Old Men at Work:

… and the Social Inefficiency of Jobs.
(c) 2013, Davd

This post began as a letter of apology to a son who called after ten at night1, when i was sound asleep: I had “turned in” around nine-thirty, and felt half-asleep while we were talking. For similar reasons, earlier this year, i had let his brother who i met shortly after midnight at Moncton airport, drive my “wheels” from there to Miramichi. It was probably a wise decision: On an unfamiliar road with relatively good signage, i noticed, he could spot animals on the roadside better than i could; and even allowing for the fact that it was earlier where he had come from than it was for me, i’m convinced that i tire faster than i did at 50-60. I would no longer try to drive as long stretches as i did in 1990-95; and intuitively, safely then.

I’m an old man now.

Otto von Bismarck, or so the usual story goes, invented retirement; and he chose 65 as the retirement age because most of the men who worked for the Prussian government lost the ability to work reliable, productive full time hours at about that age. Bismarck and his Kaiser2 were too humane to simply “fire” men who had served them well, and they found it more efficient to “pension them off” at that age and hire younger men who could readily work full time, than to continue paying them full salary for reduced and [due to sickness, mostly] unpredictable hours of service. Especially when asked to work overtime, older men tend to tire out (and even fall asleep at their desks; so goes the academic folklore.) Older professors and older Prussian bureaucrats could still work, but they could no longer work conventional full time hours.

My favourite grandfather lived in his own house to 81, maybe 82, keeping a small garden and making King apple cider. California grandfather Johann Karl persisted to his late 80s. Neither had long snowy winters to endure; and neither moved with youthful speed in his 70s and 80s.

In 2005, i sojourned for three weeks at St. Peter’s Abbey in Saskatchewan, where the winters are harder than they are anywhere i have wintered—yes, harder than Thunder Bay winters. The oldest monk with whom i spoke regularly was aged 91 or 92. He not only taught me much about the cloister and the Order which other, busier monks hadn’t time to teach3, but by report of those present, was a keen commentator in the conclaves to which inquirers were not admitted4.

Old, and slow, he was; but still a contributing member of the community. Had he been in the Prussian Civil Service, Bismarck would have pensioned him off some 26-27 years before. At St. Peter’s, he had earned his keep all those 26-27 years, working “part time” with gradually decreasing manual effort.

This summer, at my annual medical check-up, i heard that i am in quite good shape for my age. That seems to mean that my eighth decade can be less feeble than average; but i do not infer that i should take up marathon running, nor try to drive the long stretches i felt safe driving 20-25 years ago.

So Bismarck was probably “right” to invent retirement—given the choice between a full time job or not working. My point in this series on “Men working” is that it’s a poor choice to impose on most kinds of work… and on most men.

I’m quite capable of doing several kinds of useful work… as was that 90-91 year old monk, as were my two grandfathers in their 70s and 80s, as was 94 year old Fred Austin, whose weekly Bible Study drew admiring comments from clergy in their 50s. What we, at these late ages, were probably not “capable of”, was and is 40-60 hours of hard work in neat 8-10 hour shifts on schedule.

The “full time job” wastes a lot of good manpower… and not only that of old men, as we’ll see in a future post.


1. During June, most of July, and part of May, the days are so long that i often will go to bed “right after supper.” In effect, the night begins earlier and the morning does also, than in early spring, autumn, and winter.

2… which is “Caesar” in Germanic form… often translated “Emperor”.

3. He often sat at the desk of the guesthouse, a job requiring many hours of mere presence, when he could pray, study, perhaps write; and a few randomly timed intervals of 10-60 minutes when he was working with visitors. As an inquirer who had expressed interest by e-mail for some months before arriving, i was quartered among the monks, not in the guesthouse; but he was there predictably and i could go there to talk with him.

4. One quote: “We’re here to live the monastic ideal, not the lowest common denominator!”


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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