Retirement is an old fashioned word for an increasingly old fashioned idea. It evokes Victorian widows moving to the country or players who leave the field hurt. The expectation is that when you retire – or are retired – you are out of the game, finished, washed up or, as one person said to me this week, ‘on the scrapheap’. Nothing is expected of you any more, except, perhaps, to cheer the players from the touchline. And you should not expect anything either.
‘If somebody had said to me 20 years ago that I would have been in Spring Chickens, I wouldn’t have believed them.’
Nothing could be less like the lives of the retired people I’ve been meeting in recent weeks. Aged between their early 60s and late 80s, they’re social activists working in theatre, music, art and writing. Most have never been so busy, though they’ve worked so hard all their lives.
This generation had few choices when they were young. They left school at 14 or 15 and started work in a shop or a mill the following Monday. At the end of the week they handed over their pay packet and got a shilling or two for themselves: the rest helped keep the family afloat.
‘There was nothing I wanted more than to be an actress.’
Time and again, people spoke of youthful dreams sacrificed for the good of others. No point then in hoping to be a nurse or an actor: you just got on with it.
Now, though, things are different. There are chances as never before to leave the cheap seats and step on stage. Now, often for the first time, you can play the game. Community theatre companies like Big Telly in Northern Ireland, acta in Bristol and Re-Live in Cardiff offer training, ideas and resources. Most of all, they create platforms for older people’s work to be seen. And they’re getting standing ovations.
‘When I played the young girl, it showed the discrimination between the elders and the younger generation. It’s not right, because older people have got experience.’
They’ve a lot to say, too, about how things are, how they were and how they might be. They have acquired the means and chance to say it through community plays, exhibitions and publication. Most of all, they’ve gained the courage to say it.
‘You’re more comfortable in your own skin. Here’s me, like it or lump it.’
Whatever it is, this can’t be called retirement. People spoke of having the time of their lives. It’s time to think of a new word for the third age, when some people finally get the chance to fulfil their true potential.