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Retirement or Transition? – By Pauline Garvey

Shireen Walton3 January 2018

The Third Act Conference, Nov 9th 2017

The Marker Hotel, Grand Canal Square, Dublin 2.

Recently an article ran in The Irish Times stating that most children born today will live to see their 100th birthday. To consider the implications of this, a conference called the Third Act was held in Dublin earlier this month that was dedicated to changing ideas of middle age. Taking the metaphor of a play, the conference speakers suggested that a person’s first act is about dependency on family members. The second act is about leaving home and leading an independent life, while the third act is about transitioning to a more fulfilling life. Conference organiser Dr Edward Kelly described this greater longevity as an exciting opportunity but also warned that “Irish society had been slow to adapt to the increased life expectancy and an ageing population” (D’arcy 09/11/17). For the first time in history, reaching the age of 50 marks the midpoint of our lives, and instead of a steady decline people can view this time as holding unique and exciting possibilities. Replacing retirement and ‘checking out’, people are now moving on to a new level, Kelly insisted. This is not the first conference dedicated to this theme in Dublin, and previous events prompted media reports focusing on pension provision or the ‘pensions time bomb’ in Ireland, the role of financial resources in making the most out of retirement, and more pessimistically the headline quote by popular broadcaster Gay Byrne that ‘when you’re old, your old’ (Holmquist 25/04/15).

The third act corresponds to Daniel Miller’s ‘second life’ in this blog. Whichever term you use, both reflect a realisation that middle age holds potential for a new vision of later life. Kelly goes so far as to question if the term ‘retirement’ should be replaced with ‘transition’, whereby people try new things, take up new professions or fulfil long-held wishes. And although the examples reported in the conference tended to focus on high-flyers, they don’t need to be grandiose. What is clear is that the landscape of possibilities for a second life is still relatively uncharted. Is the idea of a second life common to people approaching retirement? And how does technology impact or assist in these initiatives? These questions lie at the core of my research, but instead of relying on keynote speakers or ‘influencers’ who were recruited to speak at the conference, I am interested in the opinions of ordinary individuals who fit this age profile, and who may have their own ideas about how to spend their coming decades. From February 2018, I will be exploring these questions in depth.

– Pauline Garvey

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D’arcy, Ciarán, ‘Most children will live to 100, conference hears’, The Irish Times 09/11/17, available online: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/most-children-born-now-will-live-to-100-forum-told-1.3286066

Holmquist, Kate  ’Gay Byrne: ‘When you’re old, you’re old’: A recent conference in Dublin explored the ‘end of retirement’ – but is the ‘third act’ a concept only for the wealthy?’ The Irish Times 25/04/15, available online: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/gay-byrne-when-you-re-old-you-re-old-1.2188114

 

Second Life

Daniel Miller11 July 2017

We had intended to only start blogging in October when our project actually starts. But the inclusion of a special section in this week’s The Economist (8/7/2017) on the `young old’ is too great a temptation to resist. There are three main components to our forthcoming project. The ethnography of the smartphone and the development of mHealth are two foci. But our foundation is in re-thinking the experience of age for those who can no longer be designated at either young or elderly, i.e. those between the ages of 45 and 70. For me, an interest in how older populations appropriate technology had grown partly from previous projects. When Facebook started to become ubiquitous I was arguing that in the long-term I could see this as more of an older person’s than a younger person’s innovation. My logic was that this was in essence a platform for social communication, and in most societies studied by anthropologists the traditional ‘burden’ of active social communication had been that of older women rather than younger men, especially when it came to keeping up with what is happening in families. Our Why We Post project has shown how in many regions of the world, this kind of intra-family communication is the core to Facebook usage. When I first suggested this alignment, people thought I was insane since Facebook was assumed to exist only for teenagers. But in The Economist the same point is now being taken seriously.

The Economist is mainly concerned with the economic implications of longevity, but for our project there is a real intellectual challenge in researching how living longer than previous generations changes peoples’ understanding of themselves, but also ultimately of the meaning and purpose of their lives. We want to get involved in the practical implications, as in the rise of mHealth, but first we want to compare the experience and meaning of ageing for this demographic across our 12 fieldsites.

The Economist also has a leader asking for a new category or label for this age group. Their own proposal of ‘pre-tired’ is fun, but is probably not intended to ‘stick,’ to the degree that a category such as ‘teenagers’ has. In a preliminary discussion with the team I had proposed the term ‘Second Life’. I know this was the name of a popular computer game but that seems to have faded somewhat and I think it is possible to re-use the term. The reason for this choice is that it seems clear that many people in their fifties and sixties actually want to stay in work, but not necessarily in the work they have done so far. Many would like to return to education, but to study something different. Those who were working when they were parents and were therefore unable to spend as much time with their children as they had wanted to are more likely to want to be active grandparents. Whereas perhaps those who were full-time parents are less likely to be as involved in grand-parenting. In other words, people realise in their fifties that they may have done thirty years of work, but then may have another thirty active years to do something else. So the idea of Second Life, suggests that people now have the opportunity to, as it were, start again, based on the experience and the mistakes of life so far.