An Ode to Halloween, Birthdays and Aging
With the arrival of Halloween, a celebration observed in several countries on October 31st, I am celebrating my birthday and moving well into my early sixties. Birthdays are usually the time of the year when I tend to pause and look back to all that happened in the prior months while looking ahead with new ideas, commitments, and resolutions. In a true sense, this is my real “new year” rather than at the beginning of the year in January.
This Halloween is special. For the first time, in more than 30 years, I am not working or actively searching for a job. After retiring a couple months ago, I have been immersed in finding a new modus operandi for this next chapter in my life.
While the mirror clearly reflects the marks of time on my face--particularly a whiter beard--I feel that nothing has really changed. I continue to take long walks daily and enjoy riding my bike on some days, feeling physically fit although a little overweight. Intellectually, I am still as passionate as before about exploring the complex social, economic, environmental, and political web that interacts with the genetic and biological make-up of people to impact and determine physical and mental health, mortality and survival, disability, and general well-being. Devoting more time to reading accumulated and new literature, magazines, newspapers, and Twitter; watching Copa Libertadores and Champions League soccer matches, boxing and ultimate fighting events, and over the past few days, the baseball World Series; an occasional movie or two; and a couple of trips with my wife that renewed our bond and expanded our minds, are helping me to tame feelings of anxiety that tend to appear un-invited, questioning whether I should be “working or searching for work”. I am starting to enjoy as well the good feeling of sharing accumulated knowledge and experience as a guest speaker at graduate classes in three universities covering various global public health topics. Also, I guess my family is happy getting “a la carte” services from a dedicated private UBER driver, grocery shopper, purchaser of all kind of tickets, handyman, and grill master, who has also learned to prepare good black beans, Cuban-style.
Life continues, not linearly, but with a certain direction in spite of occasional steps backward or the inevitable U-turns. I wonder, however, whether my situation is unique, given my good health, mental curiosity, family support, and pension income?
Recently, I read an article by Camilla Cavendish at the Financial Times, that argued that there is mounting evidence that retirement can be bad, especially if you enjoy your job, which I did immensely, along with its comradery and sense of meaning. Also, it is argued that work has many benefits and an important social function. Since we are on average living longer lives, the question that we need to pose is why should not we push retirement well into the late sixties or early seventies then?
Although global experiences show that working longer is feasible, the answer to this question has multiple caveats. A key condition for staying at work an extra decade or even more, as well argued in Cavendish’s article, is not just increased average life expectancy, but more importantly, healthy life expectancy. This is a key observation as not everybody will benefit from working longer given the sometimes wide and growing gaps in healthy life expectancy between different income groups and in different regions within countries. Also, the decision to stay at work or “unretire” will depend on the accumulated skill set of individual workers, effective life-long learning opportunities to retrain and reskill older workers, existing health insurance and pension benefits, as well as public support systems to care for elderly family members. Workplace facilitating environment and attitudes towards older workers, including stigma and discrimination, are also important considerations.
From a social perspective, we have to be mindful as well that the world population is growing older. In some countries, the age structure of the population is changing rapidly by falling birth rates, which is further impacted by youth migration in some of them. This means that skills shortages are nowadays a real challenge that will not be met solely by robots or artificial intelligence tools that take over many cognitive tasks. Rather, older workers will not be easily be replaced. They are and will continue to be needed given their accumulated formal and tacit knowledge, institutional memory, skills set and wisdom, including interpersonal skills, that often cut across disciplines, work streams, and interconnected but distinct country social and cultural contexts.
So, on this Halloween, besides wishing myself a happy birthday, I should feel happy and less anxious realizing that I although “retired” I am part of a distinct population group that possesses valuable human capital that should be put to use with good impact, either as a volunteer or in formal employment, to help advance social and economic initiatives that benefit all, particularly in the intergenerational transmission of knowledge, experiences, and skills to younger generations. To realize this potential, however, we “oldies” need to be mindful and disciplined in devoting time and effort to engaging in health promotion and disease prevention, as well as on life-long learning. Yes, we can or as I would say in Spanish, si se puede, as we need to be fit to purpose for that metaphorically “extra inning or round” in life.