By age 50 you are a survivor. By age 60 you begin to contemplate the end of institutional life. By retirement you are done with the university with all its blandishments, banes, and blessings. Your academic career has reached its limits and borne its fruits; it’s history, and so are you. The question is, what now?
In late career we still experience the perennial, existential anxiety of living in a world of impermanence, flux, and mutability. But to this we now feel a new kind of anxiety: identity loss combined with incipient mortality. Earlier, ambition, achievements, and honors motivated and sustained us. We built programs, developed ideas, published our research, gathered disciples, made enemies, and garnered awards, all with varying degrees of satisfaction. We were supported by an institutional and professional identity. For better or worse, we had both a position and a reputation. But now, we are on our own, with a surfeit of both freedom and time.
William Maxwell, who wrote and edited fiction for the New Yorker, once remarked, “The view after seventy is breathtaking.” On a clear day that may be true. But consider a grad school acquaintance who recently confessed, “If I am no longer a professor at Stanford, what am I?” Another, retired for half a decade, explained that he had begun selling his books. Several of his colleagues were pushing eighty yet still teaching. It was important, he felt, not only to make room for younger scholars, but also to embrace the challenges and opportunities of a new phase of life. To stay alive, he felt, it was necessary to learn how to be an elder, not only for the sake of the world, but for the sake of your soul. Otherwise you ran the risk of succumbing to bitterness and sterility.
So we arrive at elderhood in spite of ourselves, facing a breathtaking view yet curiously unsure what to do with it. Maxwell continues: “What is lacking is someone, anyone, of the older generation to whom you can turn when you want to satisfy your curiosity about some detail of the landscape of the past. There is no longer any older generation. You have become it, while your mind was mostly on other matters.”
Fortunately, there is scholarship and learning, which need not end when we exit the classroom. “Books are our grandparents,” says Gary Snyder. Maybe now we’ll learn to read them in a new way. And fortunately, we also have each other to serve as companions and guides. Maxwell’s breathtaking view goes in both directions.
So in the weeks ahead Staying Alive will be posting and inviting posts on elderhood and retirement. This is the last and least appreciated phase in the model of academic careers that we have been exploring. Institutions devote little imagination or resources to it, feeling that elders, being no longer “productive” or active in business as usual, are both obsolete and a burden. Elderhood is not something they want to pay for. The profession, likewise, may honor elders for past achievements but generally wants to hear more about the latest new theory or discovery. And for the person, elderhood feels especially complex, fraught, and ambiguous, attended with ambivalence and anxiety. And yet, if we can learn to see it more clearly, perhaps we’ll enjoy a kind of summit view. Stay tuned.