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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Academic Illusions About Work and Retirement

Now that the protests in France against the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 are quieting (the protesters having lost), I can't help but comment on this piece in Le Monde from a few days ago by Robert Redeker, who styles himself (a) "philosophe."   The piece asks how to understand the protests and strikes, and goes on to claim that the French have never really understood retirement for what it is -- a time of decrepitude, hospitalizations, Parkinson's Disease, and so on.  Instead, the French have "mythologized" retirement.  They don't live for their work; they don't find joy and fulfillment and worth in their day to day activities.  They imagine and exalt a future time when they will be able to accomplish all of the thousands of projects that life has prevented them from enjoying -- a paradise where the best of life will be concentrated, "le bonheur sans le souci." 

Indeed, continues Redeker, the false promise of retirement is actually worse than an illusion; it is the "grand social promise which maintains the coherence of the collective tissue," and in the process it renders the populace more docile about social ills -- inequality, exploitation, submission.  The promise of retirement "erodes social progress" because people are holding out for a fabulous (literally) future that will never come.

I understand that France-bashing is something of a national pastime in this country, so it may be anathema to suggest that criticism of the French (especially by a Frenchman) is unfair and silly.  But in my view, Redeker's article is both.  It is also, I believe, representative of the kind of illusions that academics too often have about the nature of work for most people, French or otherwise.

In the first place, there is nothing especially "French" about looking forward to a time of retirement.  There is nothing uniquely Gallic about being upset when the state modifies an entitlement which was very valuable to people.  It may be that we in the United States are afflicted to a greater extent with the Protestant ethic and the somewhat sanctimonious ideology of the sanitary virtues of work.  But most people, whether French, American, German, or Swedish, do think about retirement with hope and positive feeling -- not as a sacred "Graal" or transcendent paradise in the way that Redeker caricatures it, or as some kind Freudian security blanket against the big bad world, but as a perfectly ordinary terrestrial period when one can enjoy a little leisure.  Cool it, philosophe.

Second, I find Redeker's piece to reek of the smell of academic removal from the mundane concerns of most working people.  For the vast majority, work is not eminently fulfilling, joyful, or an occasion to seek out grand social improvements.  Work is what you do to live and support your family.  Work is about getting through the day and to the next, not, per Redeker, about extra-terrestrial visions of either the religious or Marxist variety.  The fact that work is sometimes (hopefully often) deeply fulfilling and pleasurable for academics -- or that many academics do believe that their work is connected to the search for social improvement -- is an extreme rarity.  Indeed, it is a luxury of the academic life.  It is a quality of the academic's work that should be recognized as aberrent.  But often it is not so recognized; just the reverse -- the attitude is somehow that everybody ought to feel that way.  The piece by Redeker manifests a peculiar sort of academic blindness about the nature of work which itself reflects his utter insulation from the concerns and feelings of many people with respect to what work is all about. 

The point, of course, is not that many people cannot find satisfaction in their work.  Hopefully they do.  It is that a certain limited satisfaction is not at all the same as the glorification of work that permeates Redeker's essay -- the presumption that because academics find deep existential fulfillment in their work, everyone else should too.  If it's true that "the French" idolize retirement, Redeker does the same for work.  For most workers and for most kinds of work out there, the former seems a great deal more rational to me.

Obviously, none of this discussion speaks to the necessity of the measure being considered, a matter about which I have nothing to say.  Whatever that necessity, columns like Redeker's do nothing at all to make the case for it more powerful. 

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on October 27, 2010 at 03:43 PM | Permalink


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Thanks to all -- even to that wise ass Vischer. I'll have you know it took me three days to translate that damn piece. Behold the virtues of the legal academic working life.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Oct 28, 2010 3:51:39 PM

My link must be broken -- I only see something written in French. Oh la vache! Tu es multilingue? Le philosophe, c'est toi.

Posted by: rob vischer | Oct 28, 2010 3:26:43 PM

"Cool it, philosophe" -- great line!

Posted by: Mark Movsesian | Oct 28, 2010 10:57:51 AM

I will join in the praise. Nice post.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Oct 28, 2010 10:54:39 AM

Well said.

Posted by: anon | Oct 28, 2010 7:20:03 AM

Thank you.

As someone who has worked a number of jobs which were not particularly fulfilling (at least in comparison to what I spend the bulk of my work time on today), with several that were extremely labor intensive (trail work, firefighting, construction, landscape maintenance, etc.), you said all the right things. I didn't enter academic life until well into my 40s (and then, as now, only part-time) and have looked forward to retirement (meaning, a different mix of work and leisure), although I have little-to-nothing to retire on apart the from my social security benefit! Of course then, as now, I did indeed find satisfaction if not pride in working hard but it often left me physically and mentally exhausted. Simple things, like reading and writing, were thus out of the question. (Chad Oldfather can chime in about work that is hard labor.)

Alas, I think 'tis true, for most folks, most of the time, work is alienated labor in one form or another (both in a Marxist and more existentialist sense), and folks who've spent most of their lives in the academic world or something comparable have little understanding of what these other forms of labor are like (and I'm not speaking just about physically intensive labor), of the real meaning of the difference between an occupation, a job, and a vocation.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 27, 2010 4:12:57 PM

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