Many – particularly those living in the Global North – harbour a romanticised view of retirement. For decades, defined benefit pension plans promised Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, who dutifully contributed to society as productive citizens and lauded members of the workforce, lifetime pensions and a secure livelihood at the sunset of their lives – they would be able to travel near and far, pursue hobbies and at last spend time, which is now in plenty, with their families.
The prime of life
«Welcome to the ‘prime of life’» – a short synopsis of Steven Vit’s documentary My Old Man reads, starring – as the title suggests – his father Rudy Vit and mother Käthi Vit. Like many of his generation, Rudy has held his job for a lifetime, working hard for a company he joined in 1976, just a year after it was founded. But now, as he retires, everything Rudy knows and has done for decades is about to change. No more alarm clocks, no more meetings in stale conference rooms, no more business trips to faraway lands. Just a rural idyll and bliss of Swiss retirement.
However, as Rudy sets into this new stage of life, the rural idyll, which he was so looking forward to, becomes an emotional rollercoaster for him and his family. «Retirement is not for cowards». Like navigating uncharted waters, it can be daunting. Once you shed your roles as a business and family man when you no longer have to fulfil expectations – your own or those of society – who are you then?
At the onset of the documentary, Steven – Rudy’s son and the film’s director – confides that every time he visits his parents, he sees a change, «little signs of finiteness», perhaps reflected in the deepening creeks on his parents’ faces. This time, Steven learns that his father is about to go on his last business trip before he retires. The father and son set out on the trip together. As the two sojourn in Shanghai, where a trade fair is held, Steven gets a glimpse of his father’s life beyond the four walls of their home. It’s business as usual there, and it’s not glamorous—long workdays, taxing meetings, and no fancy offices with marble floors. After the business trip draws to a close and all farewells and thank yous are said back in the Swiss office, Rudy wakes up at home to the first day in retirement. «It feels like a Sunday», he says. «Getting up later. Now every day is going to be a Sunday. More or less».
Departing from a long-established work-related structure and dipping one’s feet into a chaotic, destabilising environment can be scary. Like many of his cohorts, Rudy grew up when stability was sought after. Following the «straight, well-proven path” of holding a job with the same employer for decades, Rudy joined Schleuniger, a tech company and a supplier to the wire processing industry in the 70s, and he stayed. However, as time passed, adaptability has become handy for younger generations when braving volatile economies, precarious professions, and disruptive technologies. In such circumstances, being able to adapt quickly has simply become a preemptive move to prepare oneself for possible economic and social changes, or if someone decides you are obsolete. A new mentality of being able to change not only jobs but entire careers, and have several vocations in a lifetime, has been further harnessed by a growing autonomy of employees, the possibility of remote work, and wide access to education and professional training.
«Retirement is not for cowards».
No plain sailing
Whatever demographic cohort you belong to, retirement is no plain sailing, and it has plenty of challenges in store. What is certain is that «it’s a good time to be ageing», as a Forbes article argued in 2019. The greater longevity of an additional 20 or 30 years is one of «humankind’s greatest achievements», and retirement can open up new avenues of life and a new sense of purpose if you are lucky. Having taken a trip to his native Canada, dabbled in cooking, golfing, and fishing, Rudy got behind the wheel again, this time as a volunteer driver for the Red Cross, which seems to give him a sense of purpose again, a reason to set the alarm for 8 am and leave behind an unfinished cup of coffee each morning, just like he did all his life, prior to retirement.
And if there is any piece of wisdom to take away from this, it is – as the filmmaker elegantly puts it – «That you don’t constantly have to reinvent yourself, nor have an answer for every question, and that not everything has to work perfectly right away. That it’s okay to struggle from time to time. And that it’s also okay if it takes a little longer to get there».
My Old Man is a beautiful, honest portrait of a man who retires. It is also a film about ageing, the process of becoming older, and facing the prospects of feebleness, debility, and finiteness of existence. As Rudy, Käthi, and their two beloved sons celebrate Käthi’s milestone birthday, Rudy reads out a note that he has written for his wife and the family that stayed together through all these years «for the common good of the family» with Käthi «as the main pillar». «I regret many times not having been kinder to you. […]», Rudy says to his wife. «Having the boys leave the nest needed some adjustment. Being retired needed much more. […]. Getting older is not an easy thing to do. But not to become old, that just happens». Having met «by chance» decades ago, it seems to have taken some time for Rudy and Käthi to meet again. And then again, now each getting off their own ships of independence to continue the journey in a shared boat, perhaps «with a little dinghy in tow».