This is the second of a trilogy of posts about my personal experience of mandatory retirement.
In my earlier post I mentioned that in Ireland Irish Labour T.D.(Member of Parliament) Anne Ferris, has tabled a Bill to abolish the mandatory retirement age. This Bill would prohibit employers imposing compulsory retirement ages on their employees. As a member of Age Action, I was asked to make a submission at the Public Hearings of the Committee stage of the Bill at Leinster House, the seat of our Parliament, the Oireachtas. This post can be seen here. Telling my story of compulsory retirement in Leinster House in November last, stirred painful memories of that difficult time, yet it was a bittersweet occasion. For the very first time, here I was, in a roomful of people who did not necessarily see retirement always as a happy huggy joyful state, but rather one that can create problems for many. It certainly was empowering to be there with people who shared my view or, at least wished to hear about the impact of compulsory retirement on someone forced to leave a job simply because of a birthday.
Almost all discourse around retirement is that it’s ‘A Wonderful Thing’, a much yearned-for blissful state, that fills dreams for years leading up to the happy day. A quick Google search yields happy, light-hearted images of the joys and preoccupations of retirement, as can be seen in these illustrations. It’s all about having fun and doing fabulous things,or perhaps doing nothing at all, if that is more meaningful!
Only a few months ago I met a former colleague on the street in Limerick. ‘Oh’, she gushed, ‘Are you loving being retired? Are you having a fabulous time? Oh, how lucky you are not to have to go in to ‘that place’ every day!’ She meant very well and was being kind, but was rather taken aback and puzzled at my response. I am tired of the pretence and ‘going along’ with the happy chirpy notion of retirement that is NOT my experience, I responded: ‘None of the above’. I loved working there, I miss my friends and I miss the money’. The poor woman did not know what to say – ‘Ah, you don’t mean that at all’, she said. But I did mean every word of it for that is the reality of MY retirement.
There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that many people, possibly the most, cannot wait for retirement. With children reared and gone and the mortgage paid off,the prospect of many years of hard work coming to an end is very appealing. This was and is particularly true in my workplace,where colleagues who had been in service for decades,often since leaving school or college,are eager for retirement after 40 years service,or very close to it. Dreams of travelling, doing voluntary work, spending more time with friends and family,long weeks soaking up summer sunshine, all on the list of new adventures just waiting to be enjoyed.
But not by all. In the early days of the then New Year of 2013, I had feelings of fear and dread that pervaded my every waking moment. The realization that my working life would grind to a halt in just three months filled me with panic. Anyone facing compulsory retirement and who lacks the means to continue in a comfortable lifestyle will await the dreaded date and the official dismissal letter with a heavy heart. Rather than being an occasion for celebration, it is in reality a very dark time. How would I pay the mortgage and Health Insurance? How could I manage Doctors bills and carry out repairs to the house? How would I keep warm all day-long at home when I was used to being in a comfortable centrally heated office? How would I meet other financial commitments? Would I have enough money for food, and the right type of food, to keep me well? Could I afford to run a car? All these things milled about in my head for weeks and months, gnawing away at me, keeping me awake at night. The bank was unsympathetic about mortgage repayments, which would run for some years after my reduction in pay. They would, they said, deal with any arrears issues as they arose but sent me out a letter with heavy black print stating that I could lose my home if mortgage payments were not made as they fell due. Not only that, they also advised that I was already in arrears and every few weeks for a period of 15 months the threatening letters arrived, in spite of phone calls and hours of discussion. As it turned out they had made a mistake and there were no arrears, but that did not even warrant an apology.
But it was not only about loss of income.The loss of a way of life, the daily interaction with friends and colleagues was of equal importance to me. Living alone in a rural location I had all the peace and quiet I needed after work or at weekends. Working in an office with over 500 people was rather like living in a small village for part of my day and I enjoyed the camaraderie of it all. Not only that, I also enjoyed the daily drive of 45 minutes or so each way, to and from the office.
In March 2013, in the days following compulsory retirement from my job of almost 20 years, I wrote the post below. There are many aspects to forced retirement, similar I daresay to compulsory redundancy. The difference is that my job still existed, but I was no longer eligible to do what I had done well for a long number of years simply because it was my birthday. the prospects of finding work in Ireland once you have passed the age of 55 are practically non-existent. The terrible reality is that this ageist stance by employers is accepted as being ‘ok’. And the state is the worst offender. In 2008 Ireland’s most experienced detective, Assistant Commissioner Martin Donnellan mounted a High Court challenge to the law that made him retire at age 60. He lost.
The loss to me was at many levels, financial for sure, and at a social and personal level that bewildered me for a long time afterwards. These were my thoughts at that time. The original post can be seen here.
The rising sun was turning the sky the deepest reddish pink as it edged towards the horizon to the east. I watched it for almost the entire journey and wondered how long it might be before I travel this road again and witness the dawn.There was no other traffic at this early hour, so I was able to drive reasonably slowly to savour the journey in the quiet of this cold, clear spring morning.
Crossing the bridge on the River Maigue has been a highlight of my life on each morning that I have commuted across here for the past 20 years. Sometimes it is mysteriously misty, sometimes it is golden and lit by the rising sun, sometimes it is moonlit, most times it is just ordinarily beautiful.
