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When I grow up, I want to be a visionary

May 24, 2016

William Blake, Angel of the Revelation

When I no longer do stuff for money, I will try to do stuff for no money. Which is another way of saying that when I retire, I will continue to live. Hopefully.

Perhaps I will become a visionary, like the former owner of a business I once worked for, who describes himself thus in LinkedIn. Unfortunately for the rest of us, he doesn’t appear to share his visions widely. Knowing him as I once did, I suspect that he sees them through a wine glass, darkly.

It would be nice to join the pantheon of visionaries. I imagine myself being dragged out of my last workplace, muttering “I think I’m becoming a visionary” in the manner of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, whose last words were reported to be “I think I’m becoming a god”. Then, from my lofty perch of sagacious retirement, I could prognosticate, cogitate, regurgitate, curse the European Union and issue philosophical fatwas.

And most likely, nobody would be any more likely to listen than they do now.

If I’m not too busy doing stuff, I would also like to be a thought leader. That would be nice. Spending all day thinking without being distracted by worldly concerns. Leading whom, thinking about what, it matters not. Tending to my gigantic ego, convincing myself that I’m not just another clapped-out guy in a culture that doesn’t respect the elderly for whatever wisdom a lifetime of labour bequeaths them.

Blogging perhaps, on matters about which I know little. After all, ignorance is no reason to be opinion-free, right? Ask all the old buffers who are rattling on about how wonderful Britain would be outside the EU, for example. As if they have more of a clue than anyone else about how things might turn out.

I actually think that between the ages of sixty and eighty-five there’s a golden opportunity. You’ve come to the end of your prime working life. Even if you’re still working, your earning power is declining in direct proportion to your advancing years. But it doesn’t matter so long as you’ve made enough to meet your foreseeable needs. And if you’ve stopped “working” (a concept as ludicrous as “retirement”), the chances are that you still retain a degree of mental vigour, if not rigour. Best of all, thanks to the social media – and once upon a time I never thought I would say this – you still have a voice.

Provided your health is OK, you still have a brain that works reasonably well, so why not use it? I use eighty-five as an arbitrary line, after which you slowly descend down the slippery slope of Maslow’s Pyramid to the point where nothing is more important than to be physically comfortable, safe and well fed. To be loved and cared for is something of a bonus.

True, there are exceptions. You could still be watching bonobos at ninety, like David Attenborough, writing at ninety-seven, like Diana Athill, or, like Henry Kissinger, conferring wisdom at ninety-three upon neo-fascist presidential candidates. But most of us, I suspect, once we get close to life’s finishing tape, don’t give a damn any more. We just want a quiet life, unblighted by Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and wheelchairs. We don’t expect to be listened to, or our opinions to be respected. At eighty-five, we’re not about to arrive at a Theory of Everything or compose a Tenth Symphony.

But provided we don’t fall over in the deadly seventh decade, like David Bowie and so many others whom we would like to have lived a little longer, once we hit sixty we can still look forward to a golden quarter-century in which to make our mark.

I have a friend who in his twenties wanted to be a successful rock musician. He never achieved that by conventional benchmarks, but probably influenced more lives as a teacher over the subsequent four decades than he ever would have done rubbing shoulders with Marc Bolan and Robert Plant. Now that he no longer “works”, he puts his heart and soul into his music. He’s all over the social media with posts about his latest stuff. He’s had voice coaching, and the jazz influence that was always there has come to the fore. He does regular open mic sessions. Even though he’s the same grumpy old git as he was in his youth, when I last saw him I got the sense that he’s more fulfilled now than ever before.

Then there’s another guy whom I haven’t met since we were in our twenties, though we’re linked on Facebook. He’s a professional cartoonist. He’s still producing superb work with the same wit and invention that he showed when I commissioned stuff from him all those years ago.

Other people I knew in my twenties are still acting, writing, gigging, doing stuff, going places.

Best of all, for me anyway, my business partner in the US is still running our business despite being well beyond the traditional retirement age. He’s as fit as someone half his age, which is possibly down to the fact that he goes to the gym every day, eats well and, alone of his colleagues, works standing up. An example that some of our more corpulent brethren (myself included) could do with emulating.

