In a couple of years’ time half of all federal employees in Canada will be eligible for retirement. Whether they go through with it or not, they can’t get around it – they will, sooner or later, face the twilight years.
The Japanologist Florian Coulams reported in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of April 9 that the Japanese are exhausted because they are “suffering from an excessively high life expectancy.” (He does not tell us what he means by “excessive.”) To convey to the public that old age is not necessarily a bed of nails but can be a bowl of cherries, Tokyo bookstores are crowded with titles such as Courage to Live, The Power of Age, Ninety-one: Happy and No Regrets, Conversations about Happy Old Age, and Advice from a Centenarian. Similar books are available everywhere.
The March issue of the “Report on Business” of the Toronto Globe and Mail tells us that an aging work force might actually be a boon to some companies. “Ingenuity is not the sole domain of the young,” the paper writes, quoting Kirsten Tisdale, one of the managing directors of Korry/Ferry International in Vancouver. After all, Newton was forty, very old in his time, when he wrote the Principia, and Frank Lloyd Wright gave us Fallingwater, possibly his most impressive design, when he was seventy. What counts, Kirsten Tisdale said, was not youth but learning agility, thirst for knowledge and the ability to adapt.
David Galenson, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, has come to the conclusion that different kinds of creative thinking happen at different ages. Some of the greatest innovations “are based on long chains of experimentation and therefore usually emerge only after many years of work.” People like Mondrian, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and Robert Frost worked well past retirement age.
Wagner was a late starter. He was thirty when he conducted his first successful opera, The Flying Dutchman. (He was nearly seventy when he composed his last opera, Parsival.) In the world of music the prime example of a composer who achieved great work in old age was Verdi. He composed Otello and Falstaff in his eighties.
In the world of painting the winner is Titian. The date of his birth is unknown but he was thought to be in his late eighties, still very active, when he was killed by the plague.
The only first-class writer revered by most of us who kept on writing beyond his ninetieth birthday was George Bernard Shaw. He died while writing his last play – Why She Would Not – at ninety-four.
He might have lived longer if she would have.