In the Times, Janice Turner cites Freud’s saying – that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness” – as a reason for people to continue to work into old age to avoid the “void” of retirement. This is both naïve and depressing.
It’s naïve not just because it misses the possibility (which is slim in my view) that people won’t have this choice because their jobs will be taken by robots, but because it ignores the fact that work is alienating*. As Marx said:
The alienation of the worker means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.
This is still true today. Even where jobs aren’t downright degrading and humiliating, many are just futile. As David Graeber has said, one feature of our time is the rise of “bullshit jobs”. Ms Turner might be right to think that mixing paint in B&Q is useful, but cold-calling people to ask them to claim compensation for car crashes that didn’t happen is not. And even the lucky few in once-good jobs such as law, journalism academia or even finance face worsening working conditions: more stress and less professional autonomy.
Nor is it the case, as Janice claims, that work is necessarily a way of avoiding loneliness. You’re never more alone than in a crowd. Being surrounded by colleagues can simply remind you that you don’t fit in.
My job at the IC is as good as I could get, but I’m nevertheless looking forward to retiring. Doing so will give me more time to read: just as I became a better economist when I changed job description from economist to journalist, so I hope to become an even better one when I retire. And it’ll enable me to write when I have something to say rather than because I need to: one of the oddities of dead-tree journalism is that the amount that need saying always exactly fills the space between the adverts – isn’t that a remarkable coincidence?**
Retiring will also give me more time to keep fit (Radiohead’s lyric about “a job that slowly kills you” is literally true); learn the lap steel and Appalachian dulcimer; play guitar; bake; read; and garden. I might even find voluntary work.
Which brings me to the massive and horrible error in pieces like Ms Turner’s. It's true that many of us need to work both as a way of self-development and of feeling useful. But it is a horrible non sequitur to infer from this that capitalist labour is necessary to achieve these aims. Quite the opposite: even the better types of such labour can thwart them. People need capitalist jobs for the money - and very often not for any other reason. The beauty of retirement is that it offers an escape from this baleful aspect of capitalism.
And this is what I find depressing about pieces like Ms Turner’s. In failing to see even the possibility that work can be fulfilling outside the capitalist sphere, they assume that capitalist labour is inevitable, unavoidable and unreformable. But it ain’t necessarily so.
* Here’s a description of alienation narrated by Gillian Anderson, which I offer as refutation of the theory that nobody’s perfect.
** Everything you need to know about finance can fit onto a single sheet of A4, and most of that is footnotes to “split your money between cash and trackers and forget it.”