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Men after retirement

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 19 July 2007

“Work is the curse of the drinking classes”, Oscar Wilde said. Most of us grizzle about our work and long for the day when we do not have to get up and go to work. But what happens when that day arrives?

In exploring this idea I have tried to include many types of men and their families. But I cannot hope to talk meaningfully about the many ethnic differences across families. It will be hard enough to encompass the lives of men. I will leave it up to women to describe their own experiences.

To understand what retirement means to men, we will have to understand what it means to be a man. And men are not well understood today. Even the page on “Ageing” in the Sydney phone book makes little reference to men.


We must also look past the many books on families. Men are not well thought of by many sociologists, whose books on “families” too often have dwelt on women, feminism, mothers, violence and other issues beloved by the academic establishment. Fathers and men are added almost as a problem or an afterthought. Still worse are the booksellers and libraries. A Sydney bookseller said “Men? Ha! You’d better look under mental illness or self-help”. And at the Australian National University the last catalogue I looked at said “For men, see sex”.

What does retirement mean?

The day comes when you don’t have to go to work, and you can stay at home. Already this may impinge on other people (partners, children?) who are used to packing the man off to work and having the house free to themselves.

In my book Fathers, Sons and Lovers, I found that once we would have called this man a breadwinner, while his wife was a housewife. He went out to work, while she stayed at home to mind the children. These are terms rarely heard today. They even sound antiquated. That’s part of the way in which feminism has redefined both men and women. The changes make the discussion of retirement more complex than it was, as we shall see.

I have heard of men who retire at 50 or even 40, perhaps because they had an inheritance or were very successful at something. I retired at 62. I went on a long-awaited trip. I planned it, I contacted friends, I read brochures. Then I did The Big Trip to USA, Germany and Europe. It was very exciting and fun to do the trip I had planned for so long. But after I came back, what next? I threw out old clothes, cleaned the house, became bored.

What is a man without work?

Work gives men identity, status, income and a host of other things. It connects us to people. These days many work from home, and are connected through phones, the Internet and other gadgets. When we lose work, we lose much of our meaning and identity.

As Professor Sol Encel of the University of New South Wales points out, work is an ambiguous concept. It involves a complex of ideas including payment, time spent on a job, identity, connection to people.


But many of us do volunteer work. Many devote hours to hobbies and fun of various kinds. Work is done by all of us for fun, such as hours spent by people who are football referees, netball coaches and suchlike. Many of us work out in a gym or a pool. Should we include work done cleaning the house, doing gardening, and other chores? Thus work can include many activities. I can work from home, instead of going to the office. And “retirement” can mean different things to different people.

What is it like when a man stops work? I can tell you! I wake up at 8.30 or 9am unless I have an appointment with my trainer in the gym. I eat a late breakfast, contact some people in job agencies or send out resumes. Without work we have freedom, but also boredom. I don’t have students pestering me, but don’t have the stimulation that the best students provide.

Encel says most people do one of four things after they leave their place of work. They keep working (perhaps casual or part time). They do volunteer work. They re-invent themselves. Or just keep amused “relaxing”. Probably many mix up some of these.

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The author would like to acknowledge help provided by the Minister for Ageing, Hon. Chris Pyne, MP.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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