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A Feeling for What Comes Next

The Literature of Retirement

Book covers for Watkins's Retirement course

When you’re young and scrambling to find a job, any job to get by, the concept of retirement is abstract and irrelevant. And when you’re in the middle of your career, synched to the ebb and flow of busy days and holidays, retiring may seem like a distant dream, nothing you have to consider for decades. Yet this time of upheaval and profound lifestyle changes is coming at you, closer every day. 
When LearningLife instructor Dr. John Watkins spoke with his friends and coworkers about their plans for this transition, nearly all of the conversations “centered on geography and finance,” he notes. “Almost nobody talked about the psychological or emotional side of retirement. What does it feel like to give up a career you have loved for decades? What does it feel like to start a new life, in a new place, at age 65?”
So, where do you go to begin to explore these ideas? Watkins, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota, said he turned to literature. The creative work of those great authors past and present who have been through and explored this life change, appeared to him as a rich reserve of ideas that was built to connect with an audience.
The concept of retirement, however, is relatively new in the course of human history. Says Watkins, “In prior centuries, there were no pension plans, 401(k)s, or social security funds. You worked until you dropped, and then your family took care of you until you died, if you were lucky.” Because of this, searching for inspirational literature on retirement required some creativity and perhaps some generous interpretation of the concept.
In his forthcoming course, The Literature of Retirement (begins February 8), Watkins will first examine Shakespeare’s King Lear. This story of a king stepping down from his throne is colored by the social mores of the time: “The whole point of the play, of course, is that Lear's decision to abdicate is anomalous and foolhardy. Dante placed Pope Celestine, who retired because he found the job so miserable, just inside the gate of Hell.”

“Barbara Pym is a masterful storyteller who stopped writing for many years and then resurfaced toward the end of her life with this marvelous novel (Quartet in Autumn) about four office workers planning and beginning their retirements. Pym probes that sense of emptiness so many people feel when they say goodbye to their colleagues and a familiar routine.

The Sea, the Sea may be [Iris Murdoch’s] greatest work. Focused on a Shakespearean director who retires to the seaside, it confronts dangers inherent in that common fantasy of reliving what you might well misremember as the best years of your life.”

Published January 13, 2020