River Maigue and Desmond Castle in August
I arrived very early to the office as there were things I needed to do before the buzz of new arrivals – drawers to be emptied, confidential papers to be shredded, files to be organized and a day’s work to be done. I (exceptionally!) walked up the 8 flights of stairs to take a look again at the streetscape below. I continued on to the top floor to get a cup of coffee and to look east wards again at the rose coloured sky forming a beautiful canvas for the tall spire of St John’s Cathedral and the tops of the city buildings.
The River Shannon on a beautiful misty morning
I have had an extraordinary bonus of enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery in Ireland every time I looked up from my desk to see the River Shannon coursing below.
The moody and ever-changing River Shannon flows by my office
I had developed a habit in recent times of taking photographs, as the River looks different almost every time you look at it.
The Shannon is a very fast flowing river. The Abbey River flows into it on the lower right.
Being tidal, the river is constantly changing, rising and falling some 18 feet twice a day. In winter when there is heavy rain we may not see the stony river bed for months on end.
Morning light on the Shannon
Colleagues arrived. There was debate about the news items of the day that impinge on everyone, including the new property tax – the pincers tightening yet again! Morale was not high on that particular day, but after some light-hearted banter we ‘got on with it’. I was surprisingly busy with phone calls to make, notes to write up.
View from my desk.
So this was it! One of my lunch group reminded me that it was time for lunch and I said that I had to pop out and that I might be a while. (I was doing some research on Antarctic Explorers then , and ‘borrowed’ the quote!).
At about 1.45 pm I logged out of my computer, gathered up my security passes, placed them in an envelope, put on my coat and walked away from my good friends, and hundreds of colleagues (most great, many very good and a small forgettable few). I was walking away from a job that I loved, with tons of mental stimulation, camaraderie and social interaction as well as wonderful scenery and the daily joyrides that were my commute to and from work. I had already hinted to close friends that they would not be given advance notice of my exact day of departure, and I was grateful that my managers respected my need for privacy. So I was able to ‘exit’ quietly.
Mandatory retirement is no longer allowed in many countries. Most people can now work for as long as they want, without fear of discrimination but here in Ireland it is ‘statutory’ for some employees who commenced employment prior to 2004 to retire at age 65. It seems extraordinary that a person can go to bed at age 64 as an asset to the workforce, doing a good job efficiently and well for many years, yet wake up on their 65th birthday as unemployable. This is of particular significance in a country that is in the throes of an economic depression with huge numbers of people seeking non-existent jobs. Of course my ‘mandatory’ departure date did not come as any surprise. Long term contingencies were very quickly rendered useless however by the rapidly changing social and economic conditions in Ireland in recent years – not least of which has been that my once geographically closest family members have relocated to a place 10,000 miles away.
Officially ‘on holiday’ for another week, I plan on spending that time lamenting the loss of the social interaction of a large office and delighting in the friendships I made there. It is too early to reinvent – time enough for that in the weeks and months ahead. For now, I will relish the light-hearted moments and laughter that were bound to come along every day, as well as the quippy and often black humour that abounded in the place.
I will recall the always cheerful early morning greeting of the delightful woman in the canteen, for whom nothing was too much trouble! I will delight in the memory of companionship at early coffee, when you would not know who might happen along on an early break, and I will still ‘hear’ the very familiar footsteps of a special friend coming along the corridor, always looking beautiful and armed with her designer shopping bag and with her lively daily greeting of ‘Bonj’ before she rushed away to her ‘career’.
At lunch, we had time to bond – shepherded along by our ever precise and delightful clock-watcher, always in good humour and who managed to organize us all in the most charming way. Bringing up the rear was our ‘Drama Queen’ who regaled us with stories ranging from her amateur drama society escapades to a too-close ‘encounter’ with shampoo on a shop floor, to the hazards of Roman toe ( or was it Greek?). These two, together with the above mentioned career girl and myself made up the hardcore lunch table. If we arrived slightly early we might join our ever thoughtful, ever smiling, quietly spoken elegant and wise friend, who always has time for whoever is in her presence. From time to time we would be joined by the ever-cheerful woman of the West with the hearty laugh and oodles of common sense, or the witty ‘cuttie’ (girl) from further north who always had a sideways but pleasant view on life to make us smile. Sometimes another quiet but stalwart friend might join us – IF she remembered it was lunchtime – but invariably 20 minutes late! There are several others who fall into the ‘very special’ category and whose company was always well worth seeking out and one or two ‘long distance’ colleagues who had left our particular place. These too are a huge loss to me, and I am forever grateful for all of them.
I will miss all of this. I will miss these very special friends who were part of my days, part of my weeks, part of my joys, part of my tribulations, part of my highs, part of my lows, part of my hoots of laughter! We have lived through births, marriages, deaths, personal trials and challenges both IN and BECAUSE of friendship. I will not ever be able to replace any of this. It is of its time and of its place. Now is a time to remember. Now is a time to be glad for all of it. Now is a time to shed a tear or two. Now is a time to smile at these memories. Now, and always, I will lament their passing.
The terrible reality is that this ageist stance by employers in Ireland is accepted as being ‘ok’ at a state level, at national level, as well as by ordinary people who seem to accept that to be a certain age is ‘too old’. Life and society have changed.People enjoy better health and longer lives; societal relationships break up and break down; people have children later in life. There are a myriad of reasons why people should not be compelled to retire at age 60 or 65 so long as they are fit to do the job.
Those of us who had to retire have had no choice but to get on with our lives as best we can. There is no doubt but that there is something to be said for having leisure time in abundance, but what we ask for is a choice, to stay part of the workforce for as long as we must, and for as long as we can do a good job and continue to contribute to society and avoid being a drain on it.