Men and retirement

What happens when the race has been run?


I cannot recall many happy retirement movies or TV series featuring senior men, a few maybe. On Golden Pond and One Foot in the Grave spring to mind as outlying examples of how our popular culture has examined this stage in stories and comedy. There are also some attempts at grandparent stories, a few positive lights in this murky quest.

Much more common is the ‘You’ll never retire’ themes, cops and robbers coming out of retirement or soldiers. Men of action are called up again to teach the younger generation that they are not finished.

There seem to be better examples of the female side of this, The Golden Girls way back in the 80s and The Marigold Hotel more recently; well-resourced people still contributing to society and culture, and being active.

This is strange, as the population is ageing. There are more old people living longer lives than before. This movie-style experience is available only to a few. Getting older is a new journey. Yet we are unprepared for this. Perhaps it scares us. As Betty Davis said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies!” (language was a tad more direct then).

We live in a society with a premium on youthfulness, skills that have a monetary value, job titles, great health (with the expectation that it will always be the same), being a parent and generally feeling able and doing useful things.

I am interested here in what can happen to us when these roads inevitably run out. We are ill-prepared for the most part in overcoming this transitional phase of our lives and continuing to live well.

There are stages in this part of the journey. For women, menopause can start a flight from the original self, feelings of depression, low mood or anxiety may accompany this well-travelled path still. It is inevitable and yet rarely prepared for, a milestone in their progress through their lifetime.

There is a lot of support available around the menopause with self-help groups and medical intervention accessible, but, anecdotally, on an individual level, it often appears to be a disturbing transition.

For men though, there seems little support. Retirement appears a threat, a loss of standing or meaning in our lives.

Even today, I see men whose idea of self-worth has been so tied up in their job, that the loss is experienced as a version of grief, an attack on their very sense of being. The myth of male invulnerability lies cruelly exposed by one simple day. The day of retirement.

This is also played out when older people discover that they have a health-related problem, something which will curtail their activities or means they must consider a new world where not everything is possible. Plan A is no longer enough, a new path needs to be investigated, or else the world as before disintegrates into regret and longing and a newfound fear of missing out.

There seems to be a marked gender divide here also. Women seem to be able to capitalise on family ties, social abilities, and community groups as places to continue to grow into their retired lives.

I note though that men seem to regress to their childhood/adolescent activities. Playing ball (bowls or golf), fixing up things (the Meccano sets of old writs large), pub chatter, etc, all occupy the time. A continuation of the child-man that was interrupted by the adult male concerns. These have been typified as 'work, worry and war' (James Ellis).

Men and ageing

I specifically wanted to write this about the male situation. Why? Because men often seem to crumble when this time of life comes inevitably into near vision.

Anecdotally, men have always made the worst patients when ill. Stories abound in medical circles of the man recovering from heart surgery, determined to leave the hospital the next day or struggling out of their hospital bed to walk across to the toilet, still attached to their medical drip apparatus.

This situation, laughable from the outside, personifies the problem of the ageing man. Now with fading powers, they will not be beaten, whether that be health or retirement-related. There is a powerful urge to continue as they were. (I often ask people how old they think they are, and most reply that they think in their fantasy that they are 20 years younger than their biological age!).

The (shorthand) social models (or archetypes of the masculine) are Warrior, Magician, Lover, and Emperor (Robert L Moore).

Herein lies the problem. From depth psychology, if these archetypes are left ungrown and stay slightly immature, the yielding to age, retirement, and health issues seem to be a surrender, and the masculine hero never wittingly surrenders. The emperor resists dethroning; the warrior cannot be weak; the magician must still know everything; and the lover, well, the tabloids are usually full of older men (wealthy most often) and their much younger consorts. The invulnerable male must stand and never give in to the ravages of time.

According to this psychological landscape, there can be no plan B, to give up or grow - these archetypal roles would be to lose something at the heart of their being. A lot of self-esteem eggs are in this precious basket.

Before I continue, a personal aside. Whilst I worked in the NHS, we all had to do mandatory CPR training, often with other professions. The one that stood out was a few years back when the doctors/trainers were dealing with a group of NHS workers and the fire service.

At one point in the company of these bloke firemen, we were shown how to resuscitate young infants and given a lifelike doll to practice on. To my surprise, the firemen started to play with the dolls and treat them with gentle kindness. I was reminded that men are also capable of this, even in the company of other men, if permission is somehow granted to allow the expression of affection.

There is more to being a man.

It is here that counselling becomes useful, as the confidential safe space allows the opportunity to be more open, escape the tyranny of the one compelling gender self-story (or the archetype that has most defined our journey) and explore the nuances of our unlived potentials.

Counselling for the third age

I have raised these points as I have seen so many men struggle with coming to terms with their self-felt loss of status, self-esteem, and even identity. It would seem like all their eggs were placed in one basket, and now the basket has broken. Out fall the eggs and all sense of a meaningful life goes with them. 

I have also seen the flip side - men now free of the worries of work, happy to grow into their grandparenting mode (or not), fixing up family politics and pursuing their newfound liberty to develop new interests and networking. 

I must add the observation that some of these men have mostly come from slightly different cultures than the Anglosphere. Cultures where older people are allowed still a place in their family and society with respect. I see no reason why this cannot be a useful map here as well.

The archetype of the wise elder, advising from the background still holds true as a recognisable possibility. The wise advisor, passing on knowledge from experience, the playful elder still with humour are written into our culture, too.

This journey can be attempted alone, of course, the uncharted territory of the third age for men can be as challenging as all life can be. However, a journey accompanied by someone else, a bystander counsellor can be useful as a guide to this strange new land.

It has often been a curiosity for me, over the many years I have been in practise, that whilst men famously are the most resistant to the idea that help may be needed, they have also been, as a collection of many cases has taught me, the client group that has got the most out of counselling. 

Needing guidance and help when negotiating new parts of your life journey, is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of the potential growth to a wiser path. Retirement can be a new journey, not a regression to childhood, and the experience offers rewards.

As a wise old man once told me, the first step of any journey to personal change is to see where you are, and what has become possible. Not where you think you are!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Hove BN3
Written by Marius Jankowski, BSc, MSc, MSc. MBacp (registered)
Hove BN3

I have a background in behavioural psychology, studying as a zoologist in the 80's and working with comparative techniques. This later lead me to change to the psychoanalytic approaches as pure psychology, with it's emphasis on cognition and behaviour, never seemed to me to encapsulate the complexity and beauty of being a human being.

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