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A Fascinating Course on the Literature of Retirement

An English professor chose two novels and a play as food for thought

By Chris Farrell

What does it mean to retire? And who are you if you’re retired — a retired person, a former (fill in the blank) or someone very different from before?

Books on The Literature of Retirement
Credit: Chris Farrell

John Watkins, an English professor at the University of Minnesota, is not only wrestling with those questions personally, he’s teaching a unique course about them in a most appropriate way. It’s The Literature of Retirement: A Feeling For What Comes Next, at the LearningLife program of the College of Continuing & Professional Studies at the University of Minnesota.

I just sat in on one of the classes and was blown away.

“What does it mean as a human being entering this stage of life?” Watkins, 59, asks. “Let’s assume you can retire at age sixty-five. Should you? When does it become ethically responsible to retire?”

A Disappointing Search for Retirement Transition Advice

As Watkins began researching the topic of identity in retirement for himself, he found plenty of financial advice as well as information about where to live in retirement. But the ethical, moral, emotional and psychological questions about retirement that many professionals confront as they near the twilight of their career? Not so much.

Then, he put on his English professor hat. And this survey revealed many novels dealing with aging and death, but relatively few about the transition from a primary career to what comes next.

“When you look at emotional questions, someone has written a novel about it,” he says. “You get very few works where the decision about retirement is in the foreground.”

The Literature of Retirement

He found a few to build his course around, though, all by British writers: Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym’s 1977 novel; Iris Murdoch’s 1978 novel The Sea, The Sea and, for good measure, William Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Held on three consecutive Saturdays in February on U of M’s St. Paul campus, the class of some 20 students was mostly comprised of ones well into their second half of life.

I’ll tell you more about it shortly, but first a little about why the subject of retirement is personal for Watkins. It relates to his grandmother.

Watkins grew up in Hot Springs, Ark., a community favored by retirees. His grandmother, who also lived there, worked in her 50s and 60s as a massage therapist, a useful occupation in Hot Springs. She loved her job, but planned on pursuing her passion for sewing in retirement, but couldn’t. During her short retirement, she went blind from glaucoma.

And when Watkins hit his early 50s, he was diagnosed with the risk of going blind from glaucoma. By happenstance, he was meeting with his financial adviser the same day. Watkins had assumed he’d work until 70 since he loves his job, but the financial planner said he could afford to retire immediately if he wanted. That got Watkins thinking.

“It was a little reminder that something unexpected can happen to you that can change your future,” he says.

What 'King Lear' Can Teach Us About Retirement

In the class I attended, Watkins explained to his students what King Lear says about retirement. Lear, of course, ranks among Shakespeare’s most powerful, and grimly unrelenting, tragedies. It’s also one of the Bard’s two works dealing with retirement; the other is The Tempest, but only toward the end.

John Watkins, an English professor at the University of Minnesota
Prof. John Watkins, teaching The Literature of Retirement at the University of Minnesota  |  Credit: Chris Farrell

I hadn’t realized how much of King Lear can be read as a challenging message to professionals and people with long careers whose work has defined both their identity and place in society.

For King Lear, retirement didn’t go well. The play begins with his decision to step down from the throne. Lear doesn’t want the responsibility of being king anymore, but enjoys the trappings of the job and doesn’t plan on giving up the perks. He divides his kingdom into thirds for his three daughters — two, after he banishes his youngest, Cordelia, in a fit of rage.

“At the end of the day, he wants to retire,” says Watkins. “A lot of tragic stuff follows, just because he wanted to retire. He hadn’t done advanced planning!”

Lear’s retirement plan is to stay for long periods at the family homes of his two daughters and their husbands. Bringing with him a retinue of 100 rowdy knights. Lear assumes his daughters and their husbands will gladly welcome him and that retirement will fun:

Ourself by monthly course,

With reservation of an hundred knights

By you to be sustained, shall our abode

Make with you by due turn. Only we shall retain

The name and all th’ addition to a king.

The sway, revenue, execution of the rest

Beloved sons, be yours, which to confirm


This coronet part between you.

Goneril, his eldest daughter, and Regan, his second, tell their father that they have enough staff to take care of the king and don’t need his retinue. Yet Lear views the presence of those 100 knights as critical to his sense of worth and dignity. The realization that he won’t be able to hold onto the perks of kingship starts Lear down the route to madness.

“You feel the loss of coherence,” says Watkins. “We need something more than the basics of life. We need dignity.”

For people nearing retirement, Watkins notes, King Lear is “impossible to read and not think about [their] stage of life and vocation.”

And, even today, you probably can’t just show up at your adult child’s home and announce you’re going to live there for a while, with all your stuff.

The Retirement-Themed Novels of Barbara Pym and Iris Murdoch

Pym, Watkins told his class, wrote Quartet in Autumn late in life after a long period of not writing. Her novel involves four office workers planning and beginning their retirements. Pym deftly, and poignantly, explores the sense of emptiness many feel when saying goodbye to colleagues for the last time.

The Sea, The Sea is Murdoch’s tale about a famous and egotistic Shakespearean director who retires to the seaside with fantasies of rediscovering his youthful idealism in his next chapter. The transition doesn’t go well.

“The retired director is something of a monster,” says Watkins.

During the class, Watkins put forth a theory on why the literature of retirement is so sparse, while novels about the transition from youth to adulthood fill libraries. "Retirement is something of a modern institution," he explained.

For most of history, people typically worked until they died or were near death. The signal moment of change came with the Social Security Act of 1935 (followed by Medicare and Medicaid in 1965). Most large employers offered employees pensions following WWII, leading many workers to imagine enjoying a life of leisure that only the wealthy previously could. At the same time, advances in public health and medical care have boosted average life expectancy.

“We are one of the first generations who could retire,” says Watkins.

How Great Books Can Help With Your Next Chapter

His class reminded me of an insight from my visit to Notre Dame’s Inspired Leadership Initiative last year. That yearlong fellowship program is designed to help accomplished individuals at the end of their primary career think about what comes next.

“What is most intriguing to our Fellows aren’t the skilled-based classes, but the ones that help them figure out what comes next,” said Thomas Schreier, Jr., founding director of the Leadership Initiative.

A Great Books course was designed to assist them. In fact, much of my conversation with several of the Fellows revolved around the impact that course had on their thinking about their next chapter. Their reading list when I was there included Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl; Homer’s Odyssey; Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Major life transitions push us to think about fundamental existential questions revolving around purpose and meaning — going to college, finding a career, getting married, having children, getting divorced, losing parents.

Retirement is one of those transitions, too.

As poet Mary Oliver hauntingly wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”

Literature just might help you find your answer.

Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author
 of the books Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life and Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life. Read More
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