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Retirement should have a happier ending than Sunset Across the Bay

2010 July 2
by Paul Vallely

At the start of one of Alan Bennett’s most poignant television plays, Sunset across the Bay, an old man is retiring after a lifetime working for an engineering firm in Leeds. He clocks off for the last time and walks home through an urban landscape in devastated transformation. Under his arm he carries the modern new electric toaster with which the company have presented him to mark his transition to the final phase of his life.

Later he tidies his allotment, setting things there in final order, before he and his wife – they call each other only Dad and Mam – leave their old terraced house for the last time and set off for a new life in a first floor apartment in Morecambe, the scene of happy holiday memories.

The play must be 30 years old now. But it still embodies a concept of retirement which is for most people the dominant model. It is not just a moment of transition, it is a point of no return. On the Friday you are a respected and valued member of the workforce; on the Monday you are good for nothing much in the real world.

It explains why there were many who were outraged last week at the Government’s proposal to raise the retirement age from 65 to 66 and eventually to 70. People will have to “work until they drop” union leaders said.  But it is time we all began to revise our attitude to retirement, and to work.

We are all living longer, and are healthier in old age. In 1940, when the present retirement age was introduced, the average man lived seven years in retirement; today the average is more than 20 years. The value of annuities has fallen because insurance companies have to pay our pensions for longer, and because of the stock market catastrophes. The Government wants to cut the cost of state pensions, as it does everything else. We will all have to work for longer.

That will require big shifts in social attitudes. Working people may need to change the nature of their occupation as they grow older; a tree surgeon I know, no longer able to climb, switched to selling marble flooring. Employers will need to abandon ageist prejudices and look only at whether someone is capable of doing a job; places like B&Q have shown the way here, and to the benefit of customers who have experienced old folks to offer advice rather than callow youths.

Retirement must also cease to be a moment, as it is in Alan Bennett’s play, and become a process. Flexible working needs to extend beyond the 45 per cent of firms who have introduced it so far. New communication technologies should make this easier.

Transitions from full to part-time working need to become the norm, with pensions tapering in as individuals need them. The state might reward this by ensuring that the later its pension kicks in the more decent an amount it pays. Pension credits would need to be made more flexible to ensure that those in harder manual jobs, many of whom do not live so long after 65, are not disadvantaged. But change could then become an ally rather than an enemy.

In Sunset Across the Bay the rite of passage of the old model of retirement is symbolised by the move from the familiarity of Leeds to the strangeness of Morecambe, where you can’t buy the right newspaper and the water is funny so you can’t make a proper cup of tea. The new life doesn’t just fail to live up to their memories of happy holidays it also sours their dreams of the retirement idyll.

At the end of the Bennett masterpiece Dad has a stroke and dies alone in a Gents toilet on the promenade. Mam, unable to move back and uncertain of what lies ahead, is left alone gazing out across the vast empty sands, with the tide out.

There should be a happier ending for us all than that.

from The Church Times

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