The other night, I was seated at a dinner next to Henry Louis Gates Jr, a black literary professor at Harvard University, who has forged a brilliant career as a public intellectual (and then shot to the front pages two years ago when he was arrested in a seemingly racist incident by white police when he tried to break into his own house).
Cheerfully, Gates described the dizzy whirlwind of his current life: he is making documentaries about blacks in Latin America, writing books, editing a website and sitting on assorted boards. Oh, and performing his “day job” – running a department at Harvard. So far, so normal, by the standards of America’s hyperactive east coast power elite.
But then a twist emerged: Gates casually admitted that he was “60” – or near the age that many Europeans start drawing a pension. “So are you going to retire?” I asked, innocently.
“Never!” he declared, forcefully – before outlining a new set of projects that could occupy him for the next 20 or 30 years (three more books in the pipeline and a couple more films, just for starters).
Welcome to one of the subtle divides that separate Europe and the US. Over in London, it is quite unusual to meet a hyperactive 60-year-old who is still building a new career and cheerfully planning for future decades. No matter how dynamic somebody might have been in their forties or fifties, by the time they move towards pensionable age (60 or 65), most people are in career “maintenance” or downsize mode. That is partly because many companies have mandatory retirement ages, but even in politics or the arts, 60 or 65 is often presumed to be a natural cut-off point.
But America’s elite dinner tables, by contrast, are buzzing with people in their fifties, sixties and even seventies, who are creating new businesses, projects, careers and relationships. To be sure, few of these people actually look as if they are 70, but once these dynamos start talking, not even Botox can conceal their decades of experience. To this rarefied elite, 60 is the “new 40” – and 80 no reason to keep quiet. Just look, for example, at Henry Kissinger (88), who recently published a powerful foreign affairs book; Paul Volcker (83), who has been advising the White House; Warren Buffett (80), who still dominates the investment world; Carl Icahn (75), the buyout king; Nancy Pelosi (71), the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, or Madeleine Albright (74), currently a professor of international relations. Or, for that matter, Michael Bloomberg (69), the mayor of New York, and Newt Gingrich (67), now fighting to become the Republican presidential candidate.
The work ethic does not stop with America’s privileged elite. On paper, the average American retirement age of 66 is not particularly unusual by global standards (in Norway it is 67, but in most of Europe it is between 62 and 65). But what is striking is how many Americans choose – or are forced – to work after official retirement age. In the UK, only 40 per cent of people aged 60-64 are still working, while among those aged 65-69 and 70+, the numbers drop to 10 per cent and 2 per cent respectively. In France, there are even fewer older workers – just 12 per cent of the 60-64 cohort and 1 per cent of the 65-69 age group. But in the US, almost half of those aged 60-64 are working, as are a fifth of the 65-69 age group and 5 per cent of those over 70 (versus 0 per cent in France).
Of course, this does not always represent a lifestyle “choice”. For millions of elderly Americans today, work has been forced on them by economic necessity, either because the recent recession has devastated their pension plans, or because they were so poor that they never had a chance to “save” at all (and cannot rely on any French-style safety net). And in the future, this squeeze could get worse. State and corporate pension plans, after all, are in deficit, and healthcare benefits being cut. And as longevity increases – and debts rise – there is political pressure to raise the retirement age to 68 and beyond. That may not necessarily be much hardship for wealthier (and healthier) Americans, but poorer Americans have not seen the same increase in longevity.
But while working longer is a cruel curse for some, for those such as Gates it is a liberation. “America is all about reinvention – we can now have multiple lives!” he enthuses. And his enthusiasm is apt to be infectious. As a 43-year-old Brit, I used to assume I was halfway through my working career, but I am starting to rethink. Could “retirement” eventually turn into a quaint 20th-century idea? Could we all have more “lives” ahead of us than we realise? Better keep popping those vitamins. And reaching for the hair dye.