplishing, and receive recognition for this along the way.
Careers involve projects.* There is always something which hasn’t been done and should be done. The article not written, the prep for that new course, the old course that needs updating, the conference that needs attending, the book that should be read. Academics, like other careerists, work in the present, as we all must, but live toward the future, with their work in the present intimately connected to where they’re going.
Enter retirement. It doesn’t have to be one’s actual retirement. It can simply be the thought of retirement, which is endlessly discussed in our culture, often in terms of stern warnings: You may not have enough money to retire! (Buy this book, read this article, watch this video or you will be damned to living your golden years in the earthly equivalent of the Third Circle of Hell.) We can long for it or try to ignore it, but at some point, it will sneak up on us.
It has begun to sneak up on me. (I am not officially retired. This will happen after the academic year is over, but I am not teaching this spring, so for all intents and purposes, I am retired.) Too soon, you will say, to comment? I think not, because the problem of retirement has been with me for quite a while. It’s akin to worrying about death, when one’s career is certainly over. No more goals to be achieved down the road. No more projects. No more new anything. Needless to say, retirement is not as final as death. Let’s just say it shares a family resemblance, and leave it at that.
Of course, one can say, it ain’t so! One can retire from a full-time position and still have goals and projects, which extend one’s career. It certainly can and does happen. But what if the thought that our careers will continue, mutatis mutandis, is simply the way that many of us avoid facing retirement. “Oh, I am stepping down, but not really retiring. There is so much work left to do. The work never stops. I will be at this when I am 99.” In other words, retirement is just another stage in one’s career.**
What if, though, this is precisely the wrong way to think about retirement? What if this way of thinking about retirement is merely a continuation of the productivity obsession that most of us carry with us from our days as graduate students? What if—hold on a moment—we embraced the end of projects, that is, insofar as they are tied to a career? No more career driven projects. The career is over. Finis.
Think back to our days as undergraduates before we had careers, before we had projects that were involved with careers. Yes, we had papers due, etc., as undergrads, but they weren’t as yet part of our careers. They were at most preliminaries setting the stage for careers. There were projects, but they were compartmentalized, not yet self-consciously part of one central project, one’s career. Many of us had no idea of what our careers would be, or if we did, we may have changed our minds. As academics many of us share memories of a time when learning seemed as if it wasn’t connected to any career. Learning for learning’s sake.
I am not seeking to romanticize undergraduate years. Yet, they do seem to have been part of a different world. Graduate school was to a degree like this, in some ways even better for pure learning, but the further one moved along, the more the career aspect took center stage. It was exciting and terrifying. (Will I get a good position?) The future was open. The road was there to be travelled.
And now it’s not. What is to be done? A modest proposal. Think about retirement as a return to school, before school became wrapped up with a career and professional advancement. Of course, we may still have (academic) projects, but they will once again become more localized. So, taking time to read War and Peace, write a blog post, or volunteer doesn’t have to be viewed as taking time away from one’s work. One’s work is over. One’s career is over. Now it’s once again time to treat “work” as play.
And here’s the thing. Once you start thinking about retirement like this, there is a chance that you may reevaluate what it means to have a career, and your relationship to it. Maybe the whole career business is overrated. But that’s another story.
*The use of the term of “project” in this piece is indebted to Sartre’s existentialism.
**There are ethical issues regarding faculty who refuse to retire and what it means to younger generations, but this is a topic for another day.
Cartoon, “On Campus, Older Faculty Keep On Keepin’ On,” NPR, October, 2015