Reading about the history of retirement as a life-stage in the industrialized world, I realized that the expectations held by most of us, born after the Second World War, were “givens” or “truths” that were incredibly new as social phenomena. In fact, funded retirement from work-life only emerged in the mid 19th century, modeled on the British civil service. Before that, one had soldiered on into aging: if wealthy, then comfortably; and if not, then in economic struggle.
In the wake of the world financial crisis, both unemployment and the wiping out of pension funds returns most of us to the existential conditions of late middle age before the expectation of retirement: those who “have” will continue in a combination of work and leisure, and those who do not will struggle to make ends meet as each copes with aging and its diminution of physical capabilities.
Three discernable cohorts emerge. The first, like Tolstoy’s happy families, will be fine. The others face a choice of diminished and disappointed expectation against the hard work and imperative of creative adaptation. To date, my experiences in New York and Dublin suggest that success will depend on the martialing of personal resources and grit. Expectations of societal beneficence will be disappointing.
For five years, I have worked both with individuals and with groups in the development of new opportunities at mid-life for reluctant entrepreneurs to develop productive income streams through the leveraging of their implicit, professional procedural knowledge. I have discovered that neither government nor educational organizations are interested in the development of programs oriented to this “old wine in new bottles” approach. Why bother with older learners when it is easier to catch the attention of those younger and less, well, battle-hardened?
Similarly, community recruitment for groups aimed at developing new entrepreneurial business has been good when the services have been without charge. Once a fee is attached, as it is in executive coaching or in psychotherapy, participant interest diminishes.
The central question, both in the government and university sphere and in the fee-paying groups, has been: is there a guarantee? Unfortunately, it is exactly because there are no guarantees any longer, no expectations of dependency upon societal or corporate benevolence, that such open-ended collaborative self-help efforts are offered.
The expectation of guarantee, of course, is the extension of an earlier expectation, that of a funded retirement, itself. What appears to be a cautious consideration of monetary allocation or funding against the probability of an impoverished future is also a strident demand for a new, different form of social dependency.
I believe that this displacement of retirement expectation for funding expectation, heightened by a growing fear that “I cannot” and “I have not” is a critical crossroad for those who at midlife weather this unanticipated catastrophe and move forward to thrive.
Perhaps not so oddly, individuals willing to take a risk in collaborative work with others, are the same individuals willing to risk exploration of their psychological concerns in psychotherapy. Though too, like all of us, they wish guarantees, they recognize that only through their own efforts and resources, will new patterns of adaptive behavior emerge.
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