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A letter from an alum about the age of retirement

March 4, 2004

Princeton is known for its grand traditions, some originating in the mists of time, even harkening to pre-Revolutionary America. Two of its grand(est) traditions are the P-rade at reunions and the publication Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Both call attention to the slow, even elegant process of the graduates through time, from those glorious days when the class is well represented with young faces, and we watch the Old Guard laboriously pass by in early P-rades, to later years when our classes move slowly to finally lead the P-rade as our survivors age. In PAW we watch our class notes move steadily backward from the back pages to middle pages, nearing the front, as new classes graduate and move into the active, newsmaking world.

To me, as a graduated paleontologist (geology ’61), the changing face of Princeton over the past 44 years is totally mesmerizing, and it is most apparent when I join my matriculating Class of 1960 and proceed through the sea of younger faces…and “my Lord, women!” as we pass the Class of 1969…until the P-rade ends somewhere below Dillon Gym. My Class of 1960 seems almost cloned from the same egg. Not so the newer classes in terms of ethnicity, sex, and all the marvelous diversity of the University of today!

Now I notice, with my 45th reunion on the horizon, that retirement has become a consuming issue of my, and nearby, class(es). Always interested in the news as reported by the PAW, I counted the word “retirement” 18 times in the class notes between my brother’s class of 1957 and mine of 1960. It is “the best time of my life," “the greatest luxury of the world,” “not working is fun,” and one graduate even has “nightmares of returning to work!” Perhaps I am, at age 65, overly blessed with interesting, economic activities which many call “work,” but I would like to suggest an alternative to the retirement concept as presently experienced by many in our class and age level in society as a whole.

I am not a social historian, but I believe the concept of retirement at 65 is a Depression-based concept that FDR came up with when faced with a large group of unemployed rail workers who were about to flood the already depressed national economy with more aging mouths to feed. “Retirement at 65” became a convenient way to move aging (and tired!) workers along into the new government program of social security, which didn’t exist as an alternative prior to FDR.

Now, with nearly criminal annual Federal deficits of $500 billion yawning into the future, there is a move afoot to raise the retirement age to 70 as a way to lower future Federal obligations to WWII baby boomers hastening their way to the shrinking government trough. Of course, our classes of 1955-65 will have taken the gold ring when it passed by, and are at or near retirement age, with many gleefully perfecting their golf and bridge games.

I would ask each PAW reader in the age frame of say 55-65 and older to think of the paradigm of two retired US Presidents: Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Historians may debate the relative merits of their respective presidencies, but their retirements are stark: Gerry Ford has spent most of his years perfecting an already mediocre golf handicap. Jimmy Carter has acted as a global model to show how one person can make a difference.

I am blessed with teenage children. They ask why I so love to go to work every Monday morning. I reply “I serve my clients, doing stuff I love, and they even pay me for it (that is hardly the definition of ‘work’)…”

Deepak Chopra, a most talented Indian spiritualist, often says the most rewarding lives are spent “doing what you love, listening to your inner music, and doing that to serve your fellow man and woman.” I am fortunate enough to be able to do that, no small thanks to Princeton, and I hope to pass away at my desk, whether at 65 or 95, doing what I do in the service of those that value my small abilities. “Retirement” is presently not an option. Yes, I am greatly blessed.

But I think that many readers of the PAW are similarly blessed. Sixty-five, after all, was a retirement age derived for industrial workers in the harsh years of a great national depression. Most today, especially Princeton graduates who have benefited from education, money and the ability to often choose among rewarding lifestyles and careers, have lived less harsh lives and may expect to live years, even decades, beyond the “retirement ages” of their parents and grandparents. In our lifetimes, people our age, often with many fewer blessings, have increased longevities of more than 5-8 years!

So, what are we PAW readers going to do with the next 10, 20, 30 years of “retirement”? Are we really going to be such fabulous golfers and bridge players that the world will notice, care, and maybe benefit? Are we too worn out to care? Is that the legacy we wish to leave for the children and grandchildren of this crowded planet? Are these really the best (and most fun!) uses of our developed minds, our career honed skills, our still strong and resilient bodies?

We have seen the “Power of One,” in the gifts that Jimmy Carter has brought after “retirement” from our nation’s highest office. Are we that much less capable of making a difference to those needy ones around us, whether in our town, state, nation, or world? Now that we really know ourselves, and can often see, here and there around us, what we really can do to change the world for the better.

Nicholas Davis ’60
Bozeman, Mont.


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