That’s not to say that, as the lifestyle columns in the print media would have it, sixty is the new forty. Utter nonsense. At forty, unless you happen to be a retired hedge fund manager, you may be at the zenith of your career, but typically you might also be fraught with worries. Maybe about your kids, the state of your marriage, about the next step in your career, about the looming realisation that your maximum earning years may soon be coming to an end. The future is no longer bursting with unlimited opportunity. It’s also full of demons and monsters.

And for some people, the years from sixty onwards are also times of anxiety and decline. Perhaps their pensions haven’t worked out as they hoped. Or maybe they’re suffering the consequences of questionable decisions, like a guy I know who chose to stay in a foreign country in order to pursue an employer against whom he won a judgement for unpaid wages fourteen years ago. He’s now living in penury, because he can’t get the court to force the employer to pay up. I can’t help thinking that if he’d quit the country and started again somewhere else, he would have more than made up the sum he lost in the intervening years.

But for those of us who have survived relatively unscathed, there really can be plenty to look forward to. A Mormon couple I met the other day are planning to spend a couple of years teaching in the Brazilian outback. Not out of religious obligation, they say, but because there’s a shortage of teachers.

As for me, I’ll keep working for money as long as there are people who want me to do so, provided I like the work and I like the people I’m working with. And if the time comes when nobody wants a visionary thought leader in their midst, I shall concentrate on extending my career as an embarrassing old fart and keep doing stuff for nothing. After all, it’s no bad thing being able to walk away with no financial consequences.

Far from believing that rot about sixty being the new forty, I have another theory. It’s that for many people, adolescence ends at fifty-nine years and eleven months. Or, to put it another way, we only truly grow up when we hit sixty. Until then, our emotional intelligence is only as good as the next crisis. We’re driven by desire and fear. We don’t feel in control of our lives, and the spoilt child is never far from the surface. Once we sense that what we see as the major life opportunities are past us – we’ve either grabbed them or walked away – the real opportunities present themselves. Opportunities to reflect, to correct mistakes that can be corrected, to look at the world without our perception being coloured by worrying about the next dollar or the next career move.

Equally importantly, we have the chance to shrink the ego to manageable proportions. Not everybody can do that. In my perception, this is the reason why some old people remain adolescent to their dying day. I might joke about having a gigantic ego. Actually mine, as all my friends know, is as small as a walnut. I might think that, by the way – you couldn’t possibly comment. For those with seriously big egos, life beyond sixty can be a real challenge.

Fortunately for the rest of us, few people at that age embark on a vanity project as colossal as Donald Trump’s. It must be tough for people who think a lot of themselves suddenly to find that theirs is a minority view. But I suspect that if he fails in November, he’ll just carry on with his business and keep blathering on about his personal greatness until there isn’t a breath left in him.

Not so easy for Louis van Gaal, who’s just been sacked by Manchester United. Though he’s been quoted as saying that this is his last job in football, it’s hard to imagine him being content with gardening and the occasional evening at the bowling alley with his mates. If he doesn’t take another job, expect that favourite last resort of high achievers, the ghosted autobiography. At least that would get him out on the road for a few book signings. And given that he’s just pocketed £4.5 million in compensation for early dismissal, he could easily resort to that other device beloved of big egos, and set up a charitable foundation under his name.

Most of us, though, have less lofty ambitions. We would just like to continue to mean something once our time as cash dispensers is over. To make a difference to our families, friends and local communities, perhaps. Or, like my new Mormon friends, to make a difference further afield.

The key word, it seems to me, is purpose. Lose your sense of purpose, and you’ve lost virtually everything. And if you’re lucky enough not to have to till the soil until you drop dead, there has never been a better time to extend your usefulness beyond your occupational sell-by date.

After all, what do you want people to see on your gravestone? “He cruised, then he cruised”?

Think about that, boys and girls of any age. Barring misfortune, it’ll be your turn someday.

From → Business, Social, UK

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