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Retirement no longer makes sense

Adapted from an address at the Harvard Medical School bicentennial celebration in Minneapolis by the director of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.m

As I approach my nonretirement age (I will be 65 in January) it occurs to me to ponder why I wouldn't have been ready to retire even if the courts and Congress and the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota hadn't recently lengthened the work-expectancy of professors. The truth is that for most people, retirement just doesn't make sense any more.

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What if we didn't throw people on the ashheap on a certain date, and organized the work to be done in such a way as to enable them to be ''workers'' - functional, relevant, engaged, complaining the way real workers do so that they never seem to have time to improve that golf score?

Most elderly are not visiting clinics or being comforted by their churches or being cared for (and occasionally kicked around) in nursing homes. They are active, they are more or less well, they are at home, and they are available.

The idea used to be that the purpose of making a living was to stop working when you had it made. According to this philosophy, you would retire as early as possible, pull up stakes and head south to spend the golden years fishing in the sun, snoozing in a hammock, watching the surfers, playing cards in glorious idleness, and happily awaiting the Grim Reaper in bovine indifference to the world about you.

But once a whole population decides to be prosperous, the traditional forms of leisure are somehow not so attractive any more. The lakes and coastlines are crowded, the country lanes become clogged highways, the fishing streams get polluted. The need for TV talent runs hopelessly ahead of the talent supply. The theaters and courts and courses and pools and beaches and restaurants are congested with people who have just as much right to be there as you do.

Because playtime is available to all, it comes back into perspective. As a byproduct of a busy, productive, relevant life, leisure is a boon and a balm. As the purpose of life, it is a bust.

In postindustrial society there should be much more room for workaday adventure. As new machines, new kinds of energy, and fast computers take over the drudgery that men and women - and children - used to endure, what is left for people to do is the creative, planning, imagining, figuring-out part of each task. Our more complex, agile, and intuitive human brains have to feed the fast but stupid computers, which after all can only count from zero to one and back again. And the handling of relations among people has to be a rapidly growing industry when nearly everyone becomes, through education, a sovereign thinker and communicator - and communications technology makes remoteness and isolation a matter of choice and not of geography or fate.

Now, who is likely to be best qualified for the kind of work that is heavy with personal relations, reflective thinking, and integrative action? Who are the most natural members of the ''get-it-all-together profession''? Who are the people among us with the most experience in dealing with other people . . . the people most likely to have seen more of the world, mastered or at least dabbled in more specialties, learned to distinguish the candor from the cant in public affairs . . . the people with the most time for reflection and the most to reflect about? The answer leaps to the eye: they are, on the average, those who have lived the longest.

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Our increasingly desperate need for people who can ''get it all together,'' for integrators and generalists, happens to coincide with technological changes which enable people to work without ''going to work.'' The home computer will put ''work,'' including part-time work, within the reach of anyone willing to retrain his and her brain, and then use his and her imagination.

For those of us in the 60s and beyond, therefore, there will be less and less excuse for advocating a short day in a short week in a short year - and no excuse, short of serious illness or death, for ''retirement.'' The tasks that machines make possible but cannot do themselves should be creative enough to lure the elderly into work schedules that are lengthened by the sheer excitement of what needs to be done.